White-splaining race relations through the lens of my own fragility was not on my 2020 Goal List. Yet ten months into the year of the pandemic I find myself uncomfortably engaged in, and enraged with, a country torn along political and racial lines; a headful of violent visions and vitriolic voices ripping my heart, seemingly sending the country I was raised to love and serve and respect to the verge of irreconcilable division. It’s fucking maddening.
On one hand I know I could just put my head in the sand, work on my short game, and go get lost in Netflix. But men of a certain age and station in life, me included, have the privilege of retreating to the soft glow of plasma screens spewing pseudo-information and clickbait, inviting me to finger my keyboard and phone with short emotion-filled messages of wisdom. A rabid dog coupled with a clever Twitter-pseudonym is a dangerous combination.
It is easy for me to get disoriented in the fog of all the politicized rancor facing us today. It’s impossible for me to choose an ideological bent that addresses one issue without offending supporters of another issue. #BLM doesn’t stand alone here. For example I can’t support a strong military and universal health coverage (you know, the kind the military and congress have) without being dubbed a bleeding heart Libtard. NATO, which in my mind pushes the battlefield from my backyard to their backyard is somehow fiscally irresponsible. Honestly, overpaying a little to get that buffer and that intelligence used to let me sleep at night. The glaring exceptions are the Anti-Mask and Pro Life contingents which seem to coexist together. That just make me throw up my hands laugh.
In my view, racial inequality is the cancer that will cause our country to disintegrate under its own weight. Intuitively I know I have a horse in this race. I have a responsibility, a calling to make things better in my community but I struggle to understand how, where, and when I should act. Thus I reflect on my own past to, hopefully, point me in the right direction.
Thanks to my father’s military career I spent a large portion of my formative years identifying in some way as a minority. I’ve been an American living in Germany, a haole coming of age in Hawaii, and a 61 year old long-form comedic improvisor. Along the way I learned to adjust and cope with languages, customs and points of view that were very different from the military/Catholic home I was raised in.
During the the late 1960’s I lived on an Army base outside of Stuttgart, Germany (1969-1971). The civil disorder and social unrest rampant across the United States during this timeframe was literally an ocean away. At 10 years old, the closest thing to protesting I saw was sharing the base chapel on Sundays with Protestants. Until that time, I didn’t know there was any other religion than Catholicism, and the word “Protestant” naturally conjured up images of the Look or Time Magazines’ coverage of protesting. This somehow morphed in my mind to believing military service was actually a vaccine to racial inequality as service members of all faiths, races and ages were united and in lockstep with one another to face the common foe. In my mind, this was the solution the protesters in the streets needed; it was just the better way to live.
Upon returning to Hawaii (1972-1977) for my teenaged years I was indoctrinated into a new era of race consciousness. In Hawaii, everybody is a minority; it is a melting pot of ethnicities with 25% multi-cultural, 20% haoles, and the balance a mix of Asian, Pacific Islanders, and Hispanic, etc. This allowed me to develop a naturally reflexive empathy and appreciation for other races and cultures, along with an opportunity to adopt parts of different cultures into my own. But I forget how much work it took on my part to get to the acceptance part. Ultimately I had friends visit my home who had never been in a haole’s home before, and conversely, I was the first haole in some of their homes. There were girls who I could meet up with, but they would not formally date me in public. I shrugged it off, but obviously haven’t forgotten. The best lesson I learned during those years is to listen, learn and show respect to other cultures. I had/have lots to learn.
There is a song from that era by Keola and Kapono Beamer, Mr Sun Cho Lee that ends with,
“One thing I notice about dis place,
All of us guys, we tease the other race
It’s amazing we can live in da same place”
The cute ditty takes shots at several racial stereotypes, but closes with the acknowledgement that we all find a way to work and live well together.
The flip side for me, I now realize, is that while my heart may be open, my sense of humor can be tricky. In short I just got lazy, believing that everybody thought like I did. Following the Beamer’s lead with using humor to deal with race relations has resulted, more often than not, in being regarded as tone deaf and insensitive rather than as open-minded and accepting. It is tough to build quality relationships when tone deafness and insensitivity are perceived character traits. The Blazing Saddles humor of the 70’s just doesn’t sell in the new millennium. I have come to realize the world doesn’t need to change for me, I need to change for the world.
In 2015 I got involved with classes and performing long-form improv comedy. I’ve written several posts on this experience trying to fit in and establish a rapport with my much younger classmates. I struggled to find relevance in a world I didn’t feel I could relate to. I kept at it, I keep at it primarily because of the love and support of these millennials who refused to let me slip away. It was the collective extended-hand of the majority reaching out to me, the minority, that allowed me to find a way to thrive and contribute.
Several years ago Jake and Somers Compton, owners of the Harrisburg Improv Theatre (HIT), set up a scholarship fund to help people of color interested in taking classes. With the theatre closed due to Covid, Jake was looking to brainstorm other ideas to help eradicate systemic racism in our community.
Enter Mike Fitzgerald. In early August, Mike, a local Harrisburg artist, announced he was looking to create a Black Lives Matter mural somewhere in Harrisburg. Jake and Somers could not have volunteered the side of their building for this project fast enough. I loved the idea, donated for supplies, and then reached out to ask if he had time to talk “race” with an old white guy. I went looking for that difficult conversation.
About 3 minutes into our introductions, it turns out he not only had lived in Germany as well, we lived on the same Army base, literally, directly across the street from one another (albeit 3 years apart). We talked about the Gummy Bears store outside the side gate, the bus stop where we would pour water on the hill at night to create an ice slide, the youth center, the ball fields, and crabapple fights with German kids over the security fence. We laughed and howled at the shared memories. In three minutes, Mike and I discovered our respective childhood experiences were inexplicably intertwined and we had far more in common than either of us would have guessed.
When I met Mike in person during the painting of the mural, with masks on ofcourse, we hugged like long lost brothers.
After the unveiling, people drew closer to the wall to get photos and read the individual affirmations posted around the mural. One group of volunteers stood together for a photo when a man with a bullhorn started the chant, “Hands up!”.
“Don’t shoot!” some of the crowd, replied.
“Hands up!” The leader chanted.
“Don’t shoot!” more voices joined in, with hands above their heads..
I definitely felt like an outsider; I was uncomfortable, standing closer to the street, my own Wall of Vet, if you will. I was ready for counter-protestors and possibly violence, but had not even considered participating in a chant.
I joined in on the 4th or fifth round, putting my hands in the air, “Hands up!”
I choked and couldn’t get the ‘shoot’ out of my mouth, the swell of emotion blocking the air; I could not breathe. I watched the group standing proudly, gratefully, that their voices were heard, that their lives mattered, that people, white, Hispanic, Asian, people of all colors and creeds not only cared, but had came out to support. They stood proudly in front of the mural voicing these sad, pathetic words with a familiarity that made me sick. In this moment I felt a depth of pain for my fellow Americans who have been enduring this crap for over 400 years. As much as I think I have processed and prayed and been “woke”, none of that could prepare me for the visceral feeling of connection and empathy with the black community that has been disenfranchised by my white majority.
Haters call it “Drinking the Kool-Aid”. My predominantly white suburban social circles and fellow club members roll their eyes and instinctively conflate the anarchist/white supremacist violence with a Black Lives Matter protest. This is grossly unfair and emblematic of the phrase ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water’. I understand how people from an uninformed distance equate the BLM movement with violence and destruction, as much as Catholic priests are equated with sexual abuse, or policemen with domestic violence, and of course, politicians with corruption. If any of these groups are your people, you know as well as I do that a few bad apples do exist, always will exist; but they shouldn’t sour the core message or the entire institution.
Please read the BLM Mission Statement.
Let me be clear: My children’s lives, your children’s lives, nobody’s lives should be reduced to a sugary drink metaphor. We need to be better.
I don’t know why Black Lives Matter has grabbed my attention at this stage of my life, but it has. What I have learned about myself is although I may not have been an intentional racist or sexist pig per se`, I definitely have not been the advocate for any minority or less privileged people in the way that I could , or should have been. More to the point, I want to make people in my life feel the way the millennials in the improv community made me feel: I am seen. I am heard. I am valued. It feels really good to accepted for who I am.
Protesting may not be for you, but if fingering your phone is getting a little old and not providing the change you’re looking for, here are some suggested readings that have been helpful to me in reassessing my fragility.
The Bible: Luke, Chapter 15
The U.S. Constitution – Group of white separatists, some were slave owners
The Hate You Give – Angie Thomas
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us – Hanif Abdurraqib
Displaced – Linda Schwab (Holocaust survivor and Harrisburg resident)
The Tradition – Jericho Brown
Political AF : A Rage Collection – Tara Campbell
The Color of Law – Richard Rothstein
Deep, raw essays, stories and poems that challenged my thinking and provided a much needed punch to the gut, but I think you will find it is worth it.
I may not be the man I could be. I may not be the man I should be. But thank God I’m not the man I used to be.