I am a white man. I was born in the United States. Specifically, I was born in northeast Florida in the 1960s.
I had nothing to do with any of these things. As such, I have no “pride” in any of these things. But I’m told I should have pride for being an American, and a Floridian. And in some circles, I should definitely be proud of the color of my skin.
I was raised with racism all around me. But my mom didn’t allow it in our house. My father left when I was too young to remember, and me and my sister were raised for several years in a poor part of Jacksonville where many of our friends and neighbors were black.
Mom remarried before I was ten, and her new husband was ambitious and moved us from our black neighborhood to a white suburb.
I had nothing to do with this.
My biological father had visitation rights that he sometimes exercised and when he did he’d ferry us away from our insulated suburb of Jacksonville, to rural central Florida. He was a southern man who worked his way into some means, and he used the N-word liberally. But he wasn’t the only one. I remember how unsettling it was when I’d hear it during those trips by many people. Me and my father never became close, and my new dad, working his way up through his company, moved us west to Louisiana as I started high school.
We lived in a middle-class suburb of Baton Rouge, but the neighbors behind us were black. I quickly became best friends with the black kid my age who lived across the creek behind us. Through my relationship with him and his family, I saw how racism seemed to cover Baton Rouge like a blanket. A year later we moved again, to Houston, and once again lived in suburb with mostly other white people. Because of my proximity to people like me, I never gave much thought to racism again until I joined the military out of high school.
My first roommate in the Air Force was a black guy from Chicago. He seemed skeptical of me at first, as a white boy from the deep south. But we became good friends for the time we were together. No one I knew in the military used racial slurs, but friend groups were definitely segregated. That’s when I realized that racism, even at a mild level, was something that affected people from all over the US.
I put in my time serving my country and then wandered around America in a drunken stupor for several years before coming to in New York in 1991.
I’ve never considered myself racist, but have learned that this is partly due to my being white. Not having to think about racism is a privilege of the skin I was born with—in a nation I was born in.
My wife was raised in Camden, NJ. Like me, she wasn’t brought up in a racist home, despite racism swirling around each of us. Around all of us.
We moved from NJ to Jacksonville in the mid-90s to escape the snow, and then moved again to Charlotte in 2000. We bought a house close to town that, at the time, was considered a sketchy area. Which is to say that it wasn’t an all-white neighborhood.
After our first daughter was born we needed to find a day care. We chose one downtown that was highly rated, but happened to be 90% black and owned by a black woman. Our thinking was that because she was white, our daughter would likely be drawn into circles growing up that were mostly white and we wanted to embed the idea of equality from an early age. Plus, we really loved the school.
Both our daughters spent their first six years of life at that daycare and left happy, curious children. They attended a public Montessori elementary school, and an IB middle school where white kids were the minority ethnicity.
The idea of white supremacy has never entered our house.
We are working class Americans. People who must rise each day to do a full-day’s work to keep a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. Neither my wife nor I are bankers. We don’t come from money, have never had it, and likely never will.
As a white man now in his fifties, I often see my reflection in the eyes of people I meet. Specifically the eyes of younger people who aren’t white. They see me as they see all white men, and it makes me feel like I should be different somehow. Superior, perhaps. Or esteemed. Or some other stupid thing that racism has created.
And despite not fulfilling my privileged white template properly, there have been times these past 19 years, particularly during times when finances were tight, when I’ve wondered how different life would be had I only used my skin color to gain financial favor. Because I definitely could have. It’s a real thing. It’s like a game.
But I never fit into that world. Even though because of my skin tone and ethnicity, I absolutely did.
A couple months back we saw the movie Green Book. Afterward I walked out of the theater feeling good. I was moved by the story and the performances by Mahershala and Viggo. The movie stayed with me for days.
And when it won Best Picture at the Oscars, I was happy.
That’s when I realized that there was a pretty large contingent of people who weren’t happy with it winning. I thought about why. How could people find fault in such a simple idea? I thought about the south in the 1960s. I thought about NYC in the 1960s. I thought about how I knew people like Viggo in the Air Force—Italian guys who grew up in big, northern cities and how among my peer group during that time, they were like me and seemed to loathe racism. Because they were poor and were seen by “better off” whites as being as close to blacks as whites could get.
I couldn’t figure out the backlash for the film. It was about two men from different worlds who end up helping each other learn how to live life.
In my confusion, my friend Derek Walker tweeted to me that I needed to consider something called the “white savior” complex in Hollywood.
Then it hit me. All the scenes where Viggo’s character came to Dr. Shirley’s rescue. Even at the end when Shirley shows up at Viggo’s door.
And my heart sank.
I never once considered this. But suddenly I was thinking about all the movies I love that attempt to break down racial barriers and how maybe they were all playing to my deeply embedded white supremacy that I didn’t even realized existed as a result of the privilege of being white.
I am a white man. I can’t help this. But I have no pride in being white. Hell, I barely have any pride in being American anymore. I am proud of my daughters. I am proud that my wife married me. I am proud that we are not systematically racist. That’s about it when it comes to pride for me. Pride is stupid. It’s exclusionary by nature. And yet I understand how others might need it as a tool of hope.
I liked Green Book. If the roles were reversed and it was the story of a black man driving a cultured white musician around big northern cities, I don’t know if it would have made much difference to me. The story is about two strangers who learn to open their hearts to each other. That’s all it was to me.
I want all people to be on level ground. I realize that’s impossible in modern American society.
We traveled to Belize several years ago. Anyone who knew me then would agree that our trips there had a profound effect on me. Yes, it was beautiful and warm. Yes, the food was fresh and delicious. Yes, the wildlife was abundant. It was like Eden. But more than any of these things, what filled my heart with peace during those trips was the people. In Belize I was not a majority. But because of their ethnic diversity, I was not a complete minority either. It was a feeling unlike any I’ve experienced—people just being people in a beautiful place. No one was below anyone else. No one was above anyone else. It felt perfect.
I am not a racist. But because I am a white man born in the US, I probably am. And sadly, I will never fully understand the plight of people who are not like me. However, I barely understand the plight of people who are like me—because I’ve never chosen to congregate at the race level. aThere are 7.5 billion people on earth. And no two are the same. They might have the same skin color. They might be the same gender. They might be born on the same day. But every person who sucks air has a different story that defines them.
It’s been my experience that art and storytelling are the best devices for helping bridge the gaps that exist between people. No, we can never truly understand anyone other than ourselves. But to me, life is meaningless without trying.