As all educated people know in this enlightened age, “race” is a social construct that has no basis in science. We’re all much more alike than we are different. Nevertheless, the world around us is a minefield of toxic memes cluttered with the wreckage of the antiquated and dangerous racial theories of the past. This means that living race-free is still more of a challenge than you might suspect. Still, in the interest of Social Justice, it is the duty of certain members of our diverse human community to cast off the mantle of privilege that swathes them in unfair advantage while casting a pall of deprivation on all who lack it. But, as I have discovered, you must be prepared to be blocked at every step by the racists lurking among us. And their numbers are legion.
My name is Justin White and I’m almost 22 years old. I first encountered the truth about race at the age of three while watching Sesame Street. Later I was introduced to a more complete explication of White Privilege during a brief but instructive stint at community college. At that time I began to devour all the YouTube videos of Tim Wise, and soon became a minor expert on this insidious and pervasive pestilence.
My first unfortunate experience with institutional racism occurred when I applied to Harvard. I filled out my application—my GPA was a solid 3.00—and I wrote, if I may say so, an inspired essay. After a few weeks I received a response: Harvard wanted to interview me!
I’ll never forget the excitement I felt that day. I arrived at the interview optimistic almost to the point of euphoria despite a wicked sunburn. The interviewer, a perfectly enlightened-seeming woman about thirty-five years old, looked at me, looked at my application and a puzzled expression came over her face. She seemed uncomfortable but began the interview anyway. After a few casual questions she said, “It says on your application that you are African-American.”
I smiled. “That is correct.”
She nodded and pursed her lips. “And your essay is titled: ‘A Proud Son of Africa.’”
I smiled still bigger, unable to conceal my pride. “Yes, it is.”
She fidgeted. “Um, I hope you won’t be offended if I ask a few questions regarding your . . . ethnicity.”
“Go right ahead.”
“Well, you have blue eyes, blond hair, freckles, and what appears to be a terrible sunburn.”
“I know. I went to the lake yesterday.”
“May I ask what percent of your ancestry is African?”
“All of it,” I said.
“All of it?”
“But—and please forgive me—you look entirely white.”
An ugly suspicion crawled into my mind. “Yes, well, I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at with that. ‘Whiteness,’ as Prof. Noel Ignatiev has demonstrated, is a social construct—a fiction used by the powerful to oppress the less fortunate. I have chosen to repudiate that designation. I’ve jumped ship. I don’t want any white privilege, thank you. Just treat me like you would any other raceless human being.”
She shook her head. “But you say in your application you’re African-American.”
I nodded. “I am. I was born in American and I am entirely of African descent. As are you. As is every Homo sapiens. Our kind originated in Africa and spread throughout the whole world. We are all, ultimately, Africans.”
She squirmed. “I’m afraid that’s not how it works. You have to have recent African descent to qualify.”
I had to frown at this. “Well, if I’m not African, what am I?”
“You are white. You have blue eyes. You have no melanin in your skin. I strongly suspect your parents were similarly deficient. You, young man, are a Caucasian.”
I crossed my arms. I set my chin. I harrumphed. I could barely contain my outrage. I had not expected this sort of ignorance at Harvard. Prof. Ignatiev himself was a tutor here, for goodness sake! This woman was woefully, almost criminally, unenlightened. I didn’t want to get her in trouble, but I was not about to play along with her racist fantasies. “There’s no such thing.”
She sighed. “Be that as it may, you will have to show some evidence of African ancestry before you can apply for admittance as an African-American.”
I raised my hands. “What more evidence do you want? I’m human, am I not?”
She seemed unconvinced. “A DNA test would do the trick,” she said. “If you’re really determined to push it.”
“Madam, suppose my parents had emigrated from South Africa and that I was born here. Would I not then be an African-American?”
I was appalled. “Why not?”
She sighed heavily and took off her glasses. “Because you must be racially African to be categorized as African-American.”
My dudgeon gained altitude. “Ms. X, are you suggesting that such a thing as “race” exists? You, an employee of Harvard University, the foremost educational institution in America if not the world, believe in ‘race’? I find that inconceivable. Have you never heard the wisdom of Tim Wise on this matter? RACE IS A MYTH! I reject it! I reject my white privilege. I foreswear it before God and Buddha and the ghost of Christopher Hitchens! Now put me down as African-American and treat me just like you would any other person of color.”
When the security guards came to escort me off the premises, I explained the misunderstanding to them, but they were as immune to reason as Ms. Racist had been. That night in my hotel room, I prayed fervently to all the great Secular Humanists of the past, hoping that whatever part of their energy still cavorted through the cosmos might inform me as to what I should do. I got no unequivocal response, but I did have a strong feeling that I should avoid gluten.
When I got home, I went to the café and told my friends the whole sad story. Naturally they were flabbergasted, except for one wag who snorted and muttered something like, “What did you expect?” I deflected that energy and vowed to press forward, for the sake of the species.
But in the days that followed, I discovered that bigotry was everywhere. The country was rotten with it. It was almost as if National Public Radio were completely out of sync with the world in which I found myself! When I tried to get a job under an affirmative action program, I was rejected and accused of fraud! I explained to everyone that I was not, could not be, White, and that this whole “race” thing was a crock, an absurd bouillabaisse of late-Nineteenth-Century charlatanry and classism and the sooner we all forgot it and started looking at each other as “persons” the better off we’d be. I produced affidavits from prominent biologists and social scientists attesting to the non-existence of race. I quoted the Wise Tim, and other experts in the field of White Privilege. All for nothing. Somehow this backward idea had lodged itself so tenaciously in the bureaucracies of our most revered institutions that it seemed nigh impossible to uproot it. The situation seemed dismal.
Then I had an inspiration. I summarized my situation in an e-mail and sent it off to Benjamin Jealous of the NAACP, Jesse Jackson, and the Reverend Al Sharpton. These were men who had dedicated their lives to Equal Opportunity and Social Justice and I felt certain they would support me. I knew it was audacious, but I could see few alternatives; if this failed, I’d have to turn to Oprah herself!
I waited. And waited. After several weeks I finally received the letter. The Big Three were outraged and disgusted that I, a young African-American, was being refused my proper rights. I was invited to a summit meeting to discuss what legal action to pursue. When the day finally arrived, I put on a suit and tie, took the bus to the X Hotel, and marched into the conference room where my benefactors were waiting, surrounded by many melanin-replete persons and a bevy of reporters. I walked up to the long table where the great men sat and said, “Here I am!” Cameras flashed all around me.
My heroes’ faces looked less enthusiastic than I’d expected.
“Excuse me, young man, but you must have the wrong room,” Jesse Jackson said.
“Reverend Jackson, I’m so glad you agreed to help me. And you too, Mr. Jealous and Reverend Sharpton. You can’t imagine the discrimination I’ve suffered. Everywhere I turn they keep telling me I’m not African-American, that I’m white, that I’m not of the right RACE! It’s been a nightmare. I can’t get into college. I can’t get a good job. The government has sued me twice! Help me, fellow sons of Africa!”
There was a profound silence. I knew my words had touched them deeply. Finally justice would prevail.
Reverend Sharpton was the first to speak. “Mister, uh—”
“White,” I said. “Justin White!”
“Right. Uh, Mr. White, I don’t know if this is a joke, but you are obviously not a black man. In fact, never was a man so aptly named as you.”
Everyone laughed. Another frenzy of flashes blinded me. To say I was stunned would be an understatement. This was really beyond the pale. I looked around for support from my other “brothers” but their faces were stern, inscrutable. In fact, they looked extremely put out. Though I knew that black men were for the most part as harmless as Will Smith, I confess that I began to feel a little nervous. Reverend Jackson looked especially menacing. He muttered something. I must be mistaken but it sounded to me then like, “I’d like to cut his b—s off.”
When I found my voice, I said, “Gentlemen, are you telling me that even you believe that ‘race’ exists? That you would let me languish, uneducated and unemployed, based on such a trivial accident of birth as the color of my skin? You who have labored your entire lives to make all persons equal? You who have yourselves ceaselessly experienced the bitter lash of prejudice?”
“You’re damn right,” said Mr. Jealous. “Kid, we help colored people. You’ve got no color! You’re the absence of it. You look like a photographic negative of Spike Lee!”
I recoiled from this blow.
“I bet you got to wear sunblock on a starry night,” Reverend Jackson said.
It was as if I’d been kicked in the stomach by a horse.
“Yo’ mama have to tie a red hanky ’round your neck to find you in the bathtub.” This, from Reverend Sharpton, hurt the most . . . because it was true.
There were more equally hurtful barbs, but I’d rather not relive them. I slouched out of the building and wandered, heedless of time, distance and direction. Finally I saw a park and some swings and sat in one and stared at the ground, wondering how the world could remain so ignorant of the simple facts of biology. I went over everything I had learned at the knee of Tim the Wise. There is no race. Whiteness is a choice. White people can never understand Black people. White people are often racist without even knowing it.
Then it struck me. Was I a racist? By choosing to call myself African-America had I merely substituted one harmful social construct for another? Was that why everyone had rejected me? I thought, I’ve made a terrible mistake. From now on I’m not White, I’m not Black, I’m just human. I realized too that I’d been a fool all along to deal with institutions. What I needed to do was reach out to other people. Institutions can’t think or feel. They had no soul, no morality, no humanity. Fighting them was like fighting robots. But other people couldn’t help but respond to my message of truth.
I got up out of the swing. I was energized by this new insight and eager to try it out. It was getting dark and I didn’t know where I was. I went to an intersection, but the street lights had been knocked out and I couldn’t read the name of the street. The buildings seemed a bit run down. There were bars on the windows and heavy metal doors everywhere I looked. I decided to walk down the big avenue until I could discover its name. A couple of blocks later I found a functioning streetlight. I hurried to the sign at the corner and read: Martin Luther King, Jr. I was saved! I envisioned little white children and little black children playing together in the red clay of Georgia! Surely this was a sign. Now I just had to find some people.
It didn’t take me long. A moment later a long burgundy-colored car filled with . . . well, people, pulled up next to me. The people stared at me.
I smiled. This was just the opportunity I’d been looking for, but for some reason I felt a little nervous. I waved my hand. “What’s up?”
The people in the car laughed. It was a funny sort of laugh. I wondered if they had sore throats.
“You not from around here, are you,” the driver said.
“No,” I confessed. “I’m just out to make some new friends.”
More laughter, and it was even more raucous this time. The driver scratched his shaven head. “Make friends? Here?”
I was getting fearful now, but I realized that it was just because I’d been indoctrinated by the racist media to believe that black people were dangerous. I shrugged off the irrational emotion and pressed on. “The truth is, ‘race’ is an illusion, a bogus social construct used to separate human beings from each other. We’re all a lot more alike than we are different.”
The driver shook his head. “You crazy, man.” They laughed, shouted some expletives and drove away. I felt a brief pang of disappointment, then I looked up at that street sign again and my heart filled with renewed courage. The dream was not dead yet.
I walked a little farther and I saw a tall handsome man coming toward me. He was a Homo sapiens with very dark skin and big muscles. I chastised myself for noticing these superficial traits and reminded myself that 99 percent of our DNA was identical (as is the case with camels and llamas, may they one day heal the breach between them).
“Excuse me, brother,” I said.
The man stopped and frowned at me. “I ain’t your brother. What you doing in this neighborhood, anyway?”
“I was just out trying to connect with my fellow human beings.”
“You’re fellow . . .” Suddenly a light seemed to go off in his head. “Aw, you been listening to Tim Wise, ain’t you.” Before I could answer he grabbed my arm and looked around. “Look, you in the wrong place to be peddling that [expletive]. Now you jus’ do what I say. We get you on a bus quick, you might make it home alive.”
“Why? What’s going on? Are there hoodlums about?”
“Yeah, hood-lums, hood rats, you name it. Look, little cracker, jus’ stick close to me an’ if we meet anybody, don’t say a word. Got it?”
I was a bit concerned by now and thankful for this help. “Yes, br— Yes, sir.”
“Uh-oh,” my new friend said under his breath.
I saw five human beings coming toward us. They were just human beings like me, but their ancestors had probably left Africa quite some time after mine did, and they probably hadn’t bought a ticket for the voyage. They were dressed in clothes that some people might associate with “the ghetto.” When they saw my friend and me they started hooting and making a ruckus.
“What you got there, William? Iz’at your white boy?”
William laughed and gave me a look that I interpreted to mean, “Keep mum.”
“Hey, Thomas. Wazzup?” William said.
“Dat white boy up. What you doing wiff him?”
“He an old school frien’. We can’t talk though, he got to catch a bus.”
But then Thomas came very close to me, so close that the tips of our noses pressed against each other and I could easily enjoy the Courvoisier on his breath. “I don’t know you, man. What you doing here? This ain’t yo’ neighborhood.” Only he said this in a rich vernacular I can only imperfectly reproduce. To my perplexity, I sensed hostility.
“I’m j-just here t-t-trying to make n-new friends.”
Thomas’s eyes grew large. “Crackers ain’t welcome roun’ here.”
I frowned at this epithet. My dudgeon began to rise again. “Hey, man, there’s no need to call names. We’re all a lot more alike than we are different, right? After all, we’re all ‘Out of Africa’ so to speak.”
At this he pressed even harder against my nose. Now our lips were touching, which made me a little uncomfortable, though I pride myself on not being homophobic. I was by now getting the distinct impression that he hadn’t heard the good news about “race.” I felt something sharp and cold slice through my mustard-colored bowling shirt and make a shallow puncture wound in my stomach. I gasped.
“Don’ gimme dat [expletive], Whitey. You [expletives] been [expletiving] us fuh fo’ hun’red years. You got some payback comin’ yuh way now, Beeyotch [sic].” I ask once more to be forgiven if I fail to capture the vibrant musicality of Ebonics, but I think this is a good approximation of what he said.
“B-but . . . we’re all the same. I don’t believe in “race.” It’s an artificial construct. You and I are both Homo s—“
He jabbed the point of his argument a little deeper into my abdomen and I gasped again and stepped back. I was ready to cry now, as much from disappointment over his unwillingness to acknowledge the universal brotherhood of personkind as from fear. Well, almost as much.
He laughed and licked a drop of blood from the tip of his shank, or whatever you call it. “We all brothers under the skin, ’ight? Then I jus’ gonna remove the offensive part of you and we be cool.” He took a step toward me.
William stepped between us then. “Come on, Thomas. That’s enough, ain’t it? He done [expletived] his pants an’ you done tasted his blood. We gonna go now. Peace.”
William grabbed me by the hand and guided me down the sidewalk, interposing his own body between me and Thomas. But Thomas pursued us.
“Nunh-uh. Naw. He mine. I gotta skin him.”
Then a young woman, one of Thomas’s colleagues, stepped forward. “Leave him alone, Thomas. He ain’t done nuffin’ to you. He jus’ a piddly-[expletive] punk cracker who ain’t hurtin’ nobody. Leave him alone and let’s go.”
Thomas hesitated. Then another of his fellows chimed in. “Yeah, let that little punk [expletive] go. We don’ need no trouble tonight. Let’s go party at Rascal’s crib. You can kill a white boy some other night.”
This seemed to tip the scales. Thomas laughed, brandished his shank, put it away and pointed a very long index finger at me. “You lucky tonight, Beeyotch [sic]. You buy yuhself a lottery ticket on the way home.”
After that everything was a blur. William put me on a bus bound for a less interesting but safer neighborhood where my superficial physical characteristics would arouse less notice. I had gone only a few blocks when three young men of apparent Latino heritage boarded the vehicle. They were laughing and speaking Spanish, though not too loudly. They sat down around me and continued their conversation as if oblivious to my presence. For a moment I had a terrible feeling of isolation, of being a foreigner in my own country. Then I thought, we’re more alike than we are different. So I had a bit of a disappointment today. So Reverend Sharpton rejected me. So someone poked the tip of a knife a quarter of an inch into my belly. So what? People are people. Maybe the problem is with me. Maybe I just need to try harder to reach out.
So I turned to the gentlemen and said, “Hola. Mi nombre es Justin.” I pronounced it “Hoosteen” to make it easier for them.
The three looked at me a little funny. It wasn’t really hostility, but more like a mixture of subdued amusement and indifference. They said nothing but I refused to be deterred. I was reaching out to my fellow Homo sapiens and nothing was going to stop me.
“¿Hablan Inglés?” Unfortunately, with this I had nearly exhausted my high school Spanish. One of the young men said something to me but I could only shake my head and say, “No entender.” There was a brief exchange in Spanish and they all laughed. I laughed too. Finally one of them pointed to my shirt. “Blood.”
I nodded. “Si. I got hurt un poco. But I’ll be okay.”
“Okay,” he said. We both nodded.
One of the other men said something, I think he said the word “cuidado.”
“Si. I have to be more cuidado.” They laughed very hard at this and I laughed too. After that they went back to chatting among themselves. I sat and listened, not understanding much but feeling a little less excluded anyway. I had made a connection of sorts. It was a beginning. They didn’t look at me or talk to me anymore, but when I got off the bus one of them said, “Adios.”
I smiled. “Adios.”
It had been a long day. I walked the three blocks to my apartment. A Filipino family was cooking and filling the whole building with the delicious aroma of fried fish. It smelled like family. They must have been having a party because there were a lot of people all over the place speaking Tagalog and they were playing their loud but expressive music. No one spoke to me as I passed down the corridor to the stairs that led up to my apartment but I smiled and did my best to make them feel welcome. I sat down on my futon and turned on MSNBC. Rachel Maddow was looking especially fetching and clever. I couldn’t hear the TV very well, but I could hear the festive music clearly and even feel it coming up through the floor. So I turned down the volume, activated the closed captioning, and enjoyed the taste of a different culture. It almost made me feel like I was down there with them.
I know now that bringing all Homo sapiens together as one big family won’t be an easy job. There are a lot of bad memes out there to overcome, and maybe even a natural tendency for people to group and split based on things like culture, country of origin, language and, yes, skin color.
I’ve since learned that I was very wrong to expect The Big Three to advocate for me. Like President Obama’s, my ancestors were never slaves. My ancestors were slavers and genocidal “Indian” killers who came to America in 1901 from Sweden. So we need to let Black people have “race” a little longer, just until we’ve erased every last debilitating vestige of slavery and racism, no matter how invisible, unconscious or buried it may be; thankfully, there are people like Tim Wise who will keep rooting these vestiges out until the job is done.