Years ago, when I was a musician living in Los Angeles, I had my first close black friend. His name was Phil. He was 37 when I was 18. He was from D.C. and had lived in LA for a couple of years. He was a brilliant musician and, thankfully, a very patient man.
We didn’t talk much about anything of any substance. A white kid from small-town Indiana and a black guy from D.C. don’t often have much in common. On top of that, he was smart and worldly, and I was absolutely stupid — I mean unimaginably dumb, like my entire brain was just a mash-up of testosterone, orange Jell-O and wind-up Happy Meal toys. But Phil and I had music and junk food and other earthly pursuits in common, and that was enough to sustain a friendship.
I proved my stupidity when we finally talked about race. “Why does there have to be a United Negro College Fund? Why can’t there just be a college fund for everyone?” Or “why isn’t there a White Entertainment Television?” And worst of all: “I really feel like black people are more racist these days.”
He glared at me angrily for a few seconds, and then softened. “I’ll forgive you for that one,” he said. “You’re young.” I dropped it, still convinced I was right. He dropped it, too. There’s no way he could have condensed his entire life into one conversation, at least not in a way that it would have penetrated the granite fortress of my as-yet-untested thinking device. Even if he could, I wasn’t listening.
One night, we walked down Sunset Boulevard for a corner store Christmas feast. We each bought chips, a Coke and a Playboy magazine with Jenny McCarthy on the cover. On the way back, two squad cars squealed to a stop alongside us, and we were up against a wall before we knew what was going on. Someone had called about a black guy and a white guy for attempted robbery a couple of blocks away from us. Since a white guy walking with a black guy was a pretty unusual thing, even in Hollywood, they stopped us. Me, they put in handcuffs for about a minute, decided this dumb, white kid wasn’t a threat to anyone and politely nudged me aside. Phil, they handcuffed for a long time. They questioned him. A lot. They threatened him. They searched him repeatedly. They called for backup and forgot about me while more cops searched him again. After a while, they let us go.
It could have been worse. This was a Los Angeles Police Department built by former Chief Daryl Gates for the last decade and a half. I didn’t understand the significance of that at the time, but I sure as hell do now. We walked in silence for a couple of blocks. When Phil finally spoke, the words exploded out of him. “That’s what I was talking about. That’s what we have to put up with. Every day!”
That experience planted a seed in the fallow ground atop my shoulders. For the first time, I started thinking that maybe, just maybe, there was something more to race in America than what I could see or experience. Maybe it wasn’t as simple as “do unto others.” Maybe I should have been listening to Phil. Twenty years, lots of books, a law degree and a thousand Fourth Amendment cases later, I am still trying to listen to Phil. What he has to say isn’t always easy to hear.
I forget my past sometimes. I forget how much listening, how much reading, how much living it takes for people like me, sheltered and white and oh-so-earnest, to recognize how idiotic it sounds to cry “racist” at the slightest suggestion that white people as a whole got something wrong. When LEO columnist Hannah L. Drake wrote a thoughtful piece about “breaking up” with white women, white liberals called it “racist.” When Louisville activist Chanelle Helm called for white people to cede real estate to black folks in this newspaper, (literally) thousands of white folks called it “racist.” When Indianapolis political commentator Dana Black posted that the “old white guys” should “get out of the way” in the presidential race, old, white Democrats called it “racist.” If you listen closely to these comments, you can hear the crackling of white fragility at its flakiest consistency, like a fine, buttery, vanilla-custard pastry fresh out of the oven.
I, too, once thought that making any distinction between races was the precursor to racism, and that saying something bad about white people was actually racist. That the playing field should be kept as colorblind as possible. That racism is a two-way street; if I can’t say anything bad about your race, the one that was brought over here in chains and treated worse than livestock for most of American history, then you can’t say anything bad about mine, the one that allegedly did some very bad things (but, gosh, that was a long time ago). That if we keep our heads in the sand long enough, we can someday yank them out and forge ahead, without all that cumbersome history weighing us down.
Think of it this way: If a very large guy picks a fight with a very small guy, and the big guy pounds the little guy for 400 years, and the little guy finally has the gall to kick the big guy in the shins, what’s your reaction? Is it to decry the violent nature of the little guy? To scold both sides? To wring your hands and wish out loud that the little guy were more like Martin Luther King Jr.?
But look, well-meaning white folks: No witticism, analogy or magic wording need be involved here. If you really want to combat racism, my modest suggestion is to
and listen to what black people say. In particular, avoid the impulse to call a black woman’s take “racism.” Even if you still think you are right. Even if it bothers you to hear whiteness called out. Even if you think the law should be colorblind and affirmative action is troubling, and you’d rather your kid not take a long bus ride to school every day or whatever. Shut up. Listen a bit.
If you truly want to dismantle white supremacy, you must be willing to hear criticisms of the ways in which it still operates today. There is a price for all the advantages we white folks take for granted; one which has yet to be paid. For now, listening is the least we owe. •
Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.