Grow-up in sort-of-rural Oklahoma. Know very few black people. Spend 0 time thinking about the lives of black people and how they might differ from your own. All the terrible stuff, like slavery and segregation, happened forever ago. All the white people around you say as much.
Feel optimistic about the world.
Have your grandfather explain that white people were created by God while black people evolved from apes. Tell your sisters this theory. Listen as they try to explain how to love a racist.
Announce your crush on Dwayne Wayne from A Different World, have people start calling you “Jungle Fever.”
You should be, but not for the reasons you think.
Have the lone black woman in your church be asked to stop singing in the choir. Don’t be told her race is why, but recognize that one day there are only white people in your church.
Be told not to drive down Leona Mitchell Street in Enid because it’s dangerous. Some other day, be told that the houses on Leona Mitchell Street are painted bright colors because black people live there. Leona Mitchell Street is dangerous. Leona Mitchell Street is where black people live. Black people are dangerous.
You are, but not for the reasons you think.
Go to college.
Study theatrical performance and English literature. Get into arguments about color-blind casting and the music of Miles Davis. Do this only with white people in the room.
Obtain a degree in English Literature without having ever read James Baldwin.
You damn well should.
Move to Colorado.
Have a white dude at the posh resort where you serve drinks ask if you know what the other word for a Brazil nut is. Call the library reference desk because you think this is a genuine question, that he wants the scientific name, because you don’t recognize that he’s trying to connect with you as a fellow white person. Take that man’s tip.
Feel like a Judas.
Travel! See all of the places you’ve longed to see! Get drunk in Munich! View the Mona Lisa! Watch the sunrise behind Uluru!
Feel enlightened and brave!
Move to Kansas.
Listen to your brother-in-law crack-up at the joke he and the other white people like to play in the packing plants and slaughter houses. They yell “Policia!” and watch all the brown people run.
Watch the other country club members you serve leave when the only black members arrive.
Feel like a coward.
Move to Alaska.
Have the white men in your workshop call Edwidge Danticat’s work ‘ham-fisted’ and ‘tone deaf.’
Date a man who thinks ‘the politics’ of Beloved gets in the way of its ‘art’ and that, overall, Morrison writes too much about slavery.
Take zero courses on African-American literature. In fact, leave with an advanced degree, one that allows you to teach college-level courses, having read only a smattering of books and poems by African Americans.
Feel like a fraud.
Move to Texas.
Get coffee with a guy who now works for a major publishing house who says, in regards to Junot Diaz, “I mean, I feel like as long as you’re a non-white person, they just hand you a publishing deal.”
Have a graduate student say he thinks there are genetic differences that make white people superior to black people.
Overhear that an undergraduate, in response to a slave narrative, said “I mean, we’ve all had shitty bosses.”
Don’t say much of anything to these people.
Feel like a dastard.
Move to Ireland! Write poetry! Go to the ocean! Write poetry about the ocean! Feel better!
Move back to Oklahoma.
Overhear the n-word dropped by white people so many times you gotta scrap it outta your sneaker treads with a stick.
Go to a concert. Have a guy brandish his KKK membership card for a drink discount at the bar.
Have the campus police come to your classroom and arrest your only black student for reasons that are never made clear.
Feel like the problem.
Move to Missouri. Teach at an HBCU.
Teach in an entirely white department. Have too many conversations with people in your department about “thugs” and “criminals” and “the good ones.”
Have a colleague say, regarding the reading list you helped compile for the course, “Maybe we can read something that’s not about black people? You know, something for everyone?”
Teach “remedial English” by framing all the lessons as learning the language of power so that they can access it. Have it hit you one day that you can’t frame shit, and that you jumped from blue collar to white collar just so you can stand in the front of a classroom and jerk on iron collars.
But this is not enough. It is not enough to feel confused and embarrassed and uncomfortable and naïve and bad and like a dastard and lousy and like a Judas and like a fraud and like a coward and like the problem and disconsolate.
Feel all those things.
Go on now.
But don’t confuse feeling these things about racism with fighting it. Feeling these things is not the work. And your ass has got a helluva lot of work to do. Thankfully, people have already told you what you need to do.
So do the work.
It’s going to make you feel all kinds of terrible things. Go ahead. Feel all those things. Feel them, but don’t let them stop you.
You stop, people die.
Do the work.
Writing about race from my own experience makes me feel like a Fox News panelist, but it’s the only experience to which I can speak. And silence is not the answer. So here this is, as much to myself as to others. But let me be clear—
I AM NOT WHO ANYONE SHOULD BE READING ABOUT RACE IN AMERICA
Instead, I think you should go read my friend Nicole Saltzman’s blog post. It was written after the murder of Trayvon Martin. She posted it again after the murder of Michael Brown. I hope she doesn’t continue to have cause to re-post it. I fear she will.