Dear President Trump,
I’ve probably told you before about my favorite introvert workday lunch routine, but in case I haven’t or it was a long time ago, I’ll tell you really quickly that it involves eating a lunch I brought from home while studiously ignoring email and reading NPR for about 20 minutes. This is what I was doing yesterday when I came across a headline over a picture of a young African American man seated at a drum set, smiling warmly at someone off camera. I thought the headline read: “Lawrence Leathers, Grammy-Winning Jazz Drummer, Suspected of Murder.” I’m not sure what caused me to do a double-take, but I remember my heart lurching as I tried to square this smiling, friendly image with the idea that he had killed someone (I don’t know his music so this was the first time I’d encountered him). Whatever it was that led me to look again at the headline, when I re-read it my heart and my stomach both lurched because what the headline actually said was “Lawrence Leathers, Grammy-Winning Jazz Drummer, Victim Of Suspected Murder.”
I felt as though a very large rug was violently pulled out from under me and like I was abruptly on the floor on my ass. Not only was this young smiling man dead because someone else killed him, but I had not read the headline properly and thus had not seen him in a profoundly skewed way; I don’t think I would have made this mistake if the paired image was of a white person. I took the words of the headline in and scrambled them through my filter that subconsciously is still clogged with assumptions about black men and violence.
Going back to the song the kids sang in church on Sunday that I told you about yesterday (“No One Breathes”) and the lines that go:
Stop tryin’ to make them all monsters cuz’ you can’t see the similarities
They’ve tried so hard all of these centuries
But you don’t believe cuz’ you don’t really wanna see
I don’t think my mistake, or all the other such mistakes I’ve made and will no doubt make, was motivated by not really wanting to see this black man’s humanity or black people’s humanity generally. I don’t think that’s the case. And I do think there’s a difference between being racist and being ‘a racist,’ such that the former is about behavior (to include thoughts, emotions, and attitudes) that may or may not be egosyntonic (and it’s the dissonant side of this that’s important here), while being ‘a racist’ signal to me that holding beliefs about racial superiority and inferiority is central to who the person is and that they have made conscious choices about these beliefs. So, for example, I do believe that you qualify as ‘a racist’ even though you are among the legions who don’t (publicly) claim the title and I base this on your unapologetic, consistent nastiness towards most people of color.
However, just because someone like me may not be ‘a racist,’ it doesn’t let me off the hook when I engage in racist behavior like I did yesterday. I’m grateful that something got through to me and made me re-read that headline so I could see my mistake, but this is a wake-up call that I can’t be complacent. It is a reminder that I have to pay attention to who is actually in front of me and what is actually real because my filters are still clogged by conditioned bullshit that keeps me from seeing and appreciating people and situations as they are.
There’s a beautiful photo essay in the WP by a photographer named Sarah Stacke about a photographer named Hugh Mangum who took portraits of people in North Carolina and Virginia at the turn of the 20th century. There are several sets of images from his negatives and they all have a mix of white and African American people mostly looking very serious in their best clothes. In the closing paragraph I think Stacke takes some presumptive liberties in interpreting the sitters’ motives, but I love the last sentence:
“After entering Mangum’s studio, people sat resolutely, curiously, gracefully, dreamily and politely before his lens. Many played — Mangum encouraged it. And there were those who sought a portrait because, despite living in a time full of restrictions, many of which were enforced with violence, they believed in a life without limits. A photograph was one way to divine a fragment of that life, whether it was social mobility, unrestricted love, equality or whatever “limitless” personally meant to someone. In Mangum’s archive, boundaries — in life and in photographic space — are blurred, subverted, defied and overthrown. After all, being seen is what begins a revolution.”
May we all be safe to be visible and seen.
May we be happy to check ourselves and our mental filters.
May we not allow our prejudices to get the best of us or to take reality from us.
May you not start a war.