Chapter 11 – White Guilt
In Busan, South Korea, after my old buddy O’Shaughnessy and I had ditched our new buddy Su once he’d drunkenly broken up with his wife over the phone and assaulted one of his best buds who’d been trying to talk some sense into him at that karaoke joint, we found ourselves continuing the marathon at an establishment called the Fuzzy Navel. Before too long, Osh blacked out and got into an argument with two forty-something-year-old guys with whom we’d sat down at and shared a table. Although they had introduced themselves as being from Norway, based on absolutely nothing, Tim was certain that they were from Russia and that they’d been lying to us for one reason or another. After a while, “those lying Russian motherfuckers” had gotten sick of the accusations which were freely thrown and I decided to walk Tim home before he got his ass beat by the very large pair of Scandinavians. Following the drop-off, I returned immediately after to finish myself off.
Once back at the Fuzzy Navel, I sat down next to a beautiful Korean girl at the bar who went by the name Stephanie. While I talked to her, she put in an order with the bartender for a plate of nachos and, at some point in our conversation – we’d been talking for quite some time – she got up to go to the bathroom. This is when her nachos came. As I said, she was really beautiful – like, so beautiful that even though she’d been talking to me for as long as she had been, that I figured she’d been too attractive to ever give someone like me any pussy. Adhering to this negativity and pairing it with extreme selfishness, I concluded that, since I wasn’t gonna get any sex outta this chick because I thought that she thought she was better than me, I should try to milk her dry in another sector. In suit, I began stuffing as many of her nachos as I could into my face before she returned.
By the time she got back, I’d almost finished the whole plate and had salsa and guac all over the lower half of my face. She seemed hurt and disappointed by my actions. I pathetically apologized and asked her if she wanted me to buy her some new ones. She refused the offer and wanted nothing from me but a straightforward answer to the question, “…but why, why did you steal the nachos?” Instead of telling her the neurotic truth, I said “I don’t know” and she just shook her head at me. The shame brought on by her reaction made me feel worse than if she’d been pissed off and threw a drink in my face. I guess she really was a nice person that possibly might’ve liked me for me and wasn’t some beautifully stuck-up cunt who’d been talking to me for nefarious reasons after all. My low self-esteem had once again led me down the road of self-defeat.
After that, I left the Fuzzy Navel with my tail between my legs, bought some beers from the first convenient store I saw and decided to get blackout while walking around. As I stumbled and sipped my way around Busan, I encountered some big muscular Korean dude who I started talking with that turned out to be a baseball player. I don’t recall what we’d been discussing, but he ended up inviting me to go to some club with him. After walking for a few blocks, we got to the door of some place with loud-ass bass rumbling from the inside. The ballplayer greeted the doorman who let him past with no problem and when I tried to follow suit, I was promptly halted.
“No, no, no, no, no,” the guy said while waving his hand at me.
“What? Why not?”
“No white man.”
“One moment, excuse me,” the ballplayer decided to intervene.
I stood there for a minute as they jawed in Korean while baseball boy pointed at me in a “c’mon, he’s with me, let him in” kind of way and the guy at the door just kept shaking his head “no.” A minute later, my new bud turned back to me with a frown.
“I’m sorry, he said there are no foreigners allowed in the club.”
“No white man?”
“No. I’m sorry.”
“I must go inside now because my friends are waiting. I’m very sorry.”
“Hey, yeah,” I shook his hand, “not your problem, man. Have a good time.”
In the twenty-six years I’ve existed as a privileged white American male where my presence is most often welcomed with open arms, this was the first and only time I’d ever been denied from somewhere based on the color of my skin. I’m sure there’re quite a few shady strip clubs and places of the like in the ghettos of US cities I’d undeniably get my ass beat for showing my pasty vanilla face at, but since I’ve no interest in going to those places, I’ve never subjected myself to that sort of discrimination. This was it. And it felt pretty god damn shitty.
Discrimination against any group of people based on age, gender, class, race, religion, place of origin, sexuality and physical and mental handicaps – am I forgetting anyone? – is inherently wrong. To put it in the paradoxical words of my immature teenage self, “being intolerant is gay.” There’s little more I have to say on the subject.
I grew up in a neighborhood on the far reaches of Chicago’s northwest side that, according to the 2010 demographics, was 88% white. And since the specific area in which I live is an especially nice part of that neighborhood in comparison to the whole area included in the census, this place is like fuckin’ Honkyville, USA. It’s an area heavily populated by city workers that are legally bound by their jobs to live within city limits who choose to do so by posting up near the suburbs as far away as possible from all the “shit-stain ghettos” where many of them are stationed to work. It’s an area filled with very nice homes that have very well-manicured lawns and an unbelievably low crime rate in a city world-renowned for its violence and nicknamed by critics – as well as some braggarts – as “Chi-raq.” And it goes without saying that all the residents in our little slice of heaven here want to keep it that way.
I haven’t spent too much time in other American cities – a few years in Milwaukee and half-a-year in Cleveland – but I’m gonna go ahead and say that Chicago is probably one of the most segregated of ‘em on the map. It ain’t a homogenous mixture by a long shot. We got distinctly white neighborhoods, we got Hispanic neighborhoods, we got black neighborhoods, Indian neighborhoods, Asian neighborhoods, a Jewish neighborhood and even a “Boy’s Town” where there’s probably a dick in a butt every minute of every day. Unless us white folks are movin’ in to a traditionally poor neighborhood to kick all the colored folks out so we can bulldoze their homes and their history to make way for our gentrified high-rise condo buildings, Starbucks coffee shops and expensive retail outlets, we rarely if ever stray beyond the lines drawn in the sand.
People fear the unknown. People develop misconceptions of things they’ve never experienced for themselves based on the predetermined mindsets of those around them that have been passed down from generation to generation. Ideas that in reality may be totally off-base can grow to be accepted as widely-held beliefs in segregated places like my neighborhood that provide a fertile breeding ground for us vs. them mentalities. And it’s my belief that even if you don’t hold racist ideals and believe that that sort of shit is beyond wrong, that your mind can still form to function in an extremely racist manner due to said environmental preconditioning.
Right now, in the world we live where people like Michael Richards, Paula Deen and Donald Sterling – who were all wrong to varying degrees – are immediately crucified for public racist slip-ups, in fear of similar societal banishment befalling them, even if their mind is an all day, every day highlight reel of hatred, only a complete idiot would admit to having any sort of racist thoughts whatsoever. That’s why I’m guessing that the majority of people who grew up in all-white, old school, hard-headed working class neighborhoods like mine, if polled, would outright deny everything I’ve just said and claim that their thoughts are wholly pure and that I’m wrong and a liar. But just in the way that a vermin-infested house may not outwardly appear to be crawling with the undesirable, if you pay attention, you can occasionally hear the pattering of it all around you. And I bet if you took a sledgehammer to the drywall in that house, you’d reveal more cockroaches than you’d ever imagined, all scattering in different directions for the sake of self-preservation.
Since no one else is willing, I’ll take one for the team here and lay my head on the railroad tracks. I can already imagine the public reaction to me saying the things I’m about to say – that I’m spreading hate, that I’m spreading ignorance. But in actuality, the only thing I’m doing here is telling it like it is – showing to everyone the way things really are. Because, in a world full of lies and deception where everyone is forced to wear masks and play roles that align with what’s expected of us at work, at home or from society in general, I believe that a little bit of honesty goes a long way.
I’m a very racist-minded person. But I DO NOT hold any racist ideals whatsoever. I think everybody deserves equal opportunity at whatever they choose to do with their lives. I don’t think I’m better than anybody else – well, actually I do think I’m better than a lot of people but that has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, et cetera, that’s just me being a pompous asshole – but my mind is ingrained with and always reverts to thought patterns that perpetuate racial stereotypes.
From an early age on, it was my understanding that all carpet-pilots, towelheads, camel-jockeys and dune-coons were terrorists constantly plotting to ruin America and steal our freedom. That every curry-stinkin’ dothead in America works at a Dunkin’ Donuts. That you could starve lazy-ass niggers by hiding their food stamps under their working boots. That Mexico never had an Olympic team because anyone there that could run, jump or swim was already in America. That Jew broads are good at suckin’ dick because they ain’t allowed to fuck before marriage. That all chinks are a terror on the road and have Lilliputian dicks you need a microscope to see. That “faggots like it up the butt, that’s why they have smelly nuts.”
As I alluded to, these thoughts didn’t pop into my head one day out of the blue. I didn’t wake up one morning, have some sort of revelation and say to myself, “By god! I can’t believe I didn’t realize any of these things before! Niggers are dumb, beaners are lazy, gooks name their kids after the sounds made by a handful of silverware being thrown down a flight of stairs and Polacks are so stupid that they try to hide the smell of their farts by turning up the volume on the radio. It’s all so clear to me now!”
No, I’m sorry. It doesn’t work that way. This sort of ignorance was passed around the playground from child to child like germs at the height of flu season. And obviously it didn’t originate there either. Nor did it originate with our parents. These crude manifestations are just the epidermis of a large-scale social schism that’s been around since the days of slavery and will stick around long after everyone in my six degrees of separation is in the ground, kickin’ up daisies.
Even though I never wanted it to begin with, from personal experience, I gotta say that once this sectarian dogma is embedded in your mind, it doesn’t go away. After being exposed to very little diversity in high school and almost zero diversity during my formative years, I decided to broaden my horizons a bit once in college – try to kill the mindset, ya know? I spent a lot of time drinking with homeless black guys to get a feel for their life experiences and patterns and how they ended up on the streets, collecting cans on college campuses for a living and getting drunk with privileged white kids less than half their age. I’d also spent a semester during my junior year volunteering to help black kids with their homework at an after-school program held at an African Methodist Episcopal church in one of Milwaukee’s north side ghettos where, unlike the ‘hood I grew up in, boarded-up windows and knee-high lawns were the norm. Then after college, I spent a year of my life travelling around Asia and the Middle East meeting people from all walks of life. In spite of my accepting everyone I encountered for who they are and deciding whether or not I liked them based on personality traits and not the uncontrollable shit people were born into, the “color” commentary is always there, calling the game as seen through the biased bifocals I’d been prescribed before I was even given a chance to see the world on my own.
As recently as this just-passed Fourth of July, in order to celebrate the birth of our country, I decided to go to the supermarket and buy a watermelon for the purpose of throwing through the window of the abandoned house next door to mine. So I did just that and right after the glass had been shattered, like an automatic reflex, the first thought that came into my head had been, “Damn, I’m glad there weren’t any niggers around to shoot me for wasting a perfectly good watermelon like that.”
I didn’t verbalize the ugly thought to anyone but contemplated the mixed reactions I had to it in my mind. The man who I wanna be is perpetually appalled by these thought patterns and dumped a bunch of white guilt on my head while the child who was programmed to tell jokes like this with all his friends at recess wanted to give me a high-five. I’m a man divided. I’m a product of my environment that’s been made to feel like a monster for getting caught up in this disease of society, constantly living in fear of getting found out and subsequently persecuted by the very same society for having these thoughts I have no control over.
The first time I remember being exposed to this primitive approach to race relations had been when at a friend’s house – a friend who’s three years younger than me – talking about baseball when I was in second or third grade. During our playdate, it somehow came to my attention that my friend had been under the impression that Frank Thomas – a super-stud ballplayer in Chicago looked up to by many little leaguers of all races back in the day – was a white guy. Seeing that this couldn’t possibly have been any less true, I went ahead and corrected my friend on the subject. Later on in the day when I saw him, I joked with my buddy’s dad saying, “Yeah, and he thought Frank Thomas was a white guy but I told him he was really a black guy and showed him my baseball card to prove it. Can you believe it? How funny is that?” And the guy goes, “Aw shit! Why’d you tell him!?”
Although I couldn’t comprehend it back then, I came to see that this dude didn’t want his kid looking up to “some dumb fuckin’ shine.” Whether or not that trickery was done as a joke, I think that’s a pretty sick thing to imprint on a young child’s mind. But, as I mentioned how these ideas pervade and perpetuate, the same sort of things were probably said and done to him when he was a kid. And the same things were probably said and done to his dad when he was a kid. And since most people never step out of the little societal corners we were born into and kill that prejudice by exposing ourselves to diversity, it always has and forever will carry on.
A few years after that, at the local Catholic grammar school, our music teacher had been sitting before us at the front of the class with his acoustic guitar across his lap when he told us impressionable youngsters the following story.
“I was walking downtown the other day and I heard someone speaking the most beautiful French I’d ever heard and I just had to see what the speaker looked like. And when I turned around to check, to my amazement, it was a black guy! I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t believe a black guy was speaking French like that! It was crazy!”
“Wow,” I remember thinking to my ignorant little self who shared the misled view with my so-called “teacher” that the linguistic capability of all blacks on the face of the planet had been idiomatically relegated to West Side jive, “that is crazy.”
Just recently during the summer of 2014, I went out on an evening stroll through my neighborhood to clear my mind after several hours of writing following a long day of work. It had been a nice-enough night. The moon was up, the stars were out and I’d been making my way through a tree-heavy alley a mile or so from my house when I came to pass a backyard where I could hear some men having a conversation around the flicker of a bonfire. And it just so happens I’d been passing the property right during the climax of an exciting tale.
“And I look up,” one of the guys said to the others who’d been awaiting the punchline on the edges of their seats, “and there’s this fuckin’ three-hundred pound nigger standin’ there lookin’ right back at me!”
Raucous laughter ensued. I kept walking, not interested in finding out the context of the “hilarious nigger story” most likely being told by some off-duty cop, fireman or union guy. Their voices faded behind me as I kept in stride. The underlying ignorance of the tale and the amusement found in it, on the other hand, is something that took me back to my childhood.
Ah, the cherished blue-collar white man pastime of gathering around the campfire and telling nigger stories with your buds over a round of brewskies. It’s as American as apple pie. This sort of thing was so prevalent at neighborhood parties and family gatherings when I was a kid that I’ve heard ‘em all. I’ve heard so many of these accounts in my day that I know all the deciding factors in what makes for an entertaining story of niggery and what doesn’t. And it disgusts me to say that I’m in so deep that I’ve even picked several of them from the bunch as my favorites. In no particular order, the top three nigger stories I’d heard during my upbringing are as follows.
From a paramedic:
“Yeah, so we show up to the scene over on the west side and this nigger’s bleedin’ from his head. He’s got a t-shirt held up there stoppin’ the leakage so I walk up to the guy and says, ‘Hey, whatsa matter? What happened here?’ And the guy goes, ‘Man, my bitch done hit me upside da head wit’ da smoove!’ And I say, ‘She hit you with the what?’ And the guy gives me a look like I’m a fuckin’ idiot and goes, ‘Da smoove! She hit me wit’ da smoove!’ I just look back at him, havin’ no idea what he’s talkin’ about. ‘Da smoove!’ he says again, while miming that he’s ironing a fuckin’ shirt. ‘Ya know, to smoove ya clothes out!’”
From a cop:
“Some sister on the west side called up saying she was raped so I arrive on the scene and am asking her several questions to fill out a report. In my questioning, I ask her, ‘Did the perpetrator have an orgasm?’ And she, as straightforward as can be, looked back at me and said, ‘Naw, he didn’t have no orgasm. But if I remember correctly, I think he be drivin’ a Chevy.’ This woman – a fully grown woman – thought that an orgasm was a type of car.”
From a fireman:
“Back in the eighties, this old homeless nigger used to hang out around the firehouse sometimes. He was a drunk and a druggie but he was a good guy and we’d let him come in when it was cold out to sit down and watch some TV with us. But there was this one time when my man came in all fucked up, movin’ slow, with his palm on his forehead and shit. He was ‘fallin’ out’ as they say. And I said, ‘Hey, what’s up? What’s wrong?’ See if the guy’s alright, ya know? And he says, ‘My hee-ad,’ they always say ‘head’ like that, ‘it’s fuckin’ killin’ me right now!’ And so we tell him to take a seat and chill out and he does. But when he’s sittin’ there, one of the guys decides to fuck with him a little bit and offers to get him a ‘medicine patch.’ ‘A medicine patch? Da fuck is that?’ he asks. And my buddy assures him the medicine patch is great, that it works every time and will fix him up ‘right good.’ ‘Yeah, alright. Yeah, lemme get one of them medicine patches.’
“So my buddy walks outta the room and comes back in with a big-ass Band-Aid, a piece of gauze and a bendable straw. He then holds the piece of gauze to my man’s forehead and places the straw on top of it so it’s dangling down between his eyes and hanging just in front of his mouth. He puts the Band-Aid over both of ‘em securing ‘the medicine patch’ to the guy’s forehead and tells him to start blowing. He does what he’s told and after a few minutes goes, ‘Damn! I like the medicine patch. I feel better already. Thanks fellas,’ he concluded before walking out the door of the firehouse and down the street blowing into that ridiculous fuckin’ thing attached to his forehead. And the best part is, after that, each time he got a headache, he’d come back into the firehouse looking for my buddy to set him up with a brand new medicine patch.”
Although each of these stories implies the inferiority of blacks to our white supremacy, I never sensed any malevolence behind the blatantly insensitive tales. These were just pieces of lore exchanged by hard-working, hard-drinking family men who were pre-set by their ancestors to think that making fun of how much smarter they are than historically underprivileged inner-city blacks is the most entertaining thing of all time. As hard as it is to believe, they just plain old don’t know any better. In pursuit of The American Dream, they’ve spent their entire lives in one specific area of the world where they’ve gotten hired by historically racist institutions and have heard only one side of the story which, of course, as I’d mentioned, are all contributing factors in breeding ignorance.
But this “peaceful hatred” that’d been the rule in my neighborhood unfortunately had its exceptions when I was growing up. Some people who are probably no more racist-minded than I am actually believe in these things that their heads had been filled with. They’d go beyond making jokes and telling stories. They’d fully accepted what they’d absorbed as indoctrination that needed to be enforced to the fullest extent.
When I was in about sixth or seventh grade and starting to hang out at Brooks Park with the rest of the sixth and seventh grade punk-asses, there used to be this pick-up that would circle around the area blasting music and flying the Confederate flag from a pole mounted in the bed of the truck. Although this sounds surreal and like it’s something from a movie about the Civil Rights era in the Deep South, it’s not. This was Chicago’s northwest side around the year 2000. The music these guys would blast to be heard from quite a distance was of the white supremacist genre and had lyrics such as, “Hey nigger I hate your face, don’t try and fuck with the master race,” and the CCR racist remix of “Bad Moon Rising” which went, “Don’t come ‘round tonight if you’re anything but white, there’s a race war on the rise.” And to make sure their offspring grow up feeling the same way as them, on deck they’d even had a bigoted version of the children’s holiday classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” called “Leroy the Big-Lipped Nigger.”
In general, the modus operandi of these guys who were definitely no more than fifteen years older than us went as follows. After circling the park with Jim Crow’s Greatest Hits cranked to eleven, these guys would then pull up where we’d been hangin’ out, turn down the music, lean out the Hate Mobile and ask us if we’d “seen any niggers around.” Of course, since our neighborhood was so white and so sheltered, we’d inevitably reply “no.”
But even if we had seen any “niggers” attempting to walk through our part of town at night fifteen years ago, the police would’ve been on ‘em like – in the spirit of this piece, let’s keep it as bigoted as possible here – stink on “niggers” before these Neanderthals could ever even have gotten to ‘em. I say this because every nosy old bitch in the area who spends every waking hour looking out the windows of their houses to make sure no one steps on their lawns would’ve immediately called the police upon seeing a “nigger” – well, that is if they were even able to see said “nigger” in the first place because as is alluded to by the old proverb in my neighborhood which suggests we’re supposed to shout “Drop it nigger!” if we happen to see our TVs mysteriously floating down the street at the midnight hour, “those type of people” are quite difficult to spot in the dark.
So, after we’d tell these morons that we hadn’t seen any of whom they’d been hunting, they’d impart something along the lines of, “Good, let’s keep it that way,” and drive off blasting that sickening soundtrack of their lives.
What had always confused me about those guys was the question of, at what point do you decide to make that your identity? At what point do you say, forget everything else about me, I got nothin’ else goin’ on, I wanna be known as that guy who hates niggers all the time? Was that what they drew a crayon rendering of back in preschool when working on a what-I-wanna-be-when-I-grow-up project? Seriously, is that what they drew? And when presenting it to the class did they say, “When I grow up, I wanna drive around flying the Confederate flag and spend all my evenings and energy chasing niggers out of my neighborhood”? It’s so god damn absurd and so god damn frightening at the same time. But these were just random assholes that I’d only been unfortunate enough to encounter every once in a great while. What’s even more disturbing to me is how some of my friends grew up to embrace those same ideals.
Right after graduating college, I returned to my neighborhood to live at home and work and had joined a softball team whose roster consisted largely of kids with whom I’d grown up. Since we all live near each other, we’d often carpool to games together. After getting picked up one evening and getting settled in the backseat of my friend’s car on our way to Indian Road for a matchup, we’d seen a black mother and her two little black kids standing on the corner at the intersection of Devon and Milwaukee, waiting to cross the street. I cannot stress enough that these were not gangbangers looking to break in our houses and rape us or whatever we’re always afraid black people are gonna do to us. This was a family – probably a complete one too because I’m guessing they aren’t sure who the father is and even if they do know I’m sure he doesn’t care about them because he has kids with fifteen different other baby mamas and is off dealing drugs. Ah, you see? The racist mind never ceases.
So, anyway, as we drove past, my buddy at the wheel felt the need to slow down, stick his head out the window, give a dirty look and spit an “Are you lost?” in their direction. For those who don’t get the message behind the subtlety here, “Are you lost?” is the rhetorical question most often asked of minorities “who don’t belong” by white dickheads in white neighborhoods who are fully committed to “preserving our way of life.” And of course, “our way of life” is life with only white people around all the time.
Can you imagine being that mother and having to come up with an answer to tell your two little kids that don’t yet know that there’re pieces of shit like that in the world who won’t like them because the way they look when they question why that man had asked them if they were lost? Shit. I certainly can’t.
Even though it’s my personal belief that no one’s more lost than the person who asks that question, I could do nothing but shake my head when I heard it said right in front of me. I was too cowardly to speak out against it. I mean, I thought it was disgusting and all, but since the rest of my friends in the car laughed when he said it, I felt alone in my sentiment. I guess that just goes to show how encircled I feel by these attitudes sometimes – that I feel like an outsider in my own community for thinking that that sort of racism is outrageous. And that really makes me quite sick.
Another more surreal incident that happened not too long after my graduation from college had occurred after I’d spent the evening getting wasted and closing a neighborhood watering hole called the Emerald Isle. At the time I was walking home with this dude from my grade school who’s one year older than me and built like a fuckin’ linebacker. It’s not something that happened in front of me that I found so disturbing, but a story he’d been telling me and the assumption that went along with it.
“Then I dragged this fuckin’ shine cab driver out his car and started kickin’ him right there in the middle of the street ‘til the fucker was unconscious and we took off runnin’ before the cops showed up…”
“Uh-huh, yeah, uh-huh,” I nodded my head as he went on with the story, figuring I’d supported every word.
Then we reached my parents’ house from where he’d keep walking several more blocks to his. Not even considering the possibility that I might not share his point of view on the subject in the slightest, his parting words were something about us being fine if we all work together to keep the niggers out of our neighborhood.
“Right on,” I said, hoping to avoid an ass-beating from this dude by concealing my stance as a “nigger-lover.”
By no means is everyone in my neighborhood like this – far from it, in fact. But I’d be lying if I said this hateful element doesn’t still exist here. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t leave a lasting impression on all who encounter it. And although most of the people in my neighborhood have good hearts, don’t hold racist ideals and never feel the need to stick their heads out car windows to verbalize an illusory entitlement to superiority, I’d be lying if I said that people in all-white working-class neighborhoods like mine aren’t prone to racist thinking patterns based on our collective social conditioning.