Although I’ve never had the slightest interest in being white, I’ve sometimes wondered what it might be like to exist amongst white people under the same cover of racial subterfuge.
Then again, I suppose I don’t really need to wonder.
The implications of whiteness remain a secret only to the white people who would bristle or sneer at such a notion — and, perhaps more importantly, have long since ceased to be a secret for any person of color who has traversed the cavernous, perilous chambers of an overwhelmingly white world. Yet, beyond this, I realize that — in a way — I already have an intimate, almost intuitive understanding of being white.
After all, I am a man.
You see, to exist amongst men as a man with some awareness of himself is to see the world as a white person amongst white people — or, more aptly, as a white person who has begun to peer through the haze of history so that they might witness the beacon of truth. My male peers are assured of their “safety” amongst other men to say and do as they please, so I often find myself navigating a community bedeviled by impropriety, flippancy and a brazen embrace of its own rampant misogyny.
Recently, at an all-male executive board meeting, one member casually remarked that he probably wouldn’t hire a pregnant woman over a man, even if she was the far superior job applicant. Apparently, he doubted this hypothetical person’s ability to commit fully to the role, what with those impending childcare responsibilities. I should’ve said something then, but I did not, and my lack of courage in moments like this has cleaved a gaping hole of remorse in my own self-assurance. Still, I’m grateful to at least be able to see a fuller picture than I once did.
For example, let’s say I’m walking down the street late at night and I encounter a white woman. She briskly crosses the street or picks up the pace (this happens to me often). For a long while, I would become silently furious whenever this happened. Because, at least in my mind, she had responded to my blackness. However, I now realize that I cannot separate my fear of being seen as dangerous from her fear of being seen as prey. They are, in fact, both valid. A repulsive and deeply disturbing interaction that I had with two men who were harassing two of my friends this past summer served as a stark reminder to me of my freedom in that regard.
I hate to cause another fear, but I recognize that my discomfort pales in comparison to the agony of the oppressed. I’ll never forget my first time reading the words of Brock Allen Turner’s victim. I cannot hope to encapsulate their poignancy here, and encourage you to read the entire piece for yourself, but a few details remain emblazoned in my memory:
“While you worry about your shattered reputation, I refrigerated spoons every night so when I woke up, and my eyes were puffy from crying, I would hold the spoons to my eyes to lessen the swelling so that I could see … I excused myself to cry in the stairwells…My life was put on hold for over a year, my structure had collapsed … For three months, I went to bed at six o’clock in the morning…”
I was speechless. I couldn’t even begin to contemplate the trauma this woman had experienced. I still can’t. Worst of all, I know that I possess near-immunity from the toxins of sexism — or, depending on perspective, impunity. I can continue to harbor many of the same flaws and prejudices from my past without much consequence.
However, I no longer possess the same passive apathy. I can no longer witness sexism and think “Oh, too bad for those folks over there.” I feel an inextricable link with what I’m witnessing, perhaps because I know what it’s like to have a conversation with someone and tremble as they refuse to acknowledge a national tragedy — even though it happened only an hour earlier. At some deep level, the pain of oppression should reside in us all, so that we feel compelled to challenge and mitigate its reverberations. For me, almost every moment of inaction triggers an incessant murmur, boring into my conscience: “You had the power to make a change,” I hear, “and you failed to do so.”
Hell, even “trivial” moments, like hearing gendered language (i.e. “you guys”) have an effect on me now. Every quote that refers to an experience, character trait, thought or value that could and should be shared by anyone with the subject conspicuously denoted as “a man,” or “man” or “mankind” bothers me, if only because I can’t help but notice the underlying meaning. And don’t even get me started with my beloved film or media.
My generation’s legacy, as it stands, seems more illusory than earnest. We care about all kinds of issues, but only in short bursts, or at levels deemed palatable. We care enough to circumvent the core of a problem, smiling all the while in the euphoria of distance. But when placed in the thick of this mess called life and asked to ruffle up some feathers, we often resign ourselves to defeat instead of challenging our family and friends. No one wants to be a killjoy, even if that means ignoring the killing of a little black boy.
We refuse, it seems to me, to maintain the same hallowed integrity presented from afar when confronted the eyes and flesh of another. Indeed there may be no animal more cowardly, insecure, or hypocritical than Homo sapiens.
So if all I do is write columns from the comfort and safety of my bed, than I am hiding behind noble words. I must venture out into the world and make as many mistakes as possible while attempting to manifest my words as actions. To that end, and since I had such tremendous success with this when I did it for my column to the Class of 2020, I will again warmly invite those reading these words to reach out to me. This time, though, I don’t want your film and song suggestions. I want your stories, your questions, your disagreements, your fears, your worries — whatever you are willing and able to give — but not in an email. Let’s set up a meeting. In person. I will talk to absolutely anyone, about absolutely anything. Try me.
Because in spite of all my cynicism towards people, I do love them, which means I do love you.
Amiri Banks is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Honest A.B. appears alternate Mondays this semester.