Crossing Color Lines

In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin trial, there's a certain group of white people who could use an infusion of empathy

It feels weird how often I still find myself having to come out in little moments of my daily life — a random conversation with a stranger who asks if I’m married, a store clerk who seems confused when I’m using my husband’s discount card, the nurse in a doctor’s office when I’ve ”corrected” some language on a form that’s not quite inclusive enough.

So I have enough ongoing experience of coming out as gay to know when the news isn’t taken well: that momentary loss of a smile, the sudden need to take care of another client, the retreat from a casual conversation. Even though those things happen less these days, they still hurt. Fear and rejection and hatred always do.

I do have some control over it. I can choose not to come out if I don’t feel like dealing with the drama because my days of flaming self-presentation are well back in my 20s. And I’m white, so I’m the epitome of the non-threatening man who gets treated in stores and businesses with a certain default level of respect. The salespeople who follow me want to increase their commissions for the month, not make sure I don’t pocket some merchandise. Wearing a T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops, I put my hand in the air for a cab with the full expectation of getting one, then notice the driver skipped the black guy in a suit half a block up from me.

Any person of color is going to have some tales about encountering racism — my husband, who’s Vietnamese-American, has been called all the variations of Asian slurs and shrugged them off with a good nature I would never be able to muster in the same situation. But what black men face every day in this country should give people, especially white people, pause.

Instead, there a lot of white people who just want black people to get over it because they think racism is over, except for reverse racism, which is now apparently the worst thing ever. Prominent, white, right-wing writers are completely comfortable advocating that that white kids should be taught to avoid blacks. Rush Limbaugh bemoans ”white guilt” by claiming whites did more than anyone to end slavery, even fighting a civil war to do it, conveniently forgetting that the war was fought with other white people who wanted to keep it.

It’s not just right-wing crazies. Plenty of otherwise reasonable white people have been perplexed in the angry aftermath of George Zimmerman being found not guilty of any crime for killing Trayvon Martin, wondering why black people are still so upset when the country has a black president. They doubt the stories from black men who’ve been followed through department stores, who’ve watched white people cross to the other side of the street, who’ve seen white women back nervously away from them in public spaces — and then they do those exact same things when they’re around black men.

I’m not preaching from some model of virtue in race relations, because I’ve been conditioned to have those same reactions and it took me far too long to get some self-awareness about it. But I’ve listened and learned that it’s not a left-wing plot of Limbaugh’s ”white guilt” to want to explain that those reactions are racist and wrong. Instead, it’s just an extension of basic human empathy, something we seem to have far too little of these days when it comes to race. We need fewer white people perpetuating racism by teaching fear to their kids, and more of them considering the fear they would feel if their own children had to face the daily, corrosive drip of racism in their lives.

Sean Bugg is the co-publisher of Metro Weekly. You can email him at sbugg@MetroWeekly.com or follow him on Twitter, @seanbugg.

Sean Bugg is Editor Emeritus for Metro Weekly.

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