I Am the Racist, Part 5: The Appeal of Plain Vanilla
I’m not sure at what point in our relationship - friendship or romantic - I started taking notice of my own subtle racial biases.
Maybe it was the first time Craig showed me a yearbook picture of his best friend from high school. He had spoken of him often. And in my mind, he was always black. Until he wasn’t. And, to my surprise, many of Craig’s close friends from high school were, in fact, white. Why hadn’t I ever pictured it that way?
Why did I find it odd that Craig had so many white acquaintances? Did I imagine somewhere in the recesses of my sheltered mind that all black kids attended inner-city schools, dodging the treacherous lures of the concrete jungle?
Or maybe it was the time he suggested we hike the famous Mount Nittany. I remember being taken aback by the proposition. For some inexplicable reason I was shocked that a black man would take an interest in hiking. Does he own hiking boots?
Wouldn’t he prefer to shoot hoops instead?
Then there was the issue of musical tastes. Could he stomach Depeche Mode and The Beastie Boys? Tori Amos? And shouldn’t the woman sitting beside him at this Pat Metheny concert enjoy this music more than I do? Wait a minute. Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny’s a white dude? I naturally assumed…well, you know where that’s going.
But at some point in our dating a deep-seated insecurity began to bubble to the surface. I suddenly became painfully aware of every black woman on campus. They were everywhere, coming at me from all angles. I would find myself visually stalking them.
They were beautiful. Dressed to perfection with painstaking attention to their hair and makeup, brimming with confidence in their perfectly toned bodies. Proud and outspoken.
And there was I, dressed head to toe in Goodwill fashion, sporting the used jeans, old men’s blazers and chunky black shoes that defined my mid-90s era fashion, with unkempt hair that would have made Struwwelpeter proud. (Though, owing to a year-long bout with self-diagnosed exercise bulimia, I did tout a rockin bod. I will say that much.)
For the life of me I could not fathom that Craig was not attracted to these women. He had to be. On some level I obviously believed that black men were predisposed by nature to being more physically attracted to black women.
What was the appeal of plain vanilla?
For the first time in my existence I felt…white. I was awash in my whiteness. Everything about me - my mannerisms and physicality, my sense of humor, my interests - were completely and utterly white. My entire course of study was devoted to the language and culture of two of the whitest societies on the planet.
What interest could a black man possibly take in Wienerschnitzel and oompah bands?
I started having difficulty seeing how our two worlds could ever coexist. Would Craig, ever the sunny optimist, never one to dwell on the negative, feel comfortable hanging out with a bunch of cynical, whiny white kids watching The Simpsons and mocking Beverly Hills 90210 as was our Sunday night tradition?
Could I comfortably settle into his orbit, a world that seemed less than welcoming to a white woman? Could I spout phrases like "jive turkey" with any level of ease and believability? (OK, maybe I watched Good Times a little too much as a kid.)
The McDonald’s ketchup confession had illuminated his brother’s take on racial issues.
I imagined the prospect of Thanksgiving or Christmas in the Ashford household feeling like a reverse "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner."
I pictured our relationship existing on an island somewhere, each of us unable to meld the other parts of our personal lives with one another. Having had so little dating experience, I was too immature to handle it properly.
I started to pull away. We went to our respective homes over Thanksgiving break and with the reality of finals staring us in the face upon our return to campus, it was easy to justify the distance. Somewhat casual in its nature anyway, the whole thing just sort of drifted.
We might have seen each other once or twice before the Christmas break, but I was not scheduled to return to campus the following semester for my study abroad in Kiel, Germany.
It was during my semester abroad that I started dating a fellow student who was minoring in German and whose German mother had given birth to him overseas, where he had lived until the age of five before relocating to his father’s hometown of Denver, PA.
All of which is to say, his and my worlds were equally white. We dated for four years.
As for Craig, we saw each other a few times before his graduation a year ahead of me. I knew that he was headed to Pitt to study prosthetic engineering. I sensed that his assessment of our prospect as soul mates was not the same as mine. It eroded our friendship.
I was living the single life in Denver when I received the phone call from Craig. He was living in Chicago and had tracked me down through my mother. I had thought of him so often over the years and wondered if I had mistakenly let the relationship go.
Maybe his visit would be the second chance I needed.
I recognized pretty quickly that the parts that didn’t fit then still didn’t quite fit a few years later. For me, at least. I suspect on some level perhaps for him as well, at least in his sensing my reluctance.
A visit that started out great ended awkwardly. I drove him to the airport in relative silence and we said our goodbyes. A few weeks later, I received an envelope in the mail full of pictures he had taken during his visit with no letter or acknowledgement inside.
It was the last I’d ever hear from him.
I still think about Craig often. I wonder if he has children and if he worries about their safety in these delicate times. It saddens me greatly to think he does.
It would be unfair to lay the outcome of this situation squarely at the feet of racism. Craig and I were different people, even outside of what I believe is ultimately a cultural divide.
He was by nature a sunny personality; I tended toward the negative. I felt it would wear on him over time, that my more depressive leanings would be another weight he’d have to bear in an already complicated world. It brought with it a sense of guilt on my part; I feared my disposition would break his good-natured spirit.
I worried the closer he got to those other sides of me, the less enamored he would become. I held Craig in great esteem; it bothered me to think that in seeing all of me he would ultimately think less of me.
We always appear better in others’ imaginations than we do in their realities.
Craig was a tad overprotective for my independent nature. He wanted to do things for me that I preferred doing myself.
He was conventional and spoke openly of his desire for children. I wasn’t sure I was destined for motherhood.
The racial aspects just felt like a whole other layer of muck to have to wade through.
I should be clear in saying that throughout our time together I never felt a threat of violence or concern for personal safety. And I recognize my "racist" sentiments were almost silly presumptions based mostly on the fact that up until that time the majority of "exposure" I’d had to the black community was through what the media had selectively presented to me: thugs on the street corner or decent families from the projects and the slums trying to make their way through life without their kids getting caught up in drugs and prostitution; professional athletes who leveraged their athletic ability to escape their upbringing because they saw no other way out for themselves.
But the race aspect was ever-present; it hung in the air like clouds of cigarette smoke in a German train car. It was the third party in the relationship. It lurked around corners and jumped out when you least expected it.
It attuned me to a definitive chasm between racial groups; a sense that human beings could essentially occupy the same space while navigating separate worlds. I witnessed an unspoken, mutually accepted and maintained divide.
But it also made me acutely aware of how other races are portrayed in the media; aware that, despite many advances in race relations, we still have a long way to go. And I am a better, more empathetic, more perceptive person for it.
As a white person, when all you’ve seen of the black community from the confines of your all-white hamlet are black men and women on Jerry Springer going at each other over a paternity test, your instinct will tell you to beware.
It causes neighbors to be all astir, concerned over impacts to their property values when a black family tours a home for sale next door. It makes store clerks look askance when a black man or woman enters.
And this suspicion, in turn, breeds resentment from the other side. And that physical distance becomes an emotional one.
I freely admit most of my presumptions about Craig as a black man were absurd and seemingly innocuous. The problem was my inability to see him not as a black man, but simply as a man.
But if I carried that with me into a career as a judge or prosecutor; a physician; or a school counselor, could it subconsciously affect how I adjudicated a case with a black defendant; treated a black patient; or counseled a black student?
When it comes to issues of racial inequality, I think perhaps the biggest battle is the war we must wage within ourselves. That self-reflection on our own thoughts and feelings that, unless recognized and rectified, can affect how we relate to the world outside our own.
We are all products of our society and personal experiences. Having feelings that might seem anathema to what we proclaim to hold true doesn’t make us bad people. It makes us human.
It wasn’t until I prepared to interview Wayne Harefor our Civil Conversations podcast last February that I even admitted to myself that any of those feelings I had harbored were racist in any way. But I found the recognition of it unexpectedly freeing. I’d never imagined that admitting this to myself would somehow unburden me of shame and guilt.
But it did. Because I now understand that having a clearer vision of myself makes me a better ally in the fight.