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Last week, my wife and I were driving to Washington DC to attend our daughter’s graduation ceremony when we stopped at a convenience store in western Maryland. While Eva went inside, I sat at a picnic table in a grassy area beside the store. On the sidewalk in front of me, a middle-aged Black woman walked by minding her own business, and an old white guy walked about eight feet behind her. He looked to be about 65 years old, medium height, pot belly hanging over his belt. His white beard and hair were cut short. He wore jeans, tee shirt, running shoes, and a billed cap with the logo of a sports team. In fact, he looked and dressed a lot like me. In a police lineup, witnesses could easily have confused us with each other. As the man walked behind the Black woman, he waved his hand in front of his face, looked at me, and said, “No amount of perfume can cover the stink.”
It took me a moment to realize that he was talking about the Black woman in front of him, and by the time I comprehended the import of his comment, he and the woman had gotten in their respective cars and driven off, headed in the same direction toward Washington DC. As I thought about his impromptu joke, I felt anger rising in me. I was offended by the naked racism of the man’s statement, and I was also offended that the man obviously thought that I would be amused by his nasty witticism.
“What’s the matter?” Eva asked as we got back on the highway.
I didn’t want to spoil the pleasant mood we’d been enjoying on our trip so far, so I just shrugged and smiled. She wasn’t fooled but didn’t press the issue, and it was a few days before I told her about the incident.
“Imagine how that Black woman felt!” she said.
“I don’t think she heard the comment,” I said.
“She’s heard that kind of thing all her life, I’m sure,” Eva responded. “Imagine what that does to a person! The guy can only say that about her because he doesn’t see her as an individual, but as an object. That, to my mind, is the root of the problem. He doesn’t grant her personhood.”
That afternoon, we heard on NPR that a white man had walked into a grocery store in Buffalo, New York and shot 13 people, killing ten of them, all of them Black and wounding three others, two of them white and one black. One of the dead was a security guard, Aaron Salter, who’d returned fire and was praised for saving lives. As more details were reported in the media, we learned the shooter had used an AR-15 rifle with the n-word scrawled on the stock. He was wearing body armor and used a helmet camera to livestream the shootings on the internet. We also learned that the alleged gunman had written in his blog a few months before about staging a livestreamed attack on African Americans. He posted hand-drawn maps of the grocery store along with tallies of the number of Black people he could murder if he followed his detailed strategy. The 180-page online diary details a reconnaissance visit the writer made to Buffalo, about 200 miles from his home. The document gives detailed assessments of various weapons that readers may want to purchase, sort of a shopper’s guide for mass murderers, and he explains that his attack in Buffalo is intended to terrorize all non-Christian people and get them to leave the country. He also exhorts readers to kill agents from the FBI and ATF.
The alleged shooter is only 18 years old. His diary states that he responded to a question about retirement planning in his economics class by saying he wanted to commit a murder-suicide, and as a result, school administrators forced him to be psychologically evaluated. In hindsight, it’s clear that officials should have invoked New York’s “red flag” regulation, which allows law enforcement, school officials and families to petition a court to order the seizure of guns from people considered dangerous. Also, federal law bars people from owning guns if a judge has determined they have a “mental defect” or if they have been forced into a mental institution.
It’s difficult for most of us to understand what would cause a young man to spend months planning an attack on strangers because of their race; however, it seems to me that the incident at the truck stop in Maryland points to the heart of the problem.
I grew up on the outskirts of Houston, Texas in the 1950s and 60s, and in that culture, it was completely normal for white people to hate Black people. I remember when I was five years old, there was an old Black woman who worked as a housekeeper in our neighborhood. One afternoon as she walked down the sidewalk to the bus stop, half a dozen white children taunted her, screaming the n-word at her. The look on her face was so full of pain that I remember it to this day. I’m ashamed to say that I was one of those children. Let me add that my parents tried to teach racial tolerance to me and my siblings. My father would angrily correct us if we used the n-word, and my mother’s response was even harsher. The n-word was for her an obscenity, and she would wash our mouths out with soap if we used it. I knew that saying the word was wrong, and yet I didn’t hesitate to use it in the same vicious way as my playmates. A few days later I was alone in our yard when I saw the old Black woman walking toward me. When she recognized me as one of her tormentors, she showed that same painful sadness she’d displayed a few days before, obviously expecting me to taunt her, but instead I smiled and greeted her as I would’ve greeted one of my aunts, and the old woman smiled back at me and said, “Hello, Sweetie.” I remember both the shame of being part of a cruel mob of children, and the joy and relief of making an amend and being forgiven.
In this country, racism is a problem caused by people who look like me, and yet it is talked about almost exclusively by Black people because they’re the ones who suffer its effects. White people don’t spend a lot of time talking about racism. Right-wingers dismiss racism as a talking point that black people use to get special treatment while left-leaning white people simply state that racism is an evil tendency among other white people, but not themselves. I’ve even heard progressive white people claim that they “don’t see race,” usually waving a hand in front of their eyes to indicate their politically correct blindness. It is my opinion (which left-leaning white people have yelled at me for expressing) that if racism is defined as pre-judging people based on race, then everyone in America – white, black and brown — is a racist. Race is the first thing we notice, and noticing inevitably leads to judging. Let me add that I can’t blame Black people for pre-judging white people, considering there are people who look like me gunning down strangers with dark skin.
Whenever the topic of racism comes up on network news, it’s always Black people and only Black people who are discussing it, analyzing it, and denouncing it. It is essential that those of us who are of European descent join the discussion. It is after all, our problem. Black people didn’t invent racism, we did; or rather our white predecessors in Europe and America who needed a moral justification for a very profitable slave-trade. Labeling Africans as subhuman made slavery possible. We, that is people who look like me, need to look within ourselves and recognize that even the best-intentioned of us do indeed pre-judge people based on skin color; and then, we need to confront the haters among us. So, should I have yelled at the racist in the truck stop? Would my condemnation have changed his mind, made him more tolerant? Of course not. He would have either shouted back at me, or simply walked away thinking I was a looney liberal.
We cannot defeat racism by using the tools of racists. That is, we cannot convince people not to be racist by accusing them of being subhuman. As the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says,
We are committed to respecting the right of others to be different, to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, learn to help others let go of and transform fanaticism and narrowness through loving speech and compassionate dialogue.
The racist that spoke to me in the rest area beside a convenience store in rural Maryland is not my enemy. He is my brother. Given the chance, I would sit down with him at the picnic table with the trucks roaring by on their way to the nation’s capital, and I would tell him why the woman he insulted is not any different than his wife, his sister, or his daughter. If this nation is going to survive the scourge of racism, white people need to start talking honestly and lovingly to each other, and once we do, we’ll be ready to talk with black and brown people about making amends and reparations.
Is this strategy overly optimistic? Can the virulent racism of millions of white people be overcome by simply talking and listening to them? I’m not entirely sure whether a national colloquy would move us in the right direction, but I think we should try. After all, talking helps us overcome other problems. Talk therapy often works for addiction, trauma and damaged marriages, so why wouldn’t it work for racism which, it seems to me, is an addiction, a trauma, and a damaged marriage between the two most influential racial groups in this country.
The Black activist and historian Austin C. McCoy has responded to the racist attack in Buffalo by calling for “a diversity of tactics, ranging from community protection and self-defense to mutual aid and deprogramming and deradicalizing white Americans.” Perhaps if I had been quicker on the draw, so to speak, I could have confronted the racist at the truck stop, invited him to sit with me at the picnic table, and asked him what he meant by his joke. He and I could have explored what it is to be white in America and what we must do to shed the legacy of racism. Perhaps I would have a chance to explain to him that it’s not such a bad thing for America to become less white, less European, and more multicultural. Fear of displacement is not a new phenomenon in America; in fact, dealing with the turmoil of absorbing new groups is an important part of being an American. The Anglos and Scot-Irish who dominated nineteenth century America were afraid of the influx of German and Irish immigrants who were later, in turn, afraid of the influx of Italians and eastern Europeans. And all of them were afraid of the Latinos and Native Americans whom the Europeans had displaced. And yet, with mixed Irish, English, German, French, and Cherokee blood, and with two of my brothers marrying Latinas and having children, and my aunt marrying a Syrian and having children, my family is a living embodiment of the principle of cultural fusion.
The American working class also needs to understand that the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs is not caused by immigrants taking them away, nor by one’s Jewish or Sikh neighbors, but rather by multi-national corporations, aided by corrupt politicians, closing factories and moving production overseas. The ruling class in America has always used the concept of race to divide working people and keep us from overthrowing the oligarchs. The fellow in the truck stop needs to understand that Black people are our brothers and sisters, just as he and I are brothers.
My scenario of a friendly dialogue with the racist who looks like me is a fantasy, of course, but we need to start somewhere and what better place to start than by reaching out to our own doppelgängers, our angry brothers in MAGA caps who are hiding in shadows, typing on websites, nurturing their hatreds. Perhaps we can help them let go of some of their bigotry before it explodes in the next frenzy of blood and terror.
Michael Simms is the founding editor of Vox Populi: A public sphere for poetry, politics and nature. His latest publications are two books of poetry, American Ash and Nightjar, and a novel Bicycles of the Gods: A Divine Comedy coming out in August 2022.
Copyright 2022 Michael Simms