When I grew up in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, I attended an Episcopalian prep school that was pretty enlightened for its era. One of the first private schools in the D.C. area to integrate, St. Albans School recruited a good number of black students. Having the opportunity to make friends with these kids challenged some of the prejudicial notions that I’d been raised with. Our headmaster preached inclusiveness and bridge-building to Washington’s minority community. He hired a community activist by the name of Brooks Johnson to teach a politics course for seniors and coach the track team. (He would go on to coach the American Olympic track team.) His politics course was a free-wheeling romp with lively discussions, which I enjoyed immensely. I’ll never forget, however, how Johnson asserted that if a black pedestrian were hit by a car on the streets of Washington, D.C, no white person would go to his aid. I did not want to think that such a thing was possible.
One day, I was walking down Wisconsin Avenue with two friends, when we encountered three young black fellows about our age. One of them carried a boom box. Filled with liberal earnestness (but no common sense) and seeking to demonstrate that white people could be friendly and non-prejudicial, I blurted out, “Hey, nice boom box you have there!”
The reaction was not what expected. The three black kids took immediate umbrage. The biggest one of the three asked in a hostile tone what I meant by the remark. I didn’t mean anything by it, I stammered. The black guys seemed so offended that, for a moment, I was scared that they would beat the crap out of us. They were strapping and strong, and we were skinny and nerdy. One of them fingered a pair of nunchucks. If they had wanted to rumble, it would have been no contest. Fortunately, after enough groveling and sniveling on our part, they went their way.
I learned an important lesson from that encounter — how easily an innocent remark can be misinterpreted.
As I look back, I slap my head for my stupidity. It seems obvious now that the black kids assumed that I was insinuating that they had stolen the boom box. If so, I can see why they were offended. Guilty as I might have been of youthful dimwittery, however, I was thinking no such thing. I was genuinely trying, in an awkward and inept way, to reach out.
Mutual racial understanding has not improved much in the past 50 years. In some ways, it has deteriorated. If you are a black person today, you are conditioned by the dominant cultural narrative to view every interaction with a white person through the prism of race. If there is any unpleasantness or ambiguity in the encounter, you are conditioned to assume the worst. Instead of forgiving minor slights borne of simple ignorance or misunderstanding (now termed “micro-aggressions”), many blacks assume racism. Sometimes they are right to do so. But often they are not.
An instructive example recently landed Virginia First Lady Pam Northam on the front page of the newspaper. As she conducted state Senate pages on a tour of the Governor’s Mansion, Mrs. Northam handed out cotton bolls and told the pages to imagine what it might have been like to be a slave. One of the pages, an African-American girl, was “deeply offended.”
To be sure, Mrs. Northam was guilty of historical inaccuracy. Virginia farms did not grow cotton — they grew tobacco and wheat — so no slave in the Governor’s Mansion was likely to have plucked a cotton boll. And she was likewise guilty of insipidness. How would the act of fingering a cotton boll provide the slightest insight into what it was like to live in a condition of race-based servitude? One could just as easily hold a cotton boll and imagine what it was like to be a plantation owner or a cotton broker!
Be that as it may, the gesture was earnest and well meaning. Mrs. Northam thought she was being politically correct by describing the behind-the-scenes role of African-Americans in the history of the Governor’s Mansion. But in the current environment, anything that can be misinterpreted will be misinterpreted.
This trend is dangerous in many ways. Because the rules of what constitutes acceptable discourse are constantly changing, white people never know what might cause offense. Rather than risk igniting outrage, some may be inclined to withdraw. I know how I reacted to my benighted behavior in the boom box encounter. For a time, I became more guarded and circumspect in my interactions with black people, especially black people I did not know well, for fear that I might commit another gaffe. (Admittedly, this phase did not last long. I subsequently committed other unwitting transgressions, which I might write about some day.)
Black people, it seems to me, carry a special burden in our society today — but not the one commonly talked about. If you are a white person, you will encounter other white people in the conduct of your daily business who are in a bad mood, or are having a bad hair day, or are, for a lack of better word, are just assholes. They might be abrupt. They might be rude. They might act in an inexplicable manner. And your reaction will likely be, “What a jerk. What’s his problem?” But if you are a black person in an identical encounter, you think, “They must be acting that way because they are racist.”
Sometimes an asshole is just an asshole.
Sometimes someone means well but expresses himself ineptly or awkwardly.
I find our current cultural trajectory to be dangerous. But as long as certain elected officials feel they can gain political advantage by appeals to racial grievance, and as long as the media can generate more clicks by blowing up trivial incidents into front-page news, I fear that things will only get worse. This trend cannot end well. People of good will must combat it.There are currently no comments highlighted.