I was returning home to Los Angeles on a flight from Atlanta, where I’d spent a couple of days at a writer’s conference. Weary from a weekend filled with late night poetry jams and early morning workshops, I boarded the half-empty redeye, found my aisle seat, shoved my bulging carryon bag under the empty middle seat, stretched my legs and thanked the airline gods for arranging an entire row just for me. I closed my eyes as the last few stragglers made their way to their seats, and got an early start on what I hoped would be a long nap.
“Excuse me, Ma’am.” The voice was deep, the accent, southern.
I opened my eyes to an attractive white man in his early twenties looking down at me. He pointed at the empty seat next to me, shrugged apologetically, and stepped back to let me stand, which I did. He didn’t take the empty window seat. Instead, he plopped his duffel bag near the window and sat himself down right next to me, which meant, of course, that I would have to move my bag.
I reached down and tugged at the strap, but my tightly wedged carryon didn’t budge. “I’ll get that,” he offered. He yanked the bag out, slid it to me and helped me squeeze it under the seat in front of me. It didn’t occur to the guy to just move over to the window seat. Maybe he wanted to sit next to me. Maybe he was going to try to hit on me. Maybe he didn’t realize I had a daughter nearly his age. He flashed a perfect soap opera star smile at me, stowed his bag under the window seat and stretched his legs.
“Hey, what’s this?” He bent over to reach for something on the floor in front of him and came up with an award I had been given at the conference, which had apparently fallen out of my bag in the shuffle. He read the inscription aloud, “Best Contemporary Fiction,” then looked me over. “Wow,” he said with a raised eyebrow. His expression said my sporty pink jogging suit and Adidas cross trainers didn’t jibe with his vision of what an award-winning author might look like up close. “You’re a writer?”
There goes my nap. I knew in that moment I would spend my five-hour flight locked in conversation. It was inevitable. He would ask me what my book was about and as soon as I said, it’s a novel about a woman who’s half black but looks white,” he would take note of my ivory skin and blue eyes and realize, correctly, that I wrote the book from my own experience. Then the questions would start.
“You’re black? Wow. You don’t look it.” He was immediately intrigued, as are most white people when they meet me. I haven’t completely figured it out, but I suspect their fascination has to do with my apparent whiteness and my paradoxical belonging in the black community (where the majority of people who look like me feel anything but a sense of belonging).
Just as black people often joke that I am a spy infiltrating the white ranks, I suppose white people see me as an insider to the black world—an undercover comrade who can interpret what I’ve seen and experienced in ways they can relate to. That’s the only explanation I have for the ridiculous comments some white folks make when they discover my dual ethnicity.
In addition to the many off-the-wall questions I’m asked (Can you dance like a black person? Why don’t black people swim? Is that penis size thing really true?), white people say things to me they would never say to a more phenotypically obvious black person. For instance, I once had a white woman refer to the black man she had recently stopped dating as “too black.” When I asked what that meant, she explained matter-of-factly, “He’s ignorant and has no ambition.”
In my younger days I bristled at these exchanges, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to the conclusion that each time I respond to these ignorant questions and statements with some degree of patience, the world becomes a slightly better place. In most cases I find that the decision to practice patience has a positive affect on the outcomes of these exchanges—including the impending conversation with the middle seat taker.
After he introduced himself as Jason, an actor on his way to Hollywood to audition for (who woulda guessed it?) a soap opera, he tugged and nudged me into a conversation that can best be described as Everything Jason Ever Wanted to Know/Say About Black People But Was Afraid to Ask/Get His Ass Whupped. He began the discussion by saying with wide-eyed sincerity, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” He punctuated that idea by adding that he had “even dated black girls.”
While the other passengers slept soundly, Jason and I struggled to keep our voices at a half-whisper as we discussed topic after touchy topic. We talked about the overrepresentation of black people in the criminal justice system. Jason chalked it up to the “fact” that black people are more likely than whites to use illegal drugs. I countered with a government study that found 75% of regular drug users were white and only 8% black; yet 43% of those imprisoned on drug charges were black, and 25% were white. Of course, at the root of that is the fact that blacks are five times more likely to be targeted for arrest than whites for drug crimes (Source: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.)
Jason and I discussed the underrepresentation of black students in college. He believed that was “of course” because black kids and their parents don’t value education. I explained that the best predictor of college entry and success is the quality of middle and high school curriculum. White high school students are three times more likely to be taught challenging coursework as blacks and twice as likely to be taught by an experienced teacher with specific expertise in the subject being taught. (Source: The Education Trust, “Achievement in America”)
We talked about interracial marriage. Jason will date, but couldn’t see himself marrying a black woman, though in his experience he found “mixed” kids to be more beautiful and more intelligent than “regular” black kids—a comment that I, being “mixed” was supposed to have taken as a compliment. Of course my counter argument for that ridiculousness was a thorough lesson on white supremacy and how it permeates everything in America – including how we arrive at our decisions about who is “beautiful” and who is “intelligent.”
Although there were many tense moments in our conversation, during which I had to struggle to maintain my calm, by far the most excruciating subject for me to endure was the one we spent over two hours entrenched in—slavery. I was astounded by Jason’s ignorance of the institution itself. Not only did he reiterate my elementary school teacher’s beliefs about slaves being relatively happy family members, he went so far as to repeat a joke he’d recently heard on a talk radio show which callously declared that American blacks shouldn’t be worrying about reparations, but “ought to be happy we aren’t charging them for their ancestors’ cruise over here.”
Jason seemed (keeping in mind he’s an actor) to have no idea that the Middle Passage constituted a holocaust of unprecedented proportions. Even conservative estimates place the number of slaves who died of abuse, disease, suicide and malnourishment during the Atlantic slave trade in the millions. The “cruises” Jason spoke of were months-long torturous voyages during which the “passengers” were chained to one another on stacked wooden bunks with less than a foot of space on either side. The kidnapped Africans who managed to survive day after day of writhing in blood, vomit, menstrual flow and excrement were delivered to the auction block and sold to the highest bidders. Women and girls had no defense against rape and were mated with men they did not know so they would produce children over whom they had no parental rights. Happy to be slaves? I don’t think so.
When confronted with that reality, Jason didn’t think so either.
What was most disheartening to me was that at his age, and with the advances in “multicultural education” this nation has supposedly made a commitment to, I expected the information I was sharing with Jason to have been taught to him in school. I told him about my experience with my elementary teacher Miss Lewis some thirty years previous—about her insistence that her heroes were good people who behaved in accordance with the times in which they lived; about her ignorance of the many anti-racist Americans who did live during those times but did not uphold the status quo; I talked to Jason about how I was impacted as a child by my teacher’s refusal to denounce slavery.
Though Jason was educated two decades after me, he said he had received the same messages my teacher delivered to me. He knew that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned slaves, but when I asked him whether America’s most revered historical icons were racists, his answer was a safe, “I don’t know. It seems like it.” When I reminded him that America was “the Land of the Free” whose credo is “Liberty and Justice for All,” and whose currency is embellished with the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of Many One) he admitted that the heroes he was taught to admire and emulate did not live up to those ideals. When asked to name a white American historical figure other than Abe Lincoln who sacrificed life, liberty or livelihood on behalf of human rights for all people, he could not offer Thomas Paine, John Brown, James and Lucretia Mott, Thaddeus Stevens, Henry David Thoreau, John and Jean Rankin, John Howard Griffin, Penny Patch, Viola Liuzzo, or any of America’s other thousands of white anti-racist heroes. WIth the exception of Lincoln, whose commitment to human rights has been furiously debated by historians, Jason had not one anti-racist role model he had ever been taught to look to for education or inspiration.
Upon our arrival at LAX, Jason said our conversation was one that forever changed him. He thanked me for challenging him to think more deeply about his responsibility—not just to denounce racism, white privilege and white supremacy, but to educate himself about it and to be a part of dismantling it. I hope Jason wasn’t pretending, but even if he was, it was that five-hour interaction with a young white man I would not see or speak to again that stands as one of the most frustrating, at times infuriating and ultimately inspiring conversations about black/white race relations I’ve ever experienced—it was a conversation that sparked the idea for this blog — a learning space where young people might come to “Know Good White People.”