The other day I came across a piece of writing in the one place where one can always expect to find insightful and thought-provoking literature – the bathroom stall. Scribbled with a steady hand and an ink pen, it read,
Nigger in the white house, pot in the rose garden.
Obviously, I had no clue who wrote it. Nor did I elaborate long on the intent of the author. The words, especially that incendiary first one, offended me. So I approached a maintenance worker and asked him if he’d swiftly scrub it away. I didn’t want the words to begin making their rounds around the floor and perhaps reach the ears of the black folks I work with. Living and working in a predominantly WASP-y part of the country, I can count on my two hands and a foot, with some toes left over, the number of African American males I rub shoulders with on a daily basis. The kind of stuff scrawled on that wall could lead to all sorts of negative consequences if people started chewing on it and spewing their opinions.
And then a thought hit me. Am I being offensive by being offended? Who am I to take it upon myself to be offended on behalf of African Americans? Would black men, the ones I work next to and attend classes alongside, few though they may be, find me offensive?
Many years ago, I spent a week with a black friend from North Dakota, working at an inner-city mission in Chicago. During the dog days of summer, amidst the smog and humidity, we worked alongside each other, and shoulder to shoulder with men from the community, clearing away brush and garbage from a plot of land next to a childcare facility so a playground could be built. Then, with the other church members, we erected a tent and worshipped of an evening, handing out free water, cookies, and bibles to those who wandered in. In many ways, it was a humbling experience. I had grown up around family members not afraid to throw The N Word around in ways not meant to be edifying. Some of them still use the word with nary a second thought. But something about it always rubbed me the wrong way; made the hairs of my neck bristle with disgust and anger. So I sought out those that others found offensive and befriended them. Perhaps just for spite, though I never thought of it in that way; I attended a racially mixed high school just south of the south side of Chicago, so friends came in many colors. And I never saw myself as being accommodating for the sake of my own peace of mind – attempting in some misguided way to assuage the guilt of my ancestors.
Until one evening during that trip to Chicago.
Curt and I decided to sneak out of the city and visit Willow Creek, the church that put the Mega in megachurch. Max Lucado was speaking and we couldn’t pass up the chance to bask in his inspirational glow. We arrived late and walked into a large auditorium packed with people, most of them very white. I looked around and found a row filled with black people, save for two empty seats, and headed that direction. We made quite a scene, scooting our way down the row, pardoning ourselves, and settling into the open seats. We received more than a few disgruntled looks, but this was church so our rudeness got brushed aside and the show went on. Later, as we ate salad and pizza in the church’s posh cafeteria, Curt asked me why I chose to sit where I did instead of in the overflow seating just outside the sanctuary. Never one to think before I speak, I told him I chose that spot because I wanted him to feel comfortable.
His look still haunts me. He told me, in a voice deepened by emotions I’ll never comprehend, never to do that again. In that moment, all my juvenile efforts on behalf of “racial reconciliation” were exposed as a sham. We stared at our food for a long time. I’d wounded a friend, and my heart bled true for the first time.
And then we talked again. Acknowledging the landmines and the risks involved, we slowly tiptoed into the field and laid some things bare. That evening marks the beginning of a long conversation I’ve engaged in regarding my place, as a white man steeped in all that comes with being white, in a world where there are others who experience life from a different angle, and have voices that use the same words but lend them an altogether different meaning. Pain is universal, but it comes with many nuances and in myriad shades of color that I’ve never taken the time to see before. It is a frightening conversation, but a necessary one, as Bruce A. Jacobs points out in his book Race Manners for the 21st Century: Navigating the Minefield Between Black and White Americans in an Age of Fear:
There are leaps to be made, conversational licks to be taken. What has so many well-intentioned white and black people either stammering or seething is the half-witted notion that we cannot afford to be racially in error, cannot afford to be corrected, cannot abide conflict or argument and still sustain a healthy coexistive relationship.
So once conversation has been sufficiently stifled – as it has today by public Rage Talk and private eye-rolling – there is really only one way through; what I call “engagement.” You have to risk being taken for a judgmental white racist or an apologist for black dysfunction. Maybe that’s what you actually are. Maybe you deserve to have it flung back in your face. Perhaps you need a good rocking and rolling, a healthy little bang of criticism. Or maybe, the other party should not be spared what you hold clenched in your fist. Perhaps somebody needs to be called out. And perhaps, when all is said and done, everyone survives . . .
The reality is inescapable: most of the time, you simply cannot know in advance whether you will end up being right or wrong. You cannot know whether you will improve the prospects for friendship or make an enemy. There are too many surprises hidden within racial dialogue. And so the only thing to do is try, and to accept the risks – of hard feelings, of racial blunders – as being the cost of a process that , in the long run, draws us closer together.
Now, a decade and a half later, I am about to cast my vote for a black man. Why? Because I feel it’s time to give a black man a shot? Because doing so will make me feel like I’ve made some progress? I don’t believe so. I’m casting my vote for Barack Obama because I feel he’s the right man, at this moment in time, to bring about the sort of change we need in America. He doesn’t need my vote because he’s black. He needs my vote because his ideas are becoming ideas I can embrace. I can’t spell it out for you as articulately as some have. This road is unfamiliar to me, and I’ll admit it often feels unsafe. But safety hasn’t been good to me. So with my vote, I’m giving Barack Obama a chance.
And I’m wondering if I should have left the graffiti on the wall . . .