My Life Story, in Black and White

by admin on July 13, 2016

Warning: Going way off topic for this post. I’m not talking “black and white” as in chess pieces, I’m talking about it as in people. This is something I don’t do very often because people, unlike chess pieces, are not defined by their color. However, the things that have happened in the U.S. over the last week or so have made me want to say… something. Anything that can possibly increase understanding.

But I don’t want to talk politics, so I’m left with telling my individual experiences with black and white, which have been regrettably few.

I. It’s 1963, I’m 4 years old and going to pre-school. (Called “nursery school” back then.) My mother asks me what I think about the “colored” girl in my class. “Do you mean red? Blue?” I ask her. “There aren’t any red or blue people in my class.” At age 4, I am completely unaware of the difference between races. It was probably the last time.

II. It’s 1969. My family moves to Indiana, and my parents buy a house in an “integrated” neighborhood. In retrospect, I imagine that the huge house with seven bathrooms and a spiral staircase would have cost much more in a “white” neighborhood than an integrated one. Our next-door neighbors are black. Our relations are cordial but not close; I remember that when I was asked to sell magazine subscriptions as a class project for school, they bought one.

III. It’s 1971. My sister’s first boyfriend — okay, first serious boyfriend — is black. This is probably my first chance to really get to know a black person. He comes over to our house a lot; if memory serves correctly (and it may not), his home environment is not so stable and he really loves being with our family. He calls my mother “the Ur-mother.” I think that being around my sister and parents makes him more serious about school, and maybe helps him get his life on track. He goes to college at Amherst, but my sister is still in high school. Like most long distance relationships, it doesn’t work. I don’t know what became of him after that.

IV. It’s 1977, my junior year in college. A black student whom I knew slightly is running for student body president, and for some reason I decide to go all-in and help with his campaign. Like Obama, he’s a guy who is black but to the best of his ability avoids making race a campaign issue. His big issue is the lack of a student body constitution. Unfortunately, that issue is a complete snooze and he loses the election. I decide that I’m not cut out for politics.

But one mind-altering thing happens during this period. I go to a “black” event of some kind, maybe a gospel concert, and I am the only white (or nearly the only one) in an auditorium of black people. That had never happened before in my life, and I was very surprised by my reaction. It was an almost physical sense of pressure, conspicuousness, vulnerability. Until then I had thought that I was basically color-blind, but I realized that I was not. After that experience, which was only one hour in an all-black setting, I had a whole new respect for people like my sister’s ex-boyfriend, black people who are struggling every day and every hour to fit into a mostly-white world.

V. It’s 1985. I’m now an assistant professor at Duke University, which in case you didn’t know is in the south. Durham is a city with a very strong black community, which is mostly on the east side of town. Duke is, of course, on the west side.

Once a week I volunteer for Meals on Wheels, and my usual route takes me through a mostly black neighborhood. I love driving for Meals on Wheels, and it is probably my first chance ever to make friends with some older black people. One thing that’s totally clear is that “black people” is not a single, monolithic concept. They’re all different. There’s the ultra-conservative fire-and-brimstone preacher who is a big fan of Jesse Helms (or “Hellums,” as he pronounces it). There’s the tiny humpbacked woman who crocheted a blanket as a wedding present for me and my wife, which I still have. There’s a 90-year-old woman whom I delivered a meal to only one time (she was not on my regular route), who said words I’ll never forget: “I may not hear too good, and I may not see too good, but there’s nobody happier than I am to be alive.”

The very first person on my weekly route is a blind woman who talks with Jesus. She persuades me to come to her church one week, an African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church, a big denomination in North Carolina that I had never heard of before moving there. I feel just as uncomfortable and conspicuous there as I did at the concert in college. I sit way in the back, and there is no one within ten feet of me on either side. But then the preacher does a marvelous thing. Without looking my direction, he says, “I see some gaps out there, could we fill them in?” And soon there are people sitting next to me.

I’ve only been to two church services in my adult life. Maybe it’s good I’ve been to so few, because it means I still remember the sermon that day. The biblical text is Luke 19:5. A man named Zacchaeus goes to see Jesus and climbs up into a sycamore tree to watch him pass. Luke writes: “And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for today I must abide at thy house.” The preacher emphasizes the words “make haste,” and says that the meaning is that we must make haste to invite Jesus into our lives; we can’t wait around until tomorrow.

At a certain point in the service, newcomers and visitors are asked to introduce themselves and say what church they went to. I say, “I don’t go to church regularly,” which I’m afraid was a bit of a lie, because the truth was I didn’t go to church ever. I’m not a religious person or even a Christian except in a vague cultural sense. But that just seemed too harsh a thing to say in front of a room full of Christians. What was I supposed to do?

I also remember the gospel choir, who sing music that is so inspiring that it feels as if someone had poured fizzy water into your veins. At the end of the service, everybody is asked to shake hands with their neighbors, something that would have been challenging if they were still ten feet away from me. After the service I go down to the front row, where the blind woman was sitting, and thank her for inviting me. By the way, she never invited me again.

VI. It’s 2016. After we got married, Kay and I moved to a lily-white town in rural Ohio. The people there were so homogeneous that even having black hair (as opposed to blond or brown) is different and unusual. Then we moved to Santa Cruz, California, which also does not have very much of a black population, in spite of being an ultra-liberal college town politically. So for all these years, I have had almost no interaction with black people. Not a single close friend of mine is black. Not a single Facebook friend of mine is black. I realize that I live a somewhat impoverished existence, but I don’t see anything that I can do about it. You can’t just go up to someone and say, “I want to get to know you because you’re black.” It has to happen naturally.

So here we are, and like Zacchaeus I’m still up in a tree, watching from a distance, with nobody saying, “I must abide at thy house.” We all live in our own houses, and it’s more comfortable that way, but it means that we don’t get to talk very much.

A couple years ago the Black Lives Matter movement starts to be a thing, and then last week the killings by police in Baton Rouge and St. Paul happen. The revenge killings of police by a lone gunman in Dallas happen. Suddenly, at least on social media, race relations are a very big thing.

Last night I am watching “Sports Nation,” usually one of the funniest shows on TV, but it takes a much more serious turn. The four hosts start talking about two recent items of sports news: 1) A group that sang the Canadian national anthem at the baseball All-Star Game replaced one of the normal lines of the song with “all lives matter” (which has become a common rebuttal to “black lives matter”). It causes a storm of controversy in Canada, though not so much in the U.S. because no Americans know the words to the Canadian anthem. The group later apologizes and blames the change on one member. 2) Four off-duty policemen who work as security guards at Minnesota Lynx games (a Women’s NBA basketball team) walked off their security guard jobs to protest the players wearing t-shirts with “Black Lives Matter” on them.

The two black hosts of “Sports Nation,” Michael Smith and Marcellus Wiley, speak very articulately and (surprise!) they do not completely agree. (See above: “black people” is not a single entity.) Wiley says that he doesn’t like the “Black Lives Matter” slogan either, because it’s missing a word: The meaning of the phrase is “black lives matter, too.” I think this is a pretty important point. The first hundred times I read “black lives matter,” I interpreted it to mean “only black lives matter” or “black lives matter more.” It made me rather unenthusiastic about this movement. That’s the problem with living in a place with no black people and having no black friends; there was no one who could explain to me what the slogan was really supposed to mean, and why.

Smith, on the other hand, doesn’t care as much about the semantics. He says he was “disappointed” in the action of the security guards because they forgot that the police serve the community rather than vice versa.

My take is that words do matter, slogans matter, symbols matter. But there’s no way to change the slogan now; it has a life of its own. Over time, if the lines of communication stay open, people will come to understand what the words mean.

Also, actions speak louder than words. A couple days ago I did a Google search for “peaceful protest.” I was blown away by the number of peaceful protests that took place last weekend, in places I didn’t even know about. I made a partial list of them for a Facebook post:

Peaceful — Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Greensboro, Boston, Montgomery, Winston-Sa…lem, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Memphis, Buffalo, Charlotte, Denver, Miami, Detroit, Tupelo, Chicago, Omaha, New Orleans, Bismarck, Houston, Springfield, Evansville, Portland (ME), Dothan, Mansfield, York, Valencia, Louisville … Probably many more, but that was just the first 10 pages of Google hits.

Not peaceful — Dallas, St. Paul, Baton Rouge, Rochester

Not sure — Phoenix, Greenville

The trouble is that when a protest remains peaceful, it makes the local news. When something goes wrong, it makes the national news. To keep a sense of balance, we still have to talk with one another at the local level, and better still at the ultra-local level, in person. It’s a pity that this simple thing still seems so hard to do.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Roman Parparov July 13, 2016 at 9:23 am

The security guards who walked off the basketball game didn’t abandon their police duty. They were off duty making a side buck as security guards.


admin July 13, 2016 at 10:02 am

Thanks, I’ve changed “walked off the job” to “walked off their security guard jobs” to make this clear.


Roman Parparov July 13, 2016 at 10:15 am

My point is that Michael Smith is a demagogue who told a lie. The security guards serve the security company, not the community.


admin July 13, 2016 at 10:36 am

Just to make sure that I accurately report Smith’s comments, he understood that they were acting as security guards but he queried how they would act when they went back to their police jobs. Also, I think the part about serving the community was meant in greater generality, that police serve their communities and he thinks that they lose sight of this fact. You can disagree with him if you want, but I think that calling him a liar is too strong.


Roman Parparov July 13, 2016 at 10:51 am

Michael Smith has no grounds to query and to doubt how the police officers on duty would act. The public insinuation that they would not do their duty as policemen is the quintessential demagoguery. The statement “they forgot …” is a lie, thus Michael Smith is a demagogue and a liar.

That aside, the BLM movement and its proponents do no favor to the Black community in improving trust and cooperation with the law enforcement.

Jones Murphy July 13, 2016 at 12:11 pm

Roman Parparov, the black community heard very similar advice about abolitionists, and the Civil Rights movement. Dr King was murdered with about 30 % public approval. I expect history to be far kinder to BLM than to its foes

Erik Madsen July 13, 2016 at 8:42 pm

Very well written essay, Dana. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

I had a similar feeling of “a physical sense of pressure, conspicuousness, vulnerability” a few years ago when attending a wedding in the South Loop in Chicago. My friend, the bride, is Asian. She booked the wedding reception in a restaurant in Chinatown. After the wedding, a couple of my friends and I wanted to get another drink, but the restaurant was closing. We walked two blocks North and found a hotel bar. We walked in and saw 100 black faces. We were the only white people in the establishment. I was surprised by the intense feeling of conspicuousness that washed over me. Not fear or alienation, just conspicuousness. Perhaps I was startled to see a room full of African Americans when I thought I was in an Asian neighborhood. But neighborhoods in Chicago can change drastically in a block or two.

We sat down and ordered drinks, ended up talking with our neighbors at the bar. They explained most of the people in the bar were staying at the hotel for a large reunion- I can’t remember if it was a family or school reunion. They even bought us drinks and laughed that we were a bit of a novelty in the room.

Anyhow- I’ll never forget that feeling. It made me think about what it must feel like as a minority, often feeling conspicuous in a room full of white people.


paul B. July 14, 2016 at 9:20 am

Let’s get to the root of the protests: police use of excessive and lethal force. Why do they behave that way and how to we change those behaviors? I was stopped six times in a year for speeding at night and got a total of one ticket – for not having my seat belt buckled. Let’s look at me through the eyes of the cop.
– As he approaches my car, he sees a Marine Corps sticker. 10 Points.
– He also sees an “Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association” winged sticker. 10 points.
– Next to my driver door window, he sees an “Experimental Aircraft Association – Safety Through Education” sticker. 10 Points
– As soon as I pulled over, I turned on my interior car lights so the cop can see inside, relieving his anxiety about hidden dangers. 20 Points
– I place both hands on the steering wheel so he can see that I’m not armed. 20 Points
– I say “Good evening officer, I guess I must be doing something wrong or you wouldn’t have pulled me over”. I passed the all-important attitude test. 20 Points.
– I’m a white male. 10 Points.
– I’m middle age or older. 10 Points
– I humbly apologize for speeding, explaining that I was tired after a late flight and didn’t notice that my car had exceeded the limit.

He let’s me off with a warning. He’s not about to give an ex-Marine private pilot with a good attitude a speeding ticket when there are so many dirt-bags out there that are more deserving.

All that explains why the cop didn’t ticket me. Now we need to think about the cop who shoots someone dead. What went through his mind? Think Angry Birds. Think Frustration. Think Rage. Think Fear. Think Panic. Yes, think Race.


Roman Parparov July 14, 2016 at 12:54 pm

The “Good evening officer, I guess I must be doing something wrong or you wouldn’t have pulled me over” and “humbly apologize for speeding, explaining that I was tired after a late flight and didn’t notice that my car had exceeded the limit” is all what is necessary to stay out of any trouble.


paul B. July 14, 2016 at 1:37 pm

Not necessarily true. Cops have ticket quotas to fill, expressed or implied, and therefore they are not inclined to be lenient. The more reasons you can give them the better your chances of getting off. A black person especially should make it a practice to turn on interior lights and keep both hands visible as well as keeping license and other papers where they can be reached with the hands fully visible.


Roman Parparov July 18, 2016 at 9:17 am

A ticket is not a trouble. You don’t get bodily harm, let alone put your life in danger getting a ticket. A ticket is a small financial nuisance.


Edward July 14, 2016 at 5:45 pm

Great essay….Your allegory has convinced me to quit the Nimzo indian and go with the Gruenfeld. Thanks.


Gjon Feinstein July 18, 2016 at 2:04 am

After reading Paul B.’s comments, it occurred to me that while it is true there are things any/all drivers should do (as well as things to avoid) when pulled over by a cop, I feel the more important point/solution is that police need to receive better training for how to interact fairly with the public. Also, I believe cameras should be mandatory for all officers working in the field. These cameras should remain on at all times to help with accountability and improve future training considerations.

I would like to encourage everyone interested in the group “Black Lives Matter” to visit their website online to see what they are really about. You might be surprised!
I think the groups title is fine just as it is. The explanation for the groups name is offered on the Website as well as their positions on many important topics.



paul B. July 18, 2016 at 5:39 am

Gjon, you hit it exactly. Society has to focus on reshaping police behaviors and police culture through training and accountability.

Police have a tough job to do and in many cases they have to make split-second decisions but that does not give them a pass to use intimidation, excessive force or to use their guns except as a last resort. I interacted with police for four decades in my professional life and I’ve learned what goes on in their heads, and what goes on in their heads ain’t pretty. Society has to demand greater accountability and more professional behavior or social anger and violence will destroy us.


Roman Parparov July 18, 2016 at 8:43 am

“If you see a “buffalo” sign on an elephant’s cage, do not trust your eyes.” (C)

The vitriol the group produces once ‘Black’ is substituted with everything else in the title is self-explanatory.


Scott Massey July 18, 2016 at 5:33 am

A couple of years ago the police department tried body cameras on some offcers. It worked so well that they now have a camera on every cop. I’m not a big fan of cops but i was surprised at the results. Instead of catching the police abusing their power or being non politically correct. (I’m sure they also cleaned up their own acts.) The public actually statred behaving themselves. The number of resisting arrests dropped considerably and the number of people filing complaints about police brutality also dropped dramatically. People could no longer file charges when they were on camera assing up. So they work for both sides.


Roman Parparov July 18, 2016 at 8:33 am

As simple as that.


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