By Quentin Lucas
A few years ago, I struggled through a date at an art museum, admiring, but mostly just trying to understand, the pieces comprising a feminist exhibit. The woman I was with, much more educated about the subject than I, offered informed viewpoints, helping to add a dimension to the work which I, nevertheless, never fully comprehended nor enjoyed.
However, my date said one thing which stuck with me years later:
“During the height of the feminist movement, some women moved to enclaves where they started new lives completely separate from men, even beginning relationships with women though they wouldn’t identify as gay.”
I wish I had been alert enough that night to ask my date for clarity. Rather, I instead wondered if I could ever hate women enough to start dating men because I didn’t want to be around them anymore. Presently, I don’t think of hate as the chief catalyst behind women separating themselves from men. This is mostly because hate feels like clenching a muscle. Hate is work, and exhausting — like the reversal of your blood flow it’s such anathema to our natural state. Hate is so fatiguing I find its ability to exist in perpetuity almost inexplicable.
Yet, James Baldwin supplies insight when he says, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
All I’m certain of is that hate is not why I don’t talk to white people — though I certainly don’t flinch when I meet someone who does hate white people. I don’t feel any particular sense of loyalty toward, or need to defend, White America. Nor do I feel the need to explain why that is. But, psychologically speaking, I do seem to have shuffled off to an enclave.
Not talking to white people hadn’t always been my modus operandi. As a child, I’d play tag, swap lunches, or talk cartoons with everybody — although, I grew up poor and in the inner city, so there were fewer chances to talk to white people. Conversely, as a teen I didn’t really talk to anybody — but, now that I think about it, I was more social in the black church I attended than my prep school. Then, as an adult, I’d seemed to have hit a groove where my curiosity had taken the wheel and I was back to my general acceptance of whoever happened across my path.
Psychiatrist Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychological development highlights the importance of intimacy for building a full, happy life. And intimacy is what I’ve predominantly cited as the chief impediment to my talking to white people. Intimacy with that community doesn’t appeal to me.
Intimacy can be challenging, especially in the Information Age where social media has blurred the lines between who we are and how we present ourselves. Maybe my former Facebook friend who said anybody who would protest with Black Lives Matter should unfriend him was only grandstanding for his conservative social circles — nevertheless, I unfriended him anyway. And, truthfully, we were never really friends, just former co-workers, loosely hitched together by coding.
We are responsible for the communities we build around us, for the people we let in and those we keep out. I say that I don’t talk to white people because White America’s collective mindset is hostile toward people who look like me. But I could easily say, “I don’t talk to white people so White America’s collective mindset is hostile toward people who look like me,” because sometimes our actions feed our perspectives. And I am only certain of not always being certain of which side of the line I occupy.
A person may refuse to board an airplane because she thinks flying is too dangerous, while travelling via car is actually more lethal. But until she starts boarding airplanes and completing journeys through the sky, flying will always be the greater threat despite it being safer statistically. This is because all she’s ever known of air travel is to see it as likely death.
Initially, I thought I stopped talking to white people because White America is just awful, touting degrading stereotypes of people of color in entertainment, mitigating our murders at the hands of civil servants, et cetera. Now I just feel that White America is misguided, though still reductive, hurtful, and even deadly. But it is a necessary, though potentially dangerous, pursuit, to consider if White America is only harmful to me because I treat it as something that harms me.
Incidentally, the September 18, 2015 episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher inspired this essay. Listening to Maher’s panel of white men — Maher, Mark Cuban, George Pataki, and Chris Matthews — explain the prudence of arresting 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed — because a teacher thought his science project might have been a bomb — was like watching a doctor tell a child, “You know, if you had only just killed yourself first, you wouldn’t be dealing with this pesky brain cancer.”
Have you ever had an imaginary conversation with a television show?
White People Talking
Bill Maher: Look, this kid deserves an apology, no doubt about it … but could we have a little perspective about this? Did this teacher do the wrong thing?
Quentin Lucas, puzzled spectator: Glad you asked, Bill. Yes. The teacher was absolutely wrong.
Mark Cuban: I talked to the kid. I asked, “Tell me what happened,” because I’m curious, right? His sister, over his shoulder, you could hear, listening to the question, giving him the answer.
Quentin Lucas, perplexed spectator: Hate to interrupt, Mark. But I’m curious, right? Could the defensiveness have come from your being the kind of a person who discusses the particulars of private phone calls with children on national television?
Bill Maher: He’s a great kid. No one’s doubting that.
Quentin Lucas, baffled spectator: Seems like you really are, Bill.
Mark Cuban: This is, again, secondhand. The kid, Ahmed, took the clock, put it in the first class. The teacher said, “It looks great.” Took it to the second class, teacher said, “Okay, whatever, it’s great. Looks great.” Takes it to the third class, same thing. Then he got to a point, again secondhand, where one of the teachers, an English teacher apparently, said, “Look, you gotta put it in your backpack because it’s gonna make some people nervous and it’s making me nervous,” and, again secondhand, he wasn’t responsive to it at all. So it took six classes before anything happened.
Jorge Ramos, only non-white guy on panel: But this wouldn’t have happened if he was Muslim … and because of the color of his skin.
Bill Maher: It’s not the color of his skin. It’s not the color of his skin. Excuse me, somebody look me in the eye right here and tell me of the last 30 years if so many young Muslim men haven’t blown a lot of shit up around the world. For the last 30 years it’s been one culture blowing shit up over and over again.
Quentin Lucas, stupefied spectator: Excuse me, Bill. First, I’d love to look into your eyes. Second …
Jorge Ramos: You can’t blame all Muslims around the world for what somebody else did.
Quentin Lucas, slightly relieved spectator: An obvious — but somehow elusive — point, Jorge. Thanks for making it.
Mark Cuban: All the kid had to do was engage with the teacher and he didn’t. That’s the part that was missing. It was wrong that he got arrested. But all he had to do was talk to the teachers. But he didn’t.
Quentin Lucas, apoplectic spectator: I’m sorry, what?
Bill Maher: The message is you can see why they would err on the side of caution. Because only 25 miles away, somebody did try to kill people.
George Pataki: I can’t believe I agree with you. And, by the way, we have zero tolerance in schools for things that are suspicious. And maybe that doesn’t look like a bomb — but it doesn’t look like a clock.
Bill Maher: What if it had been a bomb? So the teacher is supposed to see something that might be a bomb and say, “Oh, wait, this may be my white privilege talking?”
Quentin Lucas, spectator with a headache: I can presently think of several instances where I wish someone would say, “Oh, wait, this may be my white privilege talking.”
Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s Hardball: You know, in this country, one of the problems we got is this willingness to take sides in this country without knowing what the hell happened. How do you know?! I wasn’t there! You weren’t there! Everybody’s an expert. It’s all a cartoon! Everything’s a cartoon!
Quentin Lucas, slightly terrified spectator: Hey, Chris, not sure what you mean by cartoon. That’s kind of a weird …
Chris Matthews: Everything’s a fucking cartoon!
Quentin Lucas, slightly more terrified spectator: Weirder.
Jorge Ramos: A 14-year-old was arrested for doing a science project …
Mark Cuban: He shouldn’t have been arrested. But he should have opened his mouth and had a conversation about it.
Quentin Lucas, browbeaten spectator: I just want to say that it was great to hear Chris say fuck because, seriously guys, what the …?
Bill Maher: He was arrested. And they took him off in cuffs. And then put him in a cage and burned him. Oh no, that’s ISIS who does that. You know what, we put a kid after school for a couple of hours. This is not the end of the world …
Quentin Lucas, longsuffering spectator: Don’t say “we,” please. I don’t cosign this bullshit.
Bill Maher: The lack of perspective on this is astounding.
Quentin Lucas, demoralized spectator: Bill, I couldn’t agree more.
Chris Matthews: Let me just say one thing. The teacher said something that sounds credible. They said he wasn’t forthcoming. The kid had a chance to explain himself. All you have to do is explain yourself. And for whatever reason, just shyness … we don’t know what it was. He wasn’t used to that kind of tension. But he didn’t explain it. Who would’ve been there to explain this thing? I don’t know.”
Mark Cuban: But you know who the big winner is? Ahmed. Because when I talked to him — he got all the attention. His two hours were taken but he told — look he’s been getting all these offers … the kid came out way ahead.”
Bill Maher: I would love it if one of the adults who has talked to him would also say to him, “You know what, what happened to you was wrong but maybe one of the reasons why it happened is because in our religion we were responsible for 9/11, the Madrid bombing, the London bombing, the Bali discotheque bombing ….”
Jorge Ramos: But he’s not responsible for …
Bill Maher: He’s not! Of course he’s not! We’re not saying …
Talking to White People
To pursue intimacy, to discuss matters wildly important to my life, and livelihood — like race in America — with a cohort this remarkably obstinate would be to adopt the persona of The Shawshank Redemption’s Andy Dufresne. Except, one would be crawling through “five-hundred yards of shit-smelling foulness I can’t even imagine” only to emerge from one prison while still trapped in another — that which is made of melanin.
A response to the aforementioned panel may look something like the following:
“Mark Cuban, the idea that the onus rests upon the shoulders of a 14-year-old student to articulate for his racist English teacher that he’s not a terrorist even after, according to your own secondhand account, some six other teachers basically said ‘nice clock, kid’ throughout the day, is the quality of bullshit that, if science could ever synthesize, may end world hunger through its fertilization properties alone.
George Pataki, the one thing you said through this entire bigoted diatribe is ‘maybe that doesn’t look like a bomb — but it doesn’t look like a clock.’ Glossing over the obvious constitutional reality that America doesn’t usually arrest children for creating items that don’t look like clocks — and your curious animosity for non-clockmakers — I have to say that you came the closest to doing your job well. You went on television and gave prejudice a thumbs up. If the GOP was the American Mafia, this is the moment when party members would line up to kiss your hand and call you Godfather.
Chris Matthews. You lost me when you said cartoon. And then you pulled me back in when you said cartoon again. How do we know? What do we know? Simply that if the police actually thought Ahmed had made a bomb they would have evacuated the school, or called the bomb squad, or brought in some bomb-sniffing dogs, or found a stray on the street and taught it how to sniff bombs so they could discover a strain of malice emitting from somewhere other than the collection of bullies who interrogated a child without even his parents being present.
And Bill Maher. You’ve been called intolerant before. And all you did tonight was validate that contention. On top of being arrested for making a clock, you wish some adult would be sage enough to tell Ahmed that it only happened because there are awful people who claim to share his faith — and it was necessary to err on the side of caution.
As you were.
Oh, and … America. America’s culture has been blowing shit up for the last 30 years. We have the most expansive and expensive military in the world for a reason. Also, white men. If people are going to “err on the side of caution,” then in regard to schools, arrest white males with anything in their pockets.
I don’t care if they only find pencils. Profile and arrest all of them — for the sake of caution, of course.”
But little of what I think deviates from the contributions of the disregarded and universally opposed Jorge Ramos, who could only voice his opinion through the walls of his melanin penitentiary.
The serenity that accompanies choosing not to talk to white people is borne out from something not unlike successfully crawling through a tunnel of sewage — like Dufresne. Guilt and shame are mephitic, and ubiquitous. But neither torment as effectively as the prison cell where you just sit, swarmed by bigoted bombast and time, dragging like nails against a chalkboard.
Talking to white people can be a life’s slow, inglorious ending. So, you hold your nose and crawl through shame, and guilt toward something safer, healthier — wondering all the while if you’ve become like the xenophobic personalities you’ve loathed for so long.
I’m not a court of law looking for the intent behind an incident, asking whether George Zimmerman was hunted or hunting. My concern is the patterns, and the outcomes. A co-worker genuinely compliments me by saying he would never call me a nigger because I work hard, the impact is white supremacy. A friend kindly invites me to watch a movie where the people of color are non-existent or plucky sidekicks, the impact is white supremacy. My roommate casually mentions that he likes to watch Bill O’Reilly for entertainment, the impact is white supremacy.
The light at the end of that tunnel — shoving away White America’s casual oblivion like shadows — may be the closest I’ll ever come to knowing freedom in America. And so, yes, I would figuratively, or literally actually, crawl through a tunnel of shit to escape a world where everything has been made to be about race.
“Why do you make everything about race?”
To be a human being, accused of “making everything about race,” is to receive a thorny stem instead of the rose. The allegation is almost a kind gesture, almost a compliment implying that you’re somehow influential enough to make anything “everything about something.” Additionally, backlash for discussing American racism underscores the topic’s anarchistic pedigree. A mere analysis of the frequency of racism threatens a coup de gras for the American ego.
“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it — whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”
~ Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird
The cunning behind the accusation of “making everything about race” is that, like accusations of racism, it works as an honest observation, a power play, or both. And the consequential fallout of uncertainty can be disorienting. Being told that your perception is askew does little more than highlight the fallibility of your humanity. Anybody can sustain a temporary loss of perspective.
But when this peccadillo — a skewed perspective — is grounded in the controversy of American racism, the consequences may be widespread repudiation. Every American life is tied up in the labyrinth of racism. No matter whom you are in this country, where you stand on this single issue leaves you accepted or abandoned to some measure — which is one reason why the reluctance to examine it does not mystify.
Ironically, if it weren’t an incomplete thought, I would actually value the question, “Why do you make everything about race?”
But the question — “Why do you make everything about race when our country’s forefathers already did?” — drives the crucial point closer to home.
The Currency of Whiteness
In the 1973 movie, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, a scene consistently bewilders me though I’m aware of the realities behind it. David (pronounced da-veed) Lemieux plays Pretty Willie, a character who is asked to lead a bank robbery because of his light skin. The gang’s ringleader — played by the mahogany Lawrence Cook — makes the request because he trusts that Pretty Willie’s appearance will sway legal authorities from believing that black influences manipulated the caper.
Pretty Willie’s reaction is candid:
“Look man, I am tired of that! I am not passing! I am black! Do you hear me, man? Do you understand? I am black! I’m a nigger! You understand me? I was born black! I live black! And I’m gonna die probably because I’m black! Because some cracker that knows I’m black — better than you, nigger — is probably going to put a bullet in the back of my head!”
To this day, I still watch the scene and feel a floundering discomfort with the white man in the dashiki calling himself, and Lawrence Cook’s character, nigger. This is true even while understanding that David Lemieux is of mixed heritage, and is a former Black Panther — one of the youngest when he joined at the age of 16. Additionally, Lemieux later spent 26 years as a Chicago police officer — only after consulting activists first about how his policemanship might benefit his community — and, now retired, actively participates in the Chicago Black Panther History movement.
Though, in truth, David Lemieux could instead be a Ku Klux Klan member in good standing. Such a membership, in conjunction with his pale skin and flowing hair, nevertheless does not discount his blackness — which might inspire one to ponder what being black in America actually means.
To feel bamboozled by the racial boundaries chiseled into the American psyche is likely a reflection of your better judgment. When walking across the western border of Massachusetts into New York, there is no actual boundary fingered into the soil, indicating the moment you’ve ambled into the country’s 11thstate. But, like a shared hallucination, those lines have been tattooed into our collective truth — winning our devotion and compliance — though no such borders exist in the physical world.
Race is not dissimilar from that shared hallucination. A 2002 Washington Post article, People of Color Who Never Felt They Were Black, notes that, in Brazil, “Someone with Sidney Poitier’s deep chocolate complexion would be considered white if his hair were straight and he made a living in a profession.”
One of the earliest moments of legislating color lines into American culture followed Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 — an ignoble escapade bent on the desire to slaughter American Indians. The bloodshed and duration of the rebellion were troublesome enough for the Virginian authorities. But what intimidated the ruling class of the time was that one of the final groups to surrender comprised 80 black slaves and 20 English indentured servants.
“There are hints that the two despised groups initially saw each other as sharing the same predicament. It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together.”
~ Edmund Sears Morgan, American historian
The aristocratic fear of being overthrown by the lower class culminated with a divide and conquer maneuver. As told by Howard Zinn in A People’s History of The United States, while the Virginia Assembly was passing laws galvanizing the discipline and punishment of slaves, “A law was passed requiring masters to provide white servants whose indentured time was up with ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings, and a gun, while women servants were to get 15 bushels of corn and forty shillings. Also, the newly freed servants were to get 50 acres of land.”
Edmund Sears Morgan adds that “Once the small planter felt less exploited by taxation and began to prosper a little, he became less turbulent, less dangerous, more respectable. He could begin to see his big neighbor not as an extortionist but as a powerful protector of their common interests.”
What gleams as the most apropos exemplification of American whiteness comes courtesy of intellectuals from the antebellum south. During the time when states were beginning to secede, James B. D. De Bow, a leading political economy writer, supported a growing sentiment that the North was the product of inferior white people. “The Cavaliers, Jacobites, and Hugeunots, who settled the South, naturally hate, contemn, and despise the Puritans who settled the North,” De Bow wrote in the popular De Bow’s Review. “The former are a master race, the latter a slave race, the descendants of Saxon serfs.”
In truth, everything in America is not about race. More likely, if there was a god particle to America, it would be money. But race is a form of currency — even property according to the majority opinion of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling:
“If he be a white man and assigned to a colored coach, he may have his action for damages against the company for being deprived of his so-called property. Upon the other hand, if he be a colored man and be so assigned, he has been deprived of no property, since he is not lawfully entitled to the reputation of being a white man.”
The value of both assets, money and whiteness, comes from our nation’s faith in them. Few examples underline this reality more starkly than the fact that when the country went to war with itself, one side attempted to steal the other’s whiteness.
Why I Don’t Talk to White People
I once endured a troubling experience with a cab driver. I paid for my fare with the credit card system from the backseat, but the cabby didn’t believe me. We argued for a few minutes before I tired and exited the vehicle. While walking to a convenience store, the cab driver followed me slowly in his automobile, bellowing invectives. He then followed me into the store to do the same.
Eventually, the cab driver called the police. Around 8pm, in a residential district, I stood surrounded by four officers, with one being particularly discourteous toward me. Fortunately, the idea to access my banking app and show the receipt of my payment was successful — baffling the cab driver and annoying the police officer who wouldn’t so much as look at me when I asked if I could leave. I recounted this story to a friend.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Racism sucks.”
“Actually, both the cabby and the cop who was rude to me were black,” I answered.
“It doesn’t matter. Black-on-black racism, white-on-black racism, it all benefits me,” my white friend said.
Not talking to white people runs curiously parallel to having a gluten allergy, a nuisance which means, among many things, that I shouldn’t consume breaded foods. The conflict within that circumstance is not that I love breaded foods and yet I don’t eat them. The conflict lies in my loving breaded foods even more now because I don’t eat them.
Thus, the paradox: I don’t eat breaded food. But sometimes I’ll eat breaded food.
I don’t talk to white people. But sometimes I’ll talk to white people. Where the two life choices diverge is that whenever I break my rule about eating gluten, doing so runs counter to my interests in self-preservation. Yet, many times when I break my rule about talking to white people, it’s done in the interest of self-preservation — especially in regard to America’s notional god particle, money.
Eating gluten, and talking to white people, sometimes happens because of an emotional need, either for comfort or company. Alcohol has facilitated rendezvous on several occasions. And there have been times when simply not wanting to be rude — to a white person who’s approached me or to someone who’s cooked a meal for me — has compelled a détente. Although, curiosity has likely been the supreme culprit when rule breaking occurs, for either matter.
Additionally, though the emphasis of this essay has principally concentrated on white people, the word talk also warrants attention. As found on dictionary.com, there is a literal difference between the words speak and talk. The former denotes the utterance of words or articulation of sound. The latter involves communication and the exchange of ideas and information.
I speak to white people frequently. But often, those utterances don’t lead to an open exchange of ideas, or true communication. Though there are serendipitous moments, as was the case with the friend who shared her view on my confrontation with the cab driver. In fact, I’ve been fortunate with the number of honest connections I’ve made with white people — and surprised.
Sometimes I weigh the cost-benefits of not talking to white people, wondering if the world would be a better place if more talking happened — especially since an exchange of ideas indicates there will be more listening. Conversely, there is no talking to white people for me without swimming through tragedy. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, workplace discrimination, police brutality, the Rosewood massacre, the Black Wall Street massacre, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the war on drugs, housing discrimination, gentrification, healthcare discrimination, mental health, the school to prison pipeline, income inequality, hunger, not slavery, yet, but the outcry to move on from slavery, and how those scenarios and more contribute to the present day value of whiteness — they all scroll through my mind like the credits of a horror film.
Even before attempting the act of talking to white people, the very idea exhausts me.
Talking to black people reminds me of how black people have endured. Talking to white people reminds me of what black people have endured. Yet, some of my favorite people happen to benefit from the American currency of whiteness — and manage not to wear it like an aristocrat’s family crest, for which I am grateful.
Meanwhile, I merely benefit from the knowledge of this currency, and try to act accordingly — from here on my enclave.
Quentin Lucas is a self-described “Army brat” — originally born in Frankfurt, Germany — who believes the trickiest part of writing comes after realizing the work is about more than the words, or even the idea. Writing is about the communication, or the “telepathy” as Stephen King would put it — taking an idea out of his head and successfully putting it in yours in a way that matters, and somehow adds value to your life. Along with working as a copywriter and professional blogger, he also runs a weekly a column at The Good Men Project which you can read here, has won the occasional poetry slam, and has also been published multiple times in both Elephant Journal and The Huffington Post. You can find a broad collection of his work, including his novel The Magnificent Adventures of QLuke, at his site www.qluke.com.