In 2001, I embarked on what would be a relatively unremarkable career in stand-up comedy, the majority of which was spent in my hometown of Boston. I made a friend I’ll refer to as D, for reasons that will be made clear later in the story.
One of my favorite jokes of hers went like this:
“People say you should follow your dreams. Last night I had a dream Huey Lewis was my uncle, and I’m not sure how to follow that.”
(If you don't know who Huey Lewis is, go ahead and Google it. With any luck, there'll still be an internet when you get back.)
D was black and gay (again, relevant for reasons that will be made clear later) and had another joke about being pulled over in Texas for being a hispanic man. We all had a laugh at that story, too.
That last part might sound insensitive, but it’s the way things are in stand up. Kumail Nanjiani best described the environment as “broken people holding each other together”. We were all generally misfits whose inability to fit into regular society went over really well on stage, and being scathingly open about pain and insecurity was the norm. The deeper, the better.
D moved back to her home in the Bay Area of California and got married. Like most friends you make through stand-up, we kept in touch through social media. D got involved with the Black Lives Matter movement early on, and her posts began to focus mainly on the movement and issues of prejudice.
It was well before the scorched earth social media of the Trump Era would turn Facebook into an uninhabitable war zone of memes and clickbait headlines, but well after people had learned to have interminable political arguments on it. If I’m being honest, I didn’t see a huge difference between the anger in some of her posts and other political posts folks would share, but I’d read them here and there.
One day, she posted an article that struck a nerve in me. It was about a black woman who had a strained relationship with her white aunt after saying something to the effect of “white people in the North are worse, because at least white people in the South know they’re racist.”
Again, being honest, I really identified with the white aunt in this story.
I posted what at the time seemed like a thoughtfully worded reply to D, explaining how calling someone a racist probably wasn’t the best way to get them to change their behavior. D was less than receptive in her response.
I decided I probably didn’t state my position correctly, and wrote what I thought was a thoughtfully worded clarification. D was getting pissed.
I’m not sure at what point in the exchange it was, but D’s spouse - a BLM activist as well - jumped into the conversation.
Before I go on with the rest of the story, I should explain something about being born and raised in Boston. If I had to think of a motto that best describes the area, I’d be stuck between “They think they’re better than us” and “I bet you think you’re something special”.
It’s a region with a perpetual short-man’s complex and a culture that lives to remind you we’re all swimming in the same toilet.
So, you might imagine that, when confronted with the prospect of stating my case or not being thought of as the asshole, I opted for the former.
As you also might imagine, D and her spouse spent the rest of the exchange bitch slapping me, and I kept coming up for more like one of those inflatable punching bags.
The conversation ended amicably and awkwardly, and I walked away from it feeling terrible. D’s identity had never come into play in our relationship, and I felt as if we had been talking over a wall the whole time I knew her.
After a lot of thought, I came to a realization:
I was the only one out of the two of us who had the luxury of not thinking about her identity. I didn’t have to navigate the world thinking about how I’d be perceived for my race, gender, or sexual orientation.
The conversation prompted me to start learning more about issues of race and bias in society. I began to view the world in terms of my own race for the first time - aware of the daily discomforts people of color have to deal with just going about their lives. I started understanding where I had fallen short of being part of the solution.
For me, it was depressing. For people of color, it was a matter of daily existence - something that was just a backdrop.
D passed away in October of 2018. I had always meant to message her and apologize, but she had been battling cancer, and it seemed awkward to send her a Facebook message over an interaction that to me was meaningful, but to her was probably just another white dude being a white dude.
So, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.
Two years later and many years after the inception of the BLM movement, things are arguably more terrible. I have friends in law enforcement who’ve publicly decried the killing of George Floyd and are justifiably frustrated they have to go out into the streets and clean up the mess of those who stained the badge. My black friends are largely silent in public, having had too many conversations on race where they gave up explaining their viewpoint after being outnumbered by defensive white people.
If there’s a bright spot, it’s that we seem to have entered a space where we can support good cops and measures that protect black people from bad cops simultaneously,
There are multitudes of well intentioned white people wanting to help. Many of these people have appeared in the past, only to fade out with the spotlight and go back to living their normal lives.
While this time feels different, I also think it’s important not to let that lull us into a false sense of security, where we can return to normal thinking someone else is going to take care of it.
Police reform alone won’t solve the problem. Ahmaud Arbery wasn’t killed by a bad cop. Christian Cooper was harassed by a woman in yoga pants with a cocker spaniel.
These are very ugly examples of a bias against people of color that exists, in varying degrees, in all of us, and we can’t expect the members of our police force to be any better than the society we pull them from.
Professor Nikki Brown at the University of Kentucky was the one who taught me that racism is like a virus, and outbreaks of racism occur when the conditions are right. Our current pandemic is probably the best parallel as, for most of us, our racism is asymptomatic.
We don’t march with tiki torches in support of Confederate Monuments. We don’t use racial slurs. We might have a diverse set of friends.
But we’re also probably guilty of doing the millions of thoughtless things that - while to us, seemingly small and insignificant - result in a death by a thousand cuts to our friends of color. We say dumb things we’re privately embarrassed of that society says it would be impolite to call us out on.
As with the current pandemic, most instances are harmful, but not lethal. When these biases are combined with a tense situation and the authorization to use deadly force, we have events like the murder of George Floyd.
It’s not good enough for us to wait for someone with a gun to end an innocent person’s life by making the wrong assumptions or to publicly shame someone on social media who uses the police as a cudgel against someone they find irritating.
It’s also not enough to wait for people of color to tell you what to do. They’ve tried, and the experience has been less than rewarding.
We need to be comfortable being called out on our own expressions of bias, just as we have to do the hard work of calling other people out on theirs. We need to talk openly about where we’ve fallen short. We need to teach our children now, as opposed to waiting until it’s time to let them carry a gun.
I’m making a few promises to myself, and I’d encourage all white people to do the same:
- I will be open to feedback on areas where I’ve expressed bias and, regardless of the tone, wording, or presence of profanities, will accept said feedback without pushback, reflect on it, and try to do better.
- I will talk with other white people about racism, and let them know when they’ve expressed bias in their thoughts and actions. Even old people who “grew up in a different time” and people expressing “bias lite”, such as quoting statistics as evidence for why change isn’t needed.
- I’ll keep reflecting on where I fall short, and keep learning.
Again, as with our current pandemic, we can’t prevent the deaths of those most at risk unless those least at risk play a part. We have centuries of cultural wiring to undo, but it’s not like we’re trying to make Huey Lewis our uncle