The sun seemed to be shinning a little brighter this morning. The type of sunshine that made it seem like everything was glowing. Today was going to be a beautiful day. I was going to do a presentation at my office about white privilege. It was something I had been pushing to do for months and they finally agreed. Of course it didn’t hurt the cause that over the last year the company had been sued for a “hostile working environment”
Looking back it is amazing how much things changed for me after Jamal was murdered. They didn’t charge the officer, gave that dude a medal in fact, and the city went ballistic but, after a couple of days, things went back to “normal.”
I struggled, especially after they didn’t even charge the cop, with what Derek’s cousin had broken down for me. I realized that life was different for me because I was white. It was not an easy conclusion to come to, but it was the only one I could make in light of all that had happened. I remember feeling like my world was collapsing around me. I was so unprepared to deal with what this meant. So I decided to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could. I read every Tim Wise book I could get my hands on. I watched every Youtube video I could find dealing with race and racism. And I applied my new knowledge to literally everything! Privilege was everywhere. I was ashamed I never saw it before. But it was all good now. I felt better. I was doing what I could. I was one of the white people that “got” it. Today was going to prove that!
The presentation wasn’t until 2:30 this afternoon but I took the entire day off to prepare. Now I was sitting at a coffee shop right near campus and was going over what I was going to say, going through some books to make sure I got every bit of knowledge I could. The last thing I wanted was to be stumped by any questions or critiques. The issue was too important.
I was going through one of the books I brought when an older gentlemen came and sat down across the table from me.
“Hi.” I said with a smile and a bit of confusion.
“I see you are reading about racism”
“Yea… I’m trying to do what I can… in the…” I wasn’t exactly sure what to say but before I could finish my thought he saw I was struggling and mercifully cut in.
“but you don’t have any James Baldwin here, how come?” he asked with a smile. Something in his voice told me I was in the presence of immense wisdom.
“I’m not sure, to be honest. I like James Baldwin…”
“Didn’t know he wrote about race did you?”
I laughed and said “A little. I mean his name comes up in the things I’ve read.”
He smiled and introduced himself, “I’m Toussaint” he made himself more comfortable.
“I’m Aiden” I said and shook his hand.
Toussaint continued “Baldwin actually wrote a lot about race. And more specifically he wrote a lot about whiteness.”
“Ain’t that the same thing?” I asked genuinely confused.
“No, not at all. See all these books here they talk about racism and how bad it is and how whites got it so much better. And that is true. But what they don’t do is talk about why. They never look at why whiteness is here or how whiteness caused it all. They want everybody to just be pulled up into whiteness. But, see, Baldwin knew better. He knew that if you didn’t look at whiteness first then there was no hope for ending racism. That’s why he said ‘As long as you think you’re white there is no hope for you.’ Young man, whiteness is the problem.”
“Damn.” I didn’t mean to cuss in front of an elder but it just came out. I think Toussaint could see how deeply that hit me but he didn’t stop.
“Aiden, let me ask you. What are you?” I wasn’t really sure what he was trying to get at.
“I mean, I’m white. I’m human. I’m American” I wasn’t really sure how to answer the question. Nobody asked me that question in the way Toussaint just had.
“No, I mean where are your roots?”
“Oh, my mom is Irish and my dad is… I’m not real sure.” I replied feeling more confident.
“Are your roots there? In Ireland?”
“No, my roots are Northeast.”
“And when I asked what you were you didn’t say Irish you said white. That’s what America did to you Aiden. It made you white. None of these books here are going to talk about how to change that.”
Toussaint had just shook my whole world. I had never even thought about what it meant to be white. I thought everybody should just be treated well and that would solve the problem, but Toussaint was telling me there was more to it than just treating people better.
“So, what do we do Toussaint?” I asked genuinely wanting an answer.
“Aiden, you can start by getting grounded in something and connecting to creation. We can only grow together if we know where each other are growing from and what is bringing us together. Would love to talk more but I got to run. Thanks for the conversation young brother.” Toussaint got up and walked out of the coffee shop. I just stared at my computer and the blinking cursor. I began typing without thinking “As long as you think you are white, there’s no hope for you.”
I looked around for the least packed check-out line but there was no use, they were all incredibly backed up. I pushed my cart to the closest one and took a deep breath.
There were three carts in-front of me: a Mexican-family was checking out followed by a Black family after them a single white male and finally me. The families each had full carts and the guy had too much for the express lane. I took out my phone and opened up Facebook, I was going to be here for a bit.
The white guy was clearly in a hurry and was getting impatient. He kept looking over the coolers of soda and racks of candy to see if any lanes offered hope of getting out of the store earlier. The cashier was a nice man, maybe 40 years old, he greeted each of his customers and tried to engage in small talk with them, no doubt to make the time pass easier.
“Just do your job. Think your Mr. Rogers or something.” I heard the white guy mutter just loud enough so I could hear him. I didn’t look up from the phone.
The Black family was emptying their carts and realized they forgot an item. Their son, maybe 16 or 17, ran back to get it. The cashier reassured them it was not a problem.
“sorry folks we forgot something but my son is going to grab it right now. Won’t be long.” The dad let the line know what was going on.
“What the fuck. We don’t have all day!” the white guy was not happy about the delay.
“I’m sorry sir. It won’t take long.”
There were a few tense moments between the exchange and the son running up to the cashier with what looked like a package of chicken breasts. They checked-out and left.
“Sorry about the wait sir. Hope it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience.” You could tell the cashier didn’t really care for the impatient white guy.
“It’s ok.” He responded while emptying his cart. As he placed the last frozen pizza on the belt he looked up at me and smiled.
“Surprised they could even afford that stuff. Figures though, with Obama as president, food stamps will have you eating like a king. You know what I mean?”
“Actually no I don’t.” the tension was palpable.
“You know what I mean, man. They don’t want to work. You know that was paid for with our taxes.” He was desperately searching my face for a sign of approval.
“Oh, you must think I’m white. I’m not.” I just stared at him expressionless.
“Oh… well… umm” he turned and paid for his groceries without saying another word.
“Good afternoon sir, how you doing?” the cashier asked with a smile.
“I’m great. How are you?” I smiled back.