I’m going to take a break from the accidental plague diaries this evening to tackle a different subject, one that’s certainly very much on the minds of those that live in the South, the question of the underlying issues of race and class that always simmer but that are currently exploding in Minneapolis. I posted a short message earlier today about not being able to truly understand the African-American experience, as I am obviously not a member of that group, but at the same time needing and wanting to listen rather than to speak. I did that because I am tired of reading inanities from white people about ‘how they don’t see color’ or how ‘they understand the feelings but they don’t understand the actions’ and I didn’t want to write about such a charged subject without some input from my friends of color with lived experience.
The message that I received was one of ‘please – speak’ that I, as a white male of a certain age and privilege associated with my educational background and title, and with a bit of a following for my writings needs to be the sort of person that identifies and calls out injustice for what it is. So this essay is my feeble attempt to speak up for fellow humans pushed past what humans should endure by systems that were created and continue to by silently enforced by powers out of their control. What is happening in Minneapolis is a perfectly understandable reaction to the continued abuse of black and brown male bodies by a system that considers them suspect at best and disposable at worst. This is then combined with a gaslighting by the media practicing ‘bothsidesism’ which tells the population that they aren’t really seeing what they’re actually seeing and with a disastrous and rapidly decaying economic system due to the pandemic which is hitting working class people of color harder than most other populations. I’ve studied enough history to know that revolutions are born when enough parents cannot feed their children and that the class that’s hoarded the wealth at that juncture usually ends up with their heads on pikes.
I’ve heard a lot of ‘tut tut’ about the riots and about how can they destroy their own community. Again, knowing a bit about history, I would suspect that the majority of businesses catering to that community are not owned locally and are not putting money and resources back into that community but rather are profiting individuals who wouldn’t be caught dead actually living in that neighborhood. Decades of redlining, bank restrictions, interstates plowing through African-American neighborhoods and bypassing White neighborhoods, and wholesale destruction of African-American economic success (Tulsa anyone?) have created pent up communities with pent up rage. And when African-Americans have the wherewithal to move on up they are often forced to endure the hundreds of slights, large and small that face them when they are seen in traditionally white social spaces. The birder in Central Park is only the latest story. Working some in the classical music world, I have heard so many tales of African-American musicians dissed in the audience for a symphony or opera as some privileged white person assumes they cannot understand or appreciate the art form.
About twenty years ago, I had spent the night in downtown Indianapolis. I left the hotel about 9 the next morning and was attempting to find the entrance to the interstate. I didn’t know the city. Half of downtown seemed to be a construction zone making things even more confusing and, on my way to the on ramp, I missed a stop sign and rolled through it while searching for my next turn. That’s when I was stopped by the police car that was tailing me and whom I had not noticed due to my intense search for something that would tell me I was going the right way. The cop came up to the window and demanded to know if I was drunk; I said no, just a lost tourist. Let me give you my license and registration and reached for the glove compartment. He immediately went into react mode (I guess he thought I might have a gun in there) but eventually he realized I really was just lost, he gave me directions, told me to be careful and waved me on. It occurred to me later, that if my skin color were anything other than white, he could quite likely have shot me but it didn’t cross my mind at the time that was a possibility. That was my white privilege – something that my friends of color just wouldn’t have in a similar situation.
Over the last forty years, I have learned a lot about white privilege and how real it is. The above is just one small example. As a white male with a professional degree, I receive a lot of deference socially that I don’r really think I deserve and which I try not to use or rely on too much. I’ve always tried to live in racially mixed neighborhoods and I’ve always tried to have a wide variety of friends with a vast array of life experiences from whom to learn. When Steve and I moved to Birmingham all those years ago, we refused to live over the mountain or in suburbia – we wanted a real urban neighborhood. I’ve seen a lot of my peers start out life this way but, as they marry and have children, they have closed themselves off to these experiences in the name of protecting or providing better opportunities for their kids. This keeps their social capital within a segmented community of people like themselves, rather than flowing out among other communities. Perhaps I’ve been able to keep my eyes and ears more open as I am childless.
I have my own minority status. I’m an openly gay man in an openly homophobic society. When I moved to Birmingham, I learned some things very quickly. Don’t walk to close to your partner. Don’t hold his hand. Don’t put anything identifiable like a rainbow sticker on the car. Don’t wear certain clothes other than in safe spaces. I wasn’t prepared for some of the nastier things that happened early on like the HVAC tech, who when he figured out he was on a call to a gay household, deliberately plugged the drain line in the condensation pan in the attic so that Niagara falls poured through the dining room ceiling a few weeks later, but I learned how to navigate and earn a modicum of respect from both UAB and Birmingham at large. I can hide my minority status if I need to and pass to the casual observer as something that I am not, another privilege. It’s funny, I’m now old enough that if I’m more flamboyant in public, it’s no longer seen as a threat but more as a harmless eccentricity of the rapidly aging. Probably the same social thing that gives elderly character actors like Ian Mackellan a pass in Hollywood but that prevents leading man types from coming out.
I’ve been doing house calls for thirty some years now. I started doing them in the early 90s when they were almost unheard of as it became clear to me early on in my career that there were certain geriatric patients where it made a lot more sense for the doctor to go to them than for them to come to the doctor. It didn’t take too many years of home care in California for me to spend a lot of time in homes of all ethnicities and classes of people. I’ve taken care of people in tar paper shacks without running water and in elegant family mansions that were built by great great gandparents more than a century ago. Spending a lot of time in other peoples homes teaches you a lot about respect for other people, their circumstances, how they rise to their challenges, and how they view the world. One thing I have learned is that White America can learn a lot from Black American about the meaning of family and kinship and care. The amount of love and pride in accomplishment present in Black homes and the care that is shown to their less able members is incredibly gratifying. Most White Americans don’t know this because they generally don’t enter Black personal spaces. It’s always interesting to take a med student or resident who is a Birmingham native, usually white from an upper class suburb, around on house calls. They have no idea what neighborhoods other than their own are like or how they operate or even that cultures other than their own exist.
So, in the words of my cousin Sojie, I am declaring that I am not an ally in the fight against institutional racism. I am an accomplice. I will call out racism where I see it. I will do my best to treat all of my patients equally no matter what race or class they may come from and how they may view the world. I will support arts that speak to communities of color. (I was given an amazing opportunity by Birmingham Black Repertory Theater this year to be part of their inaugural production of Choir Boy and am proud to support Encore Theater and Gallery). I will listen to my friends, neighbors and colleagues in the African American Community and try to help them get their messages through to people in power where and when I can (and they shouldn’t feel afraid to call on me if they think my voice will help). It’s the least I can do in these troubling times and even though our elected leaders cannot find it within themselves to see the problems, I don’t wish to be part of those problems, despite accidents of birth and genetics.