I had planned to write about two poignant incidents that are typical for me and for so many others living in a nation in denial about how we treat each other every single day. About how we make others apologize for us putting them in difficult situations. About our refusal to look ourselves in the mirror — or to look within — in the process of assessing blame and striving for solutions. Then Ted Kennedy passed away the other day, another reminder that America’s greatest days have long passed. Yet millions of those who grew up during the years of Camelot — the good ol’ ’60s — still act as if that decade gives them the right to say and do anything at the expense of others’ thoughts and activities.
Such has the case for me and numerous others regarding race and gender in my life, especially since turning into an adult. On race, anything other than the most apparent of slights, nonverbal and verbal expressions of rudeness, exclusivity or obvious obsequiousness somehow didn’t fit in the category of race, bias, bigotry, or simple ignorance and stupidity. It makes me cringe every time I watch the media’s knee-jerk reaction to anything involving race to say, “this wasn’t about race.” I’m not just speaking about President Obama or the Skip Gates incident or Don Imus. No, I’m talking about subtleties that those of us who are of color — or, at least, those who happen to be sensitive to how people interact, communicate, use language and nonverbal cues — tend to pick up intuitively.
I described such an incident involving extracurricular activities with a few ex-coworkers three-and-a-half years ago in a piece I titled “Shouting ‘Race’ in a Crowded Theater.” I was bold enough to send it to The New York Times Magazine, where it was reviewed and rejected by their deputy managing editor. She based the rejection on my article’s lack of fit with the magazine. Fine. But then the deputy managing editor went on to say that she wasn’t “persuaded” around the issue of the subtlety and racial dynamics in a group setting. It wasn’t about race, at least according to her.
But if I or anyone like me were to insist that something, anything could be about race, we might as well have been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, the kind that without medication can lead to violence or suicidal tendencies. Apparently, that’s how we treat almost anyone that shines a light on racial or ethnic or group bias. Racism exists, but only if the folks who typically won’t experience racism in their lives decide to recognize it when it happens. Other than that, it must be a figment in my imagination, a boogie man that only shows up in my dreams. It is beyond contempt that I hold those who in the face of overwhelming evidence declare that something isn’t about race. No, I hold righteous indignation toward them.
When it comes to gender intertwined with race, it can get a bit more complicated. I’ve spent so much time in my life listening to so many girls and women complain about their no-good boyfriends, brothers, uncles, significant others, fiancees, husbands and ex-husbands that I’m tired of listening. It’s been at least thirty-two years since I realized that many men aren’t good fathers, and twenty-seven since I understood this about stepfathers. Still, it seems to me that even those of us who are good husbands and fathers are expected to pay for the sins of other men, to be forever burdened with the role of emotional idiot when it comes to women and family.
After six years with Noah and at least twenty-two years of listening to my female peers criticize men for our selfishness, stupidity, and sins, I guess I should just tune it out. After all, they’re not talking about me. It would be nice, though, if I heard something good, about me, about other men, besides how good some guy like Idris Elba or Johnny Depp looks. Big deal if the rest of the conversation about the male species heavily red-shifts into the dark energy world of the negative.
Even with Noah, the issue for women has been their assumption that I’ve never raised a child before, therefore I’m more ignorant about raising children than my child was about the world the day he was born. I’ve been told to bundle Noah up on a ninety-degree day. Yelled at for buying Kool-Aid, which was for me and not Noah. Stared at for taking too long to rein my son in while in public.
The latest was about a month ago. I took Noah outside right after his birthday for a quick ride around the block on his new scooter. Nothing fancy, just a ride with me right next to him letting him see how the scooter felt. Suddenly, a woman came out of her garden to tell me to protect his head, elbows and knees, and that I “could get them cheap at Target.” I told her, “Thanks, I know, and mind your own business.” Noah already had a helmet, but didn’t want to wear it, and I didn’t see the need on his maiden voyage.
It seems to me that this is the legacy of the ’60s, the decade when the typical social norms of the past went out the window. As a person of color, race is only an issue for me when Whites or the media says that it is. As a man, I’m presumed stupid regarding women, parenting and family no matter what the situation. As a Black male, I should just shove a tranquilizer into my juggler until I turn seventy, because then, at least, I can be a cranky old man who can freely speak his peace. It’s a shame that yet another Kennedy — for the most part, a beloved one (Chappaquiddick notwithstanding) — has passed. It’ll be nice, though, when the social chaos and hypocrisy unleashed by the ’60s also passes. Maybe then, at least, people will be able to offer apologies without equivocation when they’re wrong.