In my eighth grade science class, we took a test where we had to look at circles and try to read numbers inside the circle. The first few were easy. But, as it went on, I couldn’t see any more numbers. My classmates laughed at me. They were shocked that I couldn’t see what they could see so easily.
It was a color blindness test. I failed. Until that day, I had no idea that I was colorblind. I’d been blind to my own blindness.
When it came to seeing people, I used to think of myself as colorblind, too. I grew up in Flushing, Queens in a multicultural stewpot. In eighth grade, I was the only white boy in my class. Lots of my friends were people of color. I didn’t stop to think a whole lot about the color of their skin. This was the eighties. I thought of everyone as equals. Again, I was blind to my own blindness.
I’m a white man. I’d like to think that I’m not a racist. Discussing the murder of George Floyd makes me uncomfortable. The discussion of systemic racism makes me uncomfortable. Discussing the rioting and looting makes me uncomfortable. Yet, I get to choose when and where I have these discussions. I can be upset one day and put it on the shelf the next day. My ability to opt-in and opt-out of these discussions is the very definition of my privilege of being white in America.
African-Americans don’t get this option. Every day, not only are they forced into the discussion of racism, they’re forced into the experience of racism. It’s difficult, it’s painful, and it’s unending. Meanwhile, I get to stay blind to my own blindness.
Consider the experience of Claxton. Claxton and I went to high school together. He shared some musings on what it’s like to be a black man in America, and gave me permission to share them:
· To be black in America means to be paranoid. A lot of times when I’m slighted, I don’t know if it’s because I’m black or if it was an honest mistake.
· White people say things all the time, but a lot of times if someone black says something, I fear our whole race will be judged on that.
· To be honest, when we go out to eat, consciously and subconsciously we expect to be slighted. For example, when we are seated, we look around to see if White people came in after us and then we wait to see if they are served first.
· When I walk out of a store, I’m sometimes afraid that the alarm will go off even though I did not take anything. In fact, sometimes I am aware how I’m walking out of the store. I try not to walk too slow as to not give the appearance that I’m trying to test the alarm system. Or, I try not to walk too fast as to not give the appearance that I’m trying to beat the system. And after I am out and no alarms or being stopped, I’m a little relieved inside.
· When I walk into a store, I look for the cameras and try not to look suspicious and I assume that I’m being watched.
· I have actually seen women clutch their bags when I walked into an elevator.
· When standing in line at a bar, I am aware of the people coming in after me somewhere else at the bar and I wait for the bartender to ask who is next and most times, the white person steps up even though it was clear I was next.
· While at the movies and watching the previews, I try to count the number of black main characters I see. Or in looking at casts in movies or tv shows on IMDb, I peruse the casts to see how many are black.
· Since I fly often, I’m usually upgraded to First Class. While in First Class, I usually try to see if I’m the only black person there. Usually I am and I am surprised if there are three or more POC there.
· I have actually had white people tell me that if a person commits a crime, then it’s their fault if a cop kills them. It doesn’t matter if they weren’t resisting or not or if the cop was abusing his authority.
· I was bused to a predominately white Junior High School. One day I missed my bus going home and I didn’t have any money to take the city bus. I cried to my teacher to get bus fare because I did not want to walk through racist, Woodhaven, Queens in the 1980s to get home. Man, that was a good 20 blocks behind enemy lines.
· On more than one occasion, my Junior High School bus was attacked by white people that threw bottles and rocks and of course the N-word was thrown in for good measure.
· I sometimes wonder what time period in American history could I go back to as a black guy and be relatively safe and enjoy myself.
· I sometimes wonder what it must be like to be free of these thoughts and actions and to be free to just live? I will never know.
As a white man, I’ll never truly understand what it’s like to have lived the experience that Claxton has lived. But that doesn’t mean I can’t listen to him. Learn from him. Grow from him.
It hurts my heart to hear the burden that Claxton has had to carry around his entire life. It’s messed up. It’s unfair. It’s wrong. It makes me uncomfortable.
But I’m learning that my discomfort is healthy. Because until I get out of my comfort zone, I won’t grow and change and want to do something about it.
I’m a person of privilege. No one’s asking me to live through the experience of being persecuted. I’m only being asked to sit in the discomfort of a conversation. I’m being asked to listen with open ears, open eyes, and an open heart as to how we put an end to the systemic racism that has plagued our country since its inception.
There’s a deep rift between the principle that “All men are created equal” and the reality of life in America. My privilege has allowed me to ignore this schism for too long. I can’t keep wearing rose colored glasses over my colorblind eyes. If we’re ever going to achieve the ideal that was written in 1776, we must first declare that Black Lives Matter. Systemic racism must end.