There’s a photo of my grandfather in college performing with shoe polish all over his face. This was just after WWII in Boston. My grandfather is one of the very best people I know. My parents divorced in one of the most nuclear separations possible but despite all the bitterness nobody on either side of it could ever claim that my grandfather, my dad’s dad, was anything less than a really good man. In retrospect, sure, wearing blackface is a mistake, but that’s just the way people did things back then.
That’s MLK in 1963 phrasing a particular struggle of Black Americans that doesn’t need rephrasing to be applicable today. I was raised hearing the “I Have a Dream” speech and, like just about every other young white kid my age or younger, I identified myself against racism. Sometimes when I was a kid pretending to be a superhero I imagined fighting racism and slavery and bigotry rather than generic “bad guys”. This was probably from overexposure to dramatic Hollywood films. One way or another I had learned the point: Racism is bad.
I was raised by a system that taught me to hate prejudice. But that same system makes it harder for women than men to return to work after having a child, jury-rigs election districts to minimize black votes, and protects white cops who murder black children.
So we’ve made progress, but you and I agree there’s further to go.
When there are truly obvious problems with the system I get to feel like a hero by showing the world my fiery outrage. I’ll march, I’ll shout and the whole lot of us won’t stop until the injustice is mended. But problems that obvious and clean-cut are rare; real-life ones always have another side to them. “The officer had to defend himself.” “He just stole some cigarettes so he was breaking the law.”
No, there are few blatant signs of injustice left. The would-be heroes like myself scan for them and, seeing none, accept the system as it is. The problems minorities face today are countless. They are many microscopic cracks in a piece of glass rendering it fragile. The problem is in a police force that either abuses black people in the presence of cameras or has abused them forever. The problem is the actual racists who look just like me and who show me respect but throw out racial slurs when not in my presence. The problem is the language itself — that whiteness is a term for unblemished purity and darkness for corruption and my freckled yellow-pink skin and my friend’s coffee-brown skin are still shoehorned into these highly subjective color classifications. The Black community has reclaimed the word for themselves but the damage we’ve done with these associations persist — even young black children select white dolls to be prettier than black ones.
When MLK spoke in 1963 he marked the anniversary of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation: “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” It’s been 53 years since that speech and that tragic statement of his still rings too true. We’ve raised generations of youth to believe the values of racial equality but this country’s ancient prejudice has formed hollow craters of injustice and they are deep.
If you’re white and reading this then your white guilt™ is likely acting up right now. You’re wondering who I am to write this piece on race and how did I get the special pass that lets me be separate from the problem so that I can dispassionately comment on it and where do you get one? Or you’re ready for me to get to the ‘How to fix this’ section so we can address the issue and let the white guilt settle back down.
If MLK and millions of followers couldn’t settle the issue for half a century then let’s skip the part where we even entertain the idea that one white person on Medium will help.
But let’s remember my grandfather. A good man. A kind man. A generous man. Who wore blackface on stage during a musical at an all-male, all-white college in Boston. He came from Irish immigrants and knew the face of prejudice well. But even he couldn’t see how the system was still broken. Like us, he could only see the progress that had been made so far.
So on this MLK day I’m going to try something that no white person has ever encouraged me to try. I’m going to try to think of what my life would look like if there were racial justice. I’m going to try to think of what I would lose. I didn’t go to an all-white, all-male college but there are many dozens of places that I fit in perfectly that a Black or Asian or Indian or Hispanic person (or a woman) doesn’t.
Hopefully in another fifty years we’ll see much more progress than the last fifty. Maybe by then police brutality against blacks won’t be something that police chiefs fight to keep from the public. But whatever changes occur between now and then I have one hope for myself: I don’t want to look back on my life now and see that I’ve been wearing blackface this whole time.
(this was day 5/100 in my #100days challenge)