Last week, the nice lady who lets me do research for The Lighthouse (that would be Natalie) asked me to put into writing how it was that I “handle being the only white person in the room.” My first reaction was to wonder why the question was even necessary.“Mixing easily with non-whites should be effortless to anybody with any confidence,” I boasted in my jaunty Scottish brogue. Then I giggled at my own bulls**t.
The truth is it’s more complicated than that—Natalie, you reading this and I know it. The truth is white people in Mississippi sometimes don’t work well in a majority-minority environment. That included me, too, once. It has everything to do with our upbringing.
I was born in 1969, about five years after the last documented Mississippi lynching. My youth covered the decades that Mississippi leaders spent closing public pools and city parks rather than allowing Black children access to them. These were the heady years of white flight; white people scurried from schools and cities like a wave of pink, chittering, mole-rats. When the law stepped in and took away our terrorist weaponry (the lynching, sundown towns and so forth), running away came to define us, as a people.
We stashed ourselves in suburban “white islands,” where everybody looks and thinks alike. It’s the kind of place where you can become so separated from your fellow man that your children forget your fellow man is even human. Heck, they might even drive over him, like some kind of opossum speed bump, in a horrible act of terrorism.
My mom, a small-town nurse, had Black co-workers who adored her, and she knew the various men she brought into the house shouldn’t use the N-word. But her various men still tended to throw the word around like a Smurf using the word “smurf” in place of every adjective or noun in a sentence, if you get what I mean: “Man, you really ‘smurfed’ that engine up by not keeping oil in it” … “Hey, the windshield wipers wore out. Think we can ‘smurfy-rig’ it with pool noodles?” … “Dude, I am broke as a ‘smurf’ this weekend ‘cuz I drank all the cash again. Hope y’all kids weren’t hungry.” Things like that.
My own perspective was probably on the path to being just as small-minded. That was, until my mom married a man who ran a halfway house for recovering addicts in west Jackson. The halfway house was a NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard), so a neighborhood with money and influence could afford to keep it out. The folks in west Jackson had neither money nor influence, so they didn’t put up a fight. This meant that my mom and I were soon on our way to a transitional community in the throes of poverty and white flight. You see, 1980s-era west Jackson was in the finishing stages of demographic change. This left little ole me as one of maybe 20 white kids speckling an army of cherubic, Black faces at a west Jackson junior high school.
The choices for a white-saturated country kid like me were either to talk to scary, dark people, or to keep my head on my desk all the time. Keeping my head on the desk just wasn’t an option because I stank at taking notes and always had to ask people around me what the teacher had just said. Thankfully, I developed a small support group of nerds and freaks my age who felt the same way I did about comic books and Decepticons. It didn’t matter that when we all stood together we looked like somebody had draped the Bear Brotherhood Flag on a bunch of kids. We needed each other’s comfort when we made fools of ourselves in gym class or got beat up by a girl again or whatever.
After being so dependent upon my non-white neighbors, it was only a matter of time before I started dating some of them. This was how I found the person who later married me. She rode the school bus with me in high school, in fact. Later on, we had a son—who expanded my cultural sensitivity even further by not only being Black but also being LGBT.
This late in life, my non-white family still has to occasionally educate me and guide me with their unique perspective. And, yes, they still sometimes save me from being an insensitive lout. I can’t call my crap car “ratchet” anymore, because it sounds like hell coming out of a white man’s mouth. Thanks to them, I’m also sensitive to duplicitous social code. I recognize, for example, how a push for private schools or charter schools is actually code for an assault upon a fair and equal public education system. And I catch the coded-racism behind a president describing a majority-black city as “infested,” or telling a group of duly-elected minority representatives to “go home.”
The people in my life also make me perceptive to the billion or so hideous little social injustices that plague racial minority groups every day. I’ve watched my wife’s sparkling resume (with its pretty obviously non-white name at the top) get passed over by potential employers, while her under-qualified white friend nabs every interview. (I know he’s under-qualified because my talented wife rewrote the white dude’s resume for him, because he’s a dumb tonker.)
I’m not saying you need to be saturated with non-whites to “get it,” per se. I am saying, however, that a lot of whites who aren’t, don’t. A racially-inclusive childhood can help you understand that words like “friend,” “American,” and “human” can’t be constrained to a certain look. The vitriol rolling off of Fox News pundits over immigrants and brown people would evaporate if every terrified, old, white Fox viewer saw everybody as “human,” or “American,” or “future American,” rather than “other.”
For a lot of people, this comes easily. For others, like me, it didn’t at first. And sometimes you have to push a stubborn, fearful jellyfish right on out of his comfort zone. If barriers aren’t thrown down by outside forces, the coward behind it may never venture forth, and that’s the problem with plenty of people in Mississippi and elsewhere. When a race isolates itself on an island of identical people, it does itself a disservice. When its children grow up unable to identify with someone of a different color, or someone who talks faster, or laughs louder, or calls them an idiot when they’re being racially obtuse, they are cheating themselves.
This isn’t just about the insensitivity that typically comes of never being able to see the world through somebody else’s eyes. If your experience is limited to an enclave of cookie-cutter clones, you’ll be prone to panic when you’re out of your element, and few good decisions come of panic. You’ll panic and shoot a kid with a bag of candy, or you’ll panic at the ballot box and vote for a racist ignoramus who’ll kill your healthcare, burn your world and poison your children with mercury. The truth of the matter is that voluntary segregation generally makes you a fearful moron, and that’s one knock of stupidity, at least, I’m glad I managed to duck.