He was seventeen the first time he read it. It was during a senior high school literature class while studying Notes Of A Native Son. A quote that would h0ld deep resonance with him for years to come. He loved Baldwin, his writing, and the radical confidence that such a statement required.
But still, years after that course, in his quiet hours, alone with thoughts and nothing else, while Baldwin’s words made sense to the man in his mid-twenties, they also made him mildly, vaguely uncomfortable, for reasons he was unable to fully identify, much less articulate. No, not because he viewed his sentiment as harsh or ardent, or that it rankled what were then largely unchallenged white defenses. It was that he felt it represented something very separate from all he naively thought he knew and understood about racism. And that scared him, because he was convinced he knew a lot.
At the age of thirty one he had been to Africa before, although a safari in Kenya and the Four Seasons in Cape Town were not exactly immersive experiences in anti-racism.
This time would be different.
Volunteering for a medical NGO, the man planned to put his critical care skills to use assisting local health authorities in developing small scale, sustainable primary care HIV clinics in three countries. It turned out to be an unrivaled experience. One that he would tell you was the first time he truly saw Africa. He would say it was life defining, and that would be a gross understatement. But even though his sentiments were 100% honest and deeply felt, they were not quite accurate.
He continued to speak and write with passion and eloquent conviction when recounting his experience of being “the minority for the first time in his life.” Certain that his own time spent being “the other” provided the experiential evidence needed to motivate other well intentioned white minds to engage the challenge of undoing racism. But however earnest his conviction, the truth was that the man was blind to a material and glaring error.
Today, he would tell you that ones perspective and context change everything. Sure, he had been a minority before. In female and straight circles where he had been the only man, the only gay person.
Whiteness is not comparable.
In North America, if you are a minority at a movie theater in Inglewood, you still have the unspoken yet all too real real privilege that accrues to those our culture deems white. That designation comes rich with cultural, societal, and political capital.
Today, after developing a few sustained and meaningful relationships with people of color, the man would thank them for their generosity of spirit in explaining to him the error of his ways. And for slowly planting the seeds that sprouted an awareness that what he experienced in certain countries in Africa at the age of thirty one …
was that the structure and conditions that support the dominance of white skin were absent.
It had nothing to do with being a minority, he realized. Because for the first time in his life he was absent being tied to the sickness that is whiteness in a North America context. A sickness that assumes white as the default upon which all others are lessened. A sickness that pays lip service to celebrating diversity in the same breath that proudly declares color blindness. In a truly essential way, the sickness and domination that is whiteness was rendered meaningless for those brief weeks.
After so many years, he finally understood the simple but eloquent words of James Baldwin.
“As long as you think that you are white, there is no hope for you.”
Letting go of his white lens allowed him to see, absent averted gaze, the potential that exists, individually and globally, for a connection with another person independent of the color of their skin.
That is what can happen when we let go of our own whiteness. To a lesser degree, that is what can happen when we embrace anti-racism. But only by embracing anti-racism can we attempt to make it true in our North American context.
When he thinks of it today, the trans-formative potential of it all will still, on occasion, take his breath away.
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Ideas for how to frame this piece were, in part, derived from the writings of Steve Locke, Associate Professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.