First Born, Beige Son

This piece was shared on July 12, 2020 with the Racial Justice Ministry at All Saints Church in Pasadena in a program called, “Beige in a Black & White World: What stories are helpful in this moment of urgency?” All Saints is a progressive Episcopal Church with a long history of leadership in social justice issues with a national reach.

A white wall is intimidating. A black wall is complicated. A beige wall is easy to transform. You just apply a few strokes and it will sort of stick. It doesn’t require coats and coats of paint to reflect the color you want to see. Both black and white require layers of work to obscure the base. Beige seems easy.

But there are shades of beige. Some see it in the family of white. Some see it in the family of brown. But beige can be easily manipulated on a canvas where one can imagine forward a story in color.

I’m the first born, beige son of two psychotherapists, one white, one black. I’ve been splattered with paint all my life. All the while, I’ve tried to paint myself into a coherent image that withstands the sticky assaults.

I’ve been painted as a spokesman. I’ve been painted as the embodiment of “the problem.” I’ve been painted as an opportunist. I’ve been painted as lazy. I’ve been painted a thug. I’ve been painted a troublemaker. I’ve been painted as aloof. I’ve been painted as beautiful. Mixed babies are always so pretty! I’ve been painted as the future.

What I know is that I’m naturally a bridge. I acknowledge my white privilege, while also suffering directly from the oppression that comes with black identity in a “post-colonial” world. That is especially acute in the US, a country overwhelmingly funded by the exploitation of black bodies.

It’s a crappy world, but this dual-citizenship — or is it more of a Green Card? — has also given me a great bunch of laughs. I’m sure that comes mostly from the African-American tradition: Laughing through the pain, gives us strength to love.

But, oh that word “us,” that’s where I question my agency. That’s where I take a reporter’s stance, a spy’s view, a memoirist’s singularity. I speak in stories. I speak in interpersonal relationships that don’t carry the weight of a people or a culture as rules to follow. I operate from the stance that with interpersonal relationships we can combat the monoliths which hinder our freedom.

I urge actions that increase our freedom to love, that encourage our ability to connect, that allow us to enjoy our emotional and spiritual abundance. Monoliths are big. But the individual stories within the various monoliths combined are much bigger. I want to liberate those stories, to create a bridge for them to powerfully combine, to create a more open society for respect for humanity.

Of course, that all comes more easily when I’ve first painted myself as a coherent and reliable reporter. There’s also a matter of paint deflection to which I must attend…

— — — —

So what am I here to do today? Is it to affirm that I’ve been the subject of mistaken identity? The movie Hollywood Shuffle was real.

Is it to tell the story of how I felt free after leaving the largely white, conservative community of 1980s Irvine and used newly discovered beauty in “my ambiguous skin” to explore cultural and romantic connections, as I wrote about in an essay for “The Black Body” anthology a decade ago?

— — — —

Identity is shaped by memory.

In Irvine, I vaguely remember something of “The Talk” where black kids are taught how to act when encountering police officers. But mostly I remember my dad befriending the chief of police as a layer of protection for me. And I strongly remember Dad’s proclamation of what he’d do if anyone ever hurt me. I don’t actually remember what he did after I was beat up and called a nigger.

don’t remember my dad taking me over to apologize to a white kid whose tooth I knocked out when I was nine. But that kid reached out to me online to remind me in adulthood. He said, “I should f***ing hate you, but I don’t,” as if I should congratulate him for that and for recognizing that he was upset that he shared the same last name as the officer who killed Eric Garner. He characterized my dad as “very large, very imposing…but with a tweed jacket and prescription eyeglasses.” For what it’s worth, that description landed on me, as if he were describing a tamed savage. Maybe if Eric Garner had that tweed coat and glasses, he’d still be with us?

don’t remember the cops following me home to make sure I actually lived in my neighborhood, but that was one of the first things that came to my mom’s mind when I spoke to her about this presentation.

do remember the cops calling my dad to pick me up at the police station when I got too drunk at a high school dance.

didn’t remember graduating with highest honors from high school until a friend recently posted a photo on social media. I may have internalized that I got an “Affirmative Action” boost because there was an invitation to the Equal Opportunity Program when I arrived at UCLA. I’d been ambivalent about using it. Years after Shelby Steele and his people demonized Affirmative Action into abolishment in California’s higher education admissions, I felt maybe I got an “unfair” break.

do remember running for office in college unopposed because everyone thought I had the white and the black vote sewn up as a (former) member of a “white” fraternity and because I was genetically part of, and friendly with, the “Third World Coalition.” (No, “people of color” wasn’t a term used in 1985.)

And I remember my former boss from the Black Music division of Warner Records driving me home from the airport a few years after we’d work together. He listened to my music as we drove. He said, “This would be great…if you looked like Tom Petty.” When my Nick Drake influenced track ended, embellished by a burst of Velvet Underground-styled feedback, another disc started in the trunk changer: a Boyz II Men clone. He continued, “Now here you’re doing something that can work!”

— — — —

What do any of these stories have to do with the immediate need of helping to dismantle the systemic racism that is disproportionately killing people of color in this county? Especially the people “darker than blue” to which Curtis Mayfield sang?

I feel that I can be helpful as a study of a man who has tried to come to terms with his male, cis-gendered, heterosexual, white and light-skinned privileges and found that nothing is lost by acknowledging these. The privilege doesn’t vanish when you name it, but you may find that you’re able to cede some ground lovingly. You may find it is a tool to use gracefully to empower someone else who’s hurting. And, you may find that giving up some of that unearned advantage, may actually make the world a less stressful place for you and everyone else.

It’s easier to speak to black people about structural racism than white people, but the conversation is fraught with pain in any context.

On Independence Day after seeing a smiling chokehold selfie of police officers at a memorial where Elijah McClain was killed, I wrote about the toxicity of white privilege:

“Unearned (or even unwanted) privilege isn’t the problem, it’s what you do with it.

To borrow a (problematic) phrase, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

Well, if you’re white, you’re born with a potentially deadly weapon on your person that can be accidentally, unknowingly, or willfully discharged, resulting in serious bodily harm and possibly death to people of color, and, of course, inflicting psychological harm.

I personally think guns should be licensed at least as strictly as driving.

Maybe those of us who are white need to be licensed. We need at least to acknowledge that we’re armed, with wealth and/or benefits that were built upon the subjugation of black people, on unpaid black labor, and on the foundation of white supremacy, which led to a dehumanization of black people, evidenced in community lynching parties, or in movies like “Birth of a Nation,” the George Floyd Challenge.… Or — to show the past is carved in stone — in the lionization in statues erected during Jim Crow of American traitors committed to slavery, which are in place today — well after they lost the war and the Union was preserved.

White people need to educate themselves about this history and not look to their “one or two black friends” to help them understand.

And if a black friend reaches out to you about what’s going on, listen to them. Don’t play devil’s advocate. There are enough people advocating for the devil already.

Advocate for compassion. Try to put yourselves in the shoes of the person of color speaking to you. Then understand that there’s a long story that’s gone into cobbling those shoes. Momentary design tweaks (pieces of legislation or one elected official) don’t negate a system that’s run largely as intended over 400 years.”

But, frankly, that statement is written to white people. It’s written knowing that there’s a white gaze. I’m sick of the white gaze. I feel like my story of being “Black in America” is easier to take in for white people because I’m also a White guy, a suburban son of the professional class, one generation out of the New England town where my Yankee family has been since before the American Revolution.

Am I lifting up, speaking with — and for — my black family — with its cloudy origins — as I stand undaunted, or at least strong enough to be radically vulnerable, sharing issues of racial discrimination, prejudice and unease?

I’m hopeful that this is helpful. In this urgent moment I tend more to listening and collaborating, than leadership. But, after listening and observing, I’m not afraid to share my perspective. If it’s going to be helpful, I actually think it’s my duty to speak up. If my sharing helps keep one black person from being killed, it’s worth my mistakes and mumbles. Even more than the white gaze, I’m sick of seeing my siblings of color die by prejudice and lack of resources.

In the late 60s, John & Yoko said during their “Bed-ins,” “We’re willing to be the world’s clowns, if that’s what it takes to promote peace.” I’m willing to appear awkward and strange, if that’s what it takes to save lives.

I’m curious how you perceive your story. Does it contribute to saving lives? What stories do? Where and when do you choose to speak? When do you choose to listen? And maybe even, when do you feel you need to opt out of the conversation? Does stepping away refresh you to come back to the conversation, or does it send you down a path toward isolation? And if isolated, how can you best be invited back in to create a beloved community?

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