Siege Diaries 6/4/2020

I am not comfortable calling myself an “ally.”

The reason is simple: It’s not my term to bestow.

As a human being, I remain a work in progress. Both as a historian, and before that, as a student of science, I have always valued facts and evidence, but understood that both are always subject to interpretation.

I have known since I was elementary school that “treating people differently because of their skin colour” was wrong. What I didn’t know is how profoundly rooted in a racist system that statement. “Skin colour” is the least of the issues, although it’s the most obvious one. It also implies that if you’re “nice” to people who don’t look like you, you couldn’t possibly be a racist.

I know that’s wrong, because I heard the things that white people said—“nice” white people—when there weren’t Black people around, and I heard these things go unchallenged by teachers when said by a student, or by other adults.

And I read articles and books by Black authors, like James Baldwin, as historical relics. The Civil Rights movement fixed all of that, didn’t it? That was history, right? It’s all better now, right? Or at least getting there?

In high school, I took a class called American Minorities. It was a super popular class because of Mr. Edwards, the teacher, who did his best to confront a bunch of mostly white high school seniors with a tiny bit of knowledge about Americans who weren’t white. We didn’t get much of that in our regular American History class. He had a humorous, confrontational style that I know now was designed to expose some of our white privilege. I particularly remember him giving a pop quiz around some key parts of Black culture that every single person in the room failed. We might have known who Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman or Martin Luther King, Jr. were, but none of us know what Juneteenth was, or what the Harlem Renaissance was, nor did we know the origins of words from Black dialect that had made it into common usage.

Unfortunately, most of us, I suspect, saw the class as a study not of Americans, but of people other than us. I did learn a few things, but the understanding was still superficial, the kind of stuff you might use in a game of Trivial Pursuit.

I came back and read some James Baldwin today. Barack Obama posted a lengthy article that ran in the New Yorker in 1962 that would eventually become part of his renowned book The Fire Next Time. I’ve never read the whole thing. I remember it being on the shelf at the OSU Bookstore for Black Studies classes when I worked there, and reading a few excerpts when things were slow in the back stockroom. (This was the way I read The Handmaid’s Tale and Lolita and To the Lighthoose.). Me, being mostly consumed with ancient history in those days, didn’t find it all that illuminating.

But reading it today was different. It’s one thing to know the facts of Black history. It’s another to understand what that meant for just one person coming of age as a young Black man in America. And even though his work predates the civil rights gains of the ‘60s, I suspect a lot of what he says has not changed all that much, deep down, beyond the surface level pretense that being nice to everyone means you’re not a racist. That “treating everyone like a human being” is admitting that there is a whole lot of not treating everyone like a human being going on, and that the default level of politesse is that exhibited by white people. If I treat Black people like white people, that’s ”good”, right?

Well, I’ve seen how a lot of white people treat each other. And it’s not “good.” I’m sorry, but “rugged individualism” and “ambition” and “work ethic” are often really nasty characteristics, especially in comparison to qualities like “compassion” or “generosity” or “kindness”.

So what I work on personally is trying to be a good human being. And that means learning to understand that for Black people, racism is part of everyday life in a way it isn’t for me, because—like the air I breathe—it’s always present, but never noticed. Black people, on the other hand, notice. Being nice to Black people won’t make it go away. And I’m not going to make it go away on my own, no matter how much I try.

And the reason why I’m a work in progress, not a a self-described ally? I still find myself often wanting to take the comfortable way out. To read the books and articles, to think the thinky thoughts, but not really “do the work’ and step out of my comfort zone and take a risk in saying something that others might not like. To make compromises. To privatize empty comforts over true growth and change.

But I do see a path to follow that might lead me somewhere. I can continue to seek to understand that facts and evidence are never the totality of any situation. There are human stories in history that make the bare facts come to life, and serve as signposts to the future for those who will read them.

I suspect that library card I just got for the Hamilton Public Library might just come in handy.