We like to think that racists just appeared out of nowhere to vote Republican in 2016. As a country, we need to understand that they have been here the entire time. We need to understand what it means to be emboldened.
My father spent his life trying not to embolden racists, knowing his presence alone might be enough. He knew they were everywhere and he knew they were practically invisible until they weren’t. As far as he knew, at any minute any white man could erupt into unrepentant and unpunishable violence simply because he heard words he didn’t like. My father called this racist, unpredictable and ruthless permission The White Man.
“Look out for The White Man,” my father would warn whenever I left the house. He did this because he understood The White Man. Not only had he faced this unholy, brutal cruelty countless times himself, but its existence was made plain to him everywhere he looked. He grew up hearing the warnings from civil rights leaders like Medgar and Martin and Malcolm, and he heard their defiance. Then he watched one after the other pay the ultimate price for their defiance.
I didn’t grow up in my father’s world. I didn’t grow up in a world in which The White Man could just kill me at any time. For my generation, that permission is delegated mostly to the police. Also, unlike every other black member of my family, I was born, grew up in and remain in Maine. This is not to say that I didn’t grow up with violence, or that that violence was not racist. I did, and it was, but the violence never felt life-threatening and I always saw it coming. And while my father had a great number of stories about a white man suddenly becoming The White Man, I only have one.
Last year I co-hosted TEDxDirigo. It was my second year co-hosting, and if you didn’t know anything about me, you wouldn’t learn anything more by watching me co-host that event. I don’t talk about myself at all and I don’t play music. Mostly I vamp a little, tell some light jokes and keep things moving from speaker to speaker. Last year I had a nice running gag about Batman, if that gives you any idea.
Anyway, when the event was over, as people were filing out, a white man in his late fifties approached me. “Hey, Batman!” he said. He had a mustache, so I replied, “Commissioner.” He laughed and began telling me about his favorite TED Talk of the evening, which led to him suggesting what he thought would be a good TED-Talk topic: Why Are People So Sensitive These Days? He explained that he didn’t like being told that he was offending people. (To be clear, this would not make a good TED Talk.)
Then he said, very unexpectedly, “You know, my best friend is black,” which I immediately knew to be false. He continued, “Now, I’m not gonna say the n-word, because you might take it the wrong way” — that responsibility obviously being mine alone. He went on, “But my friend says that the n-word’s got nothing to do with race. There’s black n-words and white n-words and purple…”
At this point I noticed a white woman approaching us. I presumed her to be this man’s significant other, since they appeared to be of similar age and the look on her face was practically screaming, “Oh no! He’s doing it again!”
I cut him off, speaking with the kind and compassionate tone of a TEDxDirigo host. “I think your own experience will inform you otherwise, because you know that if you were to call her that word,” I gestured to the approaching woman, “and me that word, you would obviously get fundamentally different responses.” And that’s when it got weird.
He took a step toward me, smiling wild-eyed, gritting his teeth, fists clinched, his face six inches from mine. He stood like that, silent, for probably 10 seconds. He wanted to take a swing so badly, but in that moment it didn’t matter. He just wasn’t big enough or young enough to be a threat, and we both knew it. That realization seemed to make him even angrier. He began slapping me on the shoulder and lunging at me, trying to make me flinch. When I didn’t, he actually started talking gibberish. It was as though he’d met the first no that he couldn’t scream or punch into a yes. The woman eventually took him by the arm and led him away.
Like I said, that was the only time I’ve seen a white man become The White Man. But if all it took was that conversation to cause the transformation, they’ve been the same man the whole time.