Owning My Bias

  ‘Well, you just turn over your card, and then, you know.’ 

He says it casually. It’s out of step with anything we are familiar with, but it comes close. Charlie, who will be 6 soon, is trying out ‘ya know’. He’s approximating it’s use and misappropriating it. But he’s coming close and it’s pretty great. I won’t say it was adorable. I want to be respectful of his attempts at growth. 

There will be more of this. Much more. I know because it’s how I came to be as well. I tried things on. I tried on jock. I tried on brooding teen. I tried on funny guy. I tried on ladies man. I tried on urban Joe or black Joe if you prefer. I tried on tragic Joe. I tried on social warrior. I tried on writer. I’m still trying it on. I put on these identities and parts of each were unearthed in me. I eventually rejected all of these as a whole person is way to big to fit inside something so narrow as an identity so narrowly and externally defined. There was a reason for each and that reason remains and lives on within me. 

Watching Charlie start this I have to say, I don’t envy him. The journey to understanding who you are, determining who you are, leveling intent and native instinct as well as philosophy and temperament is arduous. It’s a journey I’m still struggling with. I’m still trying to figure it all out. I hope he navigates it okay. I’d say that I hope he navigates it better than me, but I woudln’t mean it. If he navigated it exactly like me, well, I’d buy that right now. I hope he finds his truest self faster than I did. 

I had great freedom. Charlie, so far, knock on wood, appears that he will have similar opportunity. He will be able to be all the things, all the component emotional realities along the way as he grows from nearly six to man sized and ready to be freed of the tyranny of parents. It will seem like torture at times, as it certainly will for us as well but he’ll have that chance it appears. He should consider himself lucky. I should. Not every kid is afforded such a wide berth in which to experiment. Not every parent is afforded the confidence that the world will at the very least look the other way as kids growing up try on identities. 

I had friends who were black when I was growing up. I have brothers whom I love who are and were black. Our dinner table had black people at it, black men. It had a young woman who was Vietnamese. Not to mention six tall, white, irish/finnish Medler’s as well. We were all fucked up in our own way. In the way that all good and happy families are. But at bottom we were well. We were loved and we were safe. 

At least us white one’s were. Especially us boys. We could fail repeatedly. We could fall down and the world would be there, over and over to pick us up. We were given chances, seen for the good people that we were underneath our outwardly destructive behavior as we grew into fine men. We were forgiven our absences and absolved of wrongdoing. We got consequences, but just enough to make us better for it. Just enough to learn a lesson. Maybe it took a couple of times. Maybe more than a few. I can’t say that all my black friends wee afforded the same liberty and leeway. 

As I’ve gotten older and I’ve looked back on my youthful friendships I think that we were all playing with a cartoon. A racist cartoon at that. When I say all I mean myself, my white friends and the relatively few black guys who were our peeers. I had three best friends in high school, all in separate contexts to some degree. Two redheads and a young man who was black. I essentially was drawn to each of them for their similar qualities. They were all funny, still are. They were all smart. Super smart actually, but like me they were largely smart in the room and not really caring about grades or accomplishment. They were and remain all guys you could sit in a car and split a six pack and talk about life with and you could learn and elucidate. Good guys. But when I was with certain collections of people, during times when I was trying on black joe, I have to say, it was pretty inherently and in hindsight, downright insidiously racist. There was no intent there, but that only makes it more dangerous. It was aping a culture to feel something. I don’t really know what that something was, but it was not ours, not come about honestly. We felt some kind of glow of hardship and reveled in it from a place of safety that wasn’t afforded the members of our groups who weren’t white. To some degree, perhaps they shared some of those safety nets, but we had more. I’d be sent home if caught doing the bad thing. He wouldn’t be. Wasn’t. 

I take pride, shamefully, in being right racially. As if this is some honor. As if I should be given some special honorary brother status for merely acknowledging racism exists and saying it’s wrong. For a long time, 40+ years I thought that was enough. I don’t think that anymore. Now I think I need to acknowledge what biases I have. I need to respect the hardships of others and not usurp them. I have to stand alongside not only my my black friends and say we are in this together, I need to stand next to my white ones and own my reality as well. 

What’s most painful for me is acknowledging my personal bias. I am scared to write what comes next and as much as I want to be brave and just say it and let it live. I can’t. I have to first say another truth. One that is honest and self serving. I am aware of my bias and whenever I catch it infecting my thinking of another human being I acknowledge it and put it aside and find out more about the person. In doing so I’ve met more wonderful people than a person my age has any right having known and I know that others who have had preconceived notions of me have done the same. I’m proud of that. Which is kind of sick. Because other times I’ve only found my bias in the rearview mirror. I can miss it and not recognize it until it is too late. I’ll always try to make amends if I can, but sometimes I can’t. I imagine there are times I don’t even see it. Ever. Me. Someone who grew up with black people. Who has written boldly on the ill of racism in America and who has spoken out at every turn decrying it’s outcomes, I can be overwhelmed by irrational and unfair bias against black men. Particularly young black men. I try always to counter it. I am disciplined about breaking through that feeling as swiftly as it is recognised. But I’m not immune. It breaks my heart that this is true. 

I believe we all have biases. For much of my life these biases have put me ahead of most others in all pursuits, even before we’ve encountered one another. Even if we never encounter one another. That’s what being white and male is in my case. I have friends from homogenous areas of the world who will disagree with this, but I don’t think any of them honestly believes their lives would be easier if they were black. Or that any of the black guys they know wouldn’t think, on some level, the world wouldn’t be a safer place for them if they were white. It doesn’t mean life is easy for anyone. So many factors have lead to my life being what it is, not the least of which being my inherrently good traits. But I also see a world where I was forgiven much, allowed a lot and not restricted because the world has been trained to see me as a threat. And I’m big. I’m 6’2″ 235 big. But I”m not big and black and in threat of being exterminated like a roach or a snake because my appearance inspires blind fear of a visceral nature that has caused young men of color to be shot essentially for being black men. Or even boys. 

As disgusted as I am to live in a world where this happens I can no longer go forward without acknowledging that I know what those cops were feeling. It was fear. I can have the same response to black men in situations that feel risky. I hate everything I’m saying and I’m more the type of person that will cross the street to be on the same side of that person because I’m civilized, understand that it’s my obligation to actively counter this reaction when I feel it, but I’ve felt it. I can feel it. 

I hate myself for feeling it. But nowadays, with racists running for and winning office openly espousing profiling of religious belief and questioning the very humanity of people of color, turning their backs on the poor and destitute ravaged by war and strife and hunger, I can’t afford to deny my bias in defense of my ideals. Honesty is the least I can do. I don’t want to ever live in a world where those who know say nothing. Where people who can speak don’t. Right now I feel like I live in a world, in a country that has lost sight of the founding principle that we are all created equal. A myth that was a lie knowingly told by men who hoped to be cured by it’s aspirational sentiment and the actions of those people who followed them. We are failing and we are approaching a point where we must exercise not only our rights, but our better selves and the first step for me is acknowledging my bias. By moving past the foolishness of ‘I don’t see color’ and owning our bias. Owning it and letting it out into the world so I know I’ve done everything in my power to be free of it. So that there can be any hope of ever getting past what is so inherently unjust. So others can see the insidiousness of hate and it’s effect on all of us. 

The Problem with the ‘Good Schools’

High School ClassroomWe live where we live for a lot of reasons. We feel its a good place to grow up for our kids. A big reason for this, the biggest reason we are here, is the schools. We moved here for the schools. It’s a common refrain.We’re starting to meet the other parents of kids who will be in Charlie’s kindergarten class and so many of them mention the schools as a part of why they are here. There was a state wide ranking that came out around the time we moved here declaring our school the top rated public school in the state.

We can’t afford private schools and neither my wife nor I are interested in them. We were public school kids and we wanted the same for our kids. We wanted them to have a real connection to the place they grew up. Besides public schools fit better with our politics as well. But I can’t help being a little uncomfortable with the idea of ‘moving here for the schools.’ I can’t help but think there’s some coded message in the phrase, some coded history that reflects how we’ve gotten here.

My town is 85% white, 10% Asian and just over 1% African American. These numbers are from the 2010 census. We have a train station that allows one to easily access commuter lines to NYC. Broadly speaking New Jersey is a diverse populace, particularly as you approach the city. So why this largely homogenous population? I have some ideas.

The great migration of African American’s from the south to cities of the northeast and Midwest made northerners confront the realities of a diversifying population. We white folks didn’t really handle it all that well. What many of my contemporaries now see as an organic, self segregating impulse that has left many communities largely homogenous was in fact anything but organic in how it came to be.

Many of you will surely recognize at least some of what I’m saying. Perhaps your history makes you aware of the great migration. Perhaps your history makes you aware that diversity can be more an economic issue than a racial one. Perhaps you can see that the community you live in, the one you moved to, perhaps for the ‘good schools’, is largely homogenous but feel that this being a free country that the whiteness of your town is coincidence more than design. If you think this last thing you might be right. Surely there are some communities that this is true of and those communities have other issues. Also, they are unicorns. Generally speaking the communities we live in are homogenous by intent if not design.

When African American families moved to the north they met opportunity to be sure. They met successes that would have been unthinkable in some areas of the rural south they left. They met new challenges and new problems as well. One of those being that despite the north being on the side of the angels in the war, it didn’t mean their was any less racial animus here. It didn’t mean that there was a smoother integration. In fact, it turned out, so much of the racial tolerance many expected was completely absent and there was new, sophisticated ways in which they were experiencing racism. Subtle ways that kept them struggling no matter how hard they tried. Wage deflation, employment discrimination, poor funding of schools, legal bias and housing discrimination.

Housing discrimination was rampant. If you were a young black professional with a family you were shown the ‘black’ parts of town. You were refused tenancy in ‘white’ areas, at least the desirable ones. The ones where you were barred from as your presence would ‘bring down property values’. Steering people to one place based on a perceived undesirability, having brown skin in this case, was how we ghettoized the African American’s who moved north for a better life. So the young, black child of that young black doctor couldn’t go to the schools where the young white kids of the young white doctor went, where they had other young professionals and tax bases were strong and schools well funded. The ceiling of achievement was thus lowered to meet their blackness. Furthermore those young, bright, possibly world changing young kids segregated into ‘black’ areas were losing the value of home ownership that was growing for their white counterparts since there was the burgeoning reality that the areas where African Americans lived were losing value as they could only sell to ‘blacks’, who were increasingly poorly educated by underfunded schools.

For a generation or two black businesses working with largely black clientele may have thrived, but the communities were crumbling under increasing financial pressures being put upon them to relocate as their neighboring ‘white’ neighborhoods, growing richer from generation to generation needed to co-opt more property to keep the growth going. Gentrification is a beautiful and euphonious word considering how destructive a force it has been in so many communities of color over the years.

White folks in white neighborhoods started to see themselves as more capable, more worthy and ultimately more valuable. Over time the system reinforced these views and before long what was simple racism could now be seen as inherent superiority. I’m a white guy, but I have to imagine that the grinding gears set in motion to devalue our brown skinned brothers and sisters was internalized by generations of young children seeing the world they lived in as one that punished them for being ‘black.’ You may not see self esteem and self worth as a socioeconomic issue, but that’s probably because you are afforded more opportunity to define your own worth. That’s what I’m afforded.

As historically African American areas were slowly or swiftly overrun by the ever more prosperous white community the neighborhood that was once there would have to move. While there was good money to be made selling ones property to the gentrifying crowd, it wasn’t enough to keep up with the skyrocketing costs of living in the area. So they moved just outside the area, to the ghetto down the street, where they could afford to relocate and stay employed. It wasn’t always a great idea to look to move away as there might not be a lot of options there for employment, but what there was they had and there was no doubt value, however little, in the undervalued work had vs. the undervalued work elsewhere that was likely already had.

Eventually the ‘white’ folks could move out of the city. They could find a nice place to live, a place where the kids can play outside in big back yards. Where there is purposely not a lot of business or opportunity. Where you’d make it expensive enough to keep out the riff-raff. Where you could be happy that your kids would get a good education due to the high tax base. Where you could charge whatever you want as young professionals, like everyone, wants to give their kids the best chance to succeed.

There’s nothing wrong in my decision to live here. Nothing wrong for wanting to move here for the schools. But there’s something terribly wrong in thinking that the world doesn’t favor me at the expense of others. There’s something wrong in thinking there was not a ton of external factors that have brought us to this place. Something awful in thinking others aren’t here simply because they don’t want to be.

I moved here because I could. For the schools.

How I Understand Privilege

‘I wish I was black.’ 

I was probably 12 years old or so when I said this and I was 100% sincere. In that moment, looking out the window as the rural landscape of western New York flew past, barely undulating and never ending I couldn’t have been more sincere. 

My life was basketball and I was a Piston’s fan, Isaiah Thomas was my all time favorite player. Michael Jackson’s ‘Off the Wall’ was my first record. And I mean vinyl. Might have been my last as well. Tapes were on their way. All the guys I watched on the playgrounds and at the college, whose games I emulated and whose styles I mimicked were all black guys. I was into early rap through my older brothers. We had cardboard taped to the floor in the basement and we spent hours a day working on all the moves we could remember from ‘Breakin’. I’m not sure I could ever windmill but I could do everything else. I was a badass little pop and locker. I remember someone getting a hold of a tape of Eddie Murphy’s ‘Delirious’ and hearing it and thinking I’d just heard the coolest and damn near funniest thing ever. ‘Gooney goo goo’ had me rolling, and for the life of me now I can’t remember what the joke was to that punchline. Whatever, his stories were so clearly real and it felt like a sneak peak into a life that I was fascinated by. A life I could only imagine. A life I couldn’t stop imagining. 

The appeal was made only stronger by the sense that they were fighting a battle I couldn’t really fight. My team, the one I was on not by choice, was the opposition. The ‘man’ and I didn’t want to be ‘the man.’ I wanted to be cool. Black people, to me at 12, were cool. I can’t remember which comedian I heard more recently who said, and I’m most certainly paraphrasing here, ‘God knew that black people would have to endure countless and endless suffering and to make up for it he gave us a lifetime supply of ‘cool.’ It’s kind of a joke and kind of a sad statement of the reality of what a lot of people have to face and how a certain number choose to counter the reality that won’t seem to change for the better without changing doubly for the worse at times. But at 12, for me, it wasn’t so nuanced. 

Beyond that I had a couple of role models in the house, older brothers who were the guys I looked up to most. I had two other brothers, actual brothers of mine, born of the same parents and all, and I looked up to them like crazy, but for some reason, perhaps my aforementioned affinities, I was drawn to my brothers who were ‘brothers.’ 

Eventually after processing what I’d said my father replied to my non sequitir calmly and wisely.

‘You probably shouldn’t tell anyone that. It’s okay for you to feel that, for now, but you should probably keep that to yourself.’ 

‘Why?’ I asked. 

To my mind it could only be taken as an honor, right? I mean I was saying I envied blackness. How could that be wrong? 

A thousand ways. Trust me, it didn’t take long for me to see that after enunciating my most sincere wish. 

‘Well…’ My dad thought. How do you tell your 12 year old that they are being so ignorant of life’s realities in a moment when they are trying, sincerely, to understand people different from them. 

‘I don’t think you are thinking about this, but it could come off to some people like you are not really appreciating all that you have been given. Might seem a little unaware of all that black people have had to go through.’ My dad said.

My dad’s not a ‘race’ guy. The issues confronting his own ‘kids’ would be dealt with when they would come up, but it was largely not a thing he thought about. He’s often surprised by how much I will think about race and the unfairness I’ve seen as I’ve grown up and watched. I’ll remind him, it would be hard for him to have my perspective, he didn’t really grow up in an environment like the one I did. He didn’t grow up in an integrated home within a largely homogenously white community. He didn’t see all the dads who’d go out of there way to drop the ‘n-word’ in front of me, just to, I don’t know, check if I was cool with it? Remind me that they thought my brothers less for it? Just to shock me? Maybe they were like that all the time, I don’t know, but from my house growing up it was the single most hateful sounding word ever. When I was a kid it was just barely starting to be reappropreated by black culture and these grown men weren’t aware of that. It was the ugliest of usages of the ugliest word. 

That day my dad stopped me cold. For him he was just responding to a sensitive issue, trying to steer me clear of saying something so wrong, but what he did was get me thinking. I knew instantly what he meant and it started me on a train of thought that has been a thread through my life. It didn’t change my heart in that moment, but it changed my head. Eventually my heart caught up and I came to understand how truly wrong my wish was. 

I’m still learning to understand my great good fortune. I’m so thankful I said that to my dad. So thankful that he answered the way he did. Through the years and phases of my life I’ve seen how it’s made me see things, things that are now so obvious to me that are so hidden from so many white men. About how much is taken for granted. 

When I was in high school and we were all sitting in suburban living rooms drinking forties of O.E. with our shoes off and watching Boys in the Hood and playing out fantasies that were others nightmares I knew the privilege. When we aped the style and patois of emerging disaffected young men who society rejected before they even arrived we were drowning in entitlement and dismissing and glorifying that which was exotic to us young men who would never have to face it. I recognized it, many of us did, for what it was not long after. 

When I was in college and heard truly vile hate speech being bandied about by the future executives of the world I was disgusted. The truth was there weren’t too many of them that did it, it was the tolerating of it all and the occasional sick deep indulgence of it all. I remember my mother, sitting at our kitchen table on a summer evening when I was home from school after my sophomore year telling me to love the people I loved for their good qualities and stick around to try to influence them positively when it came to the ugly parts. I don’t know. I didn’t really do that all that well there. Made some friends but I still have a lot of bitterness too. 

What I know is that ‘wishing I was black’ while sincere, was a privilege. It was a child’s understanding and I hope it came from a place of empathy and a desire to connect with and understand other people and their experiences. But it was definitely a privilege. The reality is that if a 12 or 15 or 28 or 45 year old black person were to ‘wish they were white’ it likely wouldn’t be from the same place of privilege as my wish came from. It likely woudn’t be naive. In fact I suspect it would come from a place of far deeper understanding than I may ever know. 

I See It

Today I’m on The Good Men Project trying to understand what it must feel like for parents of African American sons. I am horrified of a world that can be so cruel.

http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/the-reality-in-america-that-is-more-prevalent-than-most-white-people-see-medler-jrmk/