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What do you do when a driver calls your wife a ‘dumb n—— b——’?

Racism is so deeply woven into our national culture that it shapes everything about us as a nation — even when, and especially when, you are a progressive White male who is married to a Black woman

MacLean Gander has taught English and journalism at Landmark College in Putney for more than 30 years, but the views expressed are entirely his own. (By way of transparency, we note that he is serving on the board of directors of Vermont Independent Media, publisher of this newspaper, where he is temporarily lending his considerable educational and administrative talents. In between these roles, he has been our investigative journalist in The Commons’ newsroom.)

West Brattleboro

There is so much to say about race in America. I have not newly come to the party, but, really, I don’t know shit.

I am going to start — and end — with a story.

My wife and I were riding down from Putney after she picked me up at work, coming through the roundabout at Exit 3 to get on the highway.

A driver in an SUV had been riding our tail, and as my wife slowed down to make a right turn, he rolled up beside us. All of us had our windows open on this hot summer day, so when he leaned over and shouted, “You dumb n—— b——,” it was like his voice was in our car.

My wife does not back down from conflict, so she shouted back, “What did you say?”

He repeated the same thing, a little louder.

I was exhausted from work, just drowsing in the shotgun seat and looking forward to some rest.

When he said it again, I felt stunned by fear.

“Just drive,” I urged her. “Leave it. Just drive.”

She was so angry, her fists were clenched on the steering wheel. She peeled out toward Interstate 91, driving 50 in a 25 mph zone.

With my response to the incident, I had failed her.

We fought about it, and then we talked about it with friends, and then we made it cool between us again. But it took a while.

It still is a wound in my heart in a way that is hard for me to explain.

* * *

To write about race as a White person requires a kind of arrogance. We can read the histories and talk to our Black friends, but we can’t know what it is like to have brown skin in a White world.

And yet the burden to talk about racism is on the shoulders of White people, not people of color. It is not up to the victim to solve the crime and restore justice.

In an interview last year, the film director Spike Lee was asked whether he believed that the concept of being a “White ally” had validity. He said probably, but he wasn’t sure.

A lot of the people writing in a lively comments section didn’t believe that white folks really could be allies.

“Allyship is a 24/7 job, and there’s a lot of white people trying to pull part time shifts,” one respondent wrote.

I took that post to heart.

* * *

Slavery is the original sin of the American republic, and racism is so deeply woven into our national culture that it shapes everything about us as a nation.

For Black Americans, slavery’s legacy is found in the limits to opportunity, the economic disparity, the police killings, the fact that it is far more likely that a male child will wind up in prison than in college, or that a black woman with economic security and good health care is more likely than a poor White woman with no health care to have problems or to die in childbirth.

It is a curse on the nation. Not to see it that way displays either ignorance or malice.

Malice is easy to see, like the running dogs of racism that Trump’s administration has unleashed, or the videos of Black people having the police called on them because they were doing some ordinary activity, like opening their own front door or taking a nap in a university study room.

The White violence that has been directed against the Black body for four centuries is the pain that any person of color carries in their bones. The visible evidence of police killings is a litany of names and just the tip of an iceberg formed in centuries of oppression and violence.

Black families know to armor their children against this violence. Keep your hands on the steering wheel and smile when you get pulled over. Have your papers ready. Don’t do anything that might make someone think you are stealing. Keep your hands out of your pockets, and make sure you are carrying ID.

The violence stems from the fear that White Europeans have always had about the Africans they imported to America as chattel slaves in a history that started in 1619 and never really ended, although the importation of slaves was allegedly stopped in 1807.

In Virginia, you could legally kill a slave so long as you paid compensation to the owner. In one 10-year period in the 1840s, more than 400 Black men were killed in that manner.

America’s history is stained with the blood and trauma of slavery, and that’s the malice — a whip, a casual rape of a Black slave woman by White school boys at the antebellum University of Virginia, the fear that a person of color feels when blue lights come up behind them.

* * *

White ignorance, on the other hand, is the real curse, the virus infecting the American soul.

It is so invisible for White people that it makes my wife “constantly go crazy,” she says, because it is so easy for her to see. She gets called out for being “too sensitive” or “too uppity” when in fact she is just telling the truth.

The only cure for it is education, which is why Black History Month matters so much.

It is there when some well-meaning White person says, “I don’t see color, I just see people.”

It is there when a well-meaning White person bends over backward to assure you, a Black person, that you are likable even when you are not trying to be likable.

It is there when a well-meaning White teacher turns to the Black kid in class to explain race to the other students.

It is there when White suburban kids ride their cars with their hats on sideways and Eminem booming from the stereo system.

It is there when any virtuous White group of people sits around to figure out whom to invite to diversify their organization.

It is time for me to admit my white ignorance.

I was raised in a civil-rights household in the 1960s. My dad diversified the newsroom at Newsweek, and I grew up idolizing the young Black reporters who would visit our home.

I had read books like Manchild in the Promised Land, Black Like Me, and Look Out Whitey! Black Power’s Gon Get Your Mama when I was 12 years old. I’ve often had Black friends.

Those early influences shaped my life, but they didn’t prevent me from being racist.

* * *

A few days after Trump was elected, I married the Black woman I had been living with for several months. I was deeply in love, and we had already planned to marry in June, but with the election, we could see bad times ahead. Our quick marriage would provide us some protection.

The marriage is still young — Trump’s election is a good way for me to mark the year of our anniversary — and it is strong. We have a good circle of friends, and we collaborate as artists and as journalists.

I have learned so much from often being the only White person in the room when we see friends or family, or when we go to a club in Hartford.

I’ve learned a lot from my wife about what it means to be a Black American in a White American world.

The work we have planned, individually and together, gives us a sense of purpose, and we get along with a sort of mad love tempered by our seriousness about how we walk in the world.

That’s not virtue signaling. It is a public love letter. I still am racist.

As a White American, I can’t help but be. I was born into a racist society in which the dominance of White European males has always defined the terms.

White men like me were aided by White European women, who in my generation were enabled to begin to climb from the ghetto of sexism and misogyny, and if they came from the right social class started to have equal opportunity to pursue the American dream.

We can’t help but be conditioned by four centuries of slavery and oppression, four centuries of legal and economic injustice, four centuries of separation by color.

We can’t help but be racists or the victims of racism, depending on the color of our skin.

This is a nation where the past is erased by the present, where everyone who gets ahead is a hustler of some sort.

But if you are Black here, the past and present always collide. If you are White, you can say falsely that the sins of the past have been erased by time.

* * *

Ta-Nehisi Coates started the conversation on reparations in his seminal article in The Atlantic in 2003, in which he talked about how White people used financial means and legal machinations to keep Black people from getting ahead in the last century.

Every objection to the idea of reparations is that it was not our generation that committed the crimes, that the lineage of most White Americans does not extend far enough for them to bear responsibility for slavery.

Yet all White Americans bear the fruits of stolen labor.

All White Americans are immigrants, though most of us came only after the land had already been stolen and slavery had ended. The idea of the melting pot and the culture of assimilation were core elements in the last century, and they led to erasure of the past and of our different languages and cultures.

Those Black Americans who descend from ancestors kidnapped in the slave trade have lineages that extend much further back into our American history than most White people do.

* * *

James Joyce wrote that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” We use the word “woke” now to describe some sort of virtue on the part of some White people.

But we are still trapped inside the nightmare. We’re not “woke.”

Just to write about race as a White person implies a sort of knowledge that we can’t have. No one with white skin can know what it is like to have brown skin in America, where even one of the most distinguished professors at Harvard, Henry Louis Gates Jr., could be busted by cops as he tried to open the door to his own home in Cambridge.

Opening a door while Black. Eating candy while Black. Swinging on a playground while Black. Driving a car while Black. Being Black in America means the fear is never too far from your mind.

We live in segregated spaces; we work in separate ways, for the most part; and, for folks living in Vermont, the opportunities to experience Black culture are limited. Within the Black community in a rural area like ours, you must know how to get along in a White world.

The saddest thing, for me, is that in the separation of White folks from Black folks we lose so much opportunity to love, to be creative, and to have understanding.

And the loss is on the White side, shut out from a culture so rich and resilient that it survived the rape and violence of slavery and the lynching trees of Jim Crow, one that still provides America’s deepest cultural legacy in music and art, literature, and dance. (Sometimes those artists are credited, and sometimes their work is stolen.)

We long for Blackness even as we are held separate from it by structural racism and the centuries of societal practices that have kept us apart. Yet, we treat Black history and Black culture as a footnote or token in the curriculum of our schools and our lives.

The reality is that Black people were in this land long before most of us came over, and they built America and gave us central dimensions of our society and identity as a people — no matter what shade our skin is.

We are aware now of how the opioid epidemic has ravaged White communities like Brattleboro. We know about how “deaths of despair” from addiction, alcoholism, and suicide have lowered life expectancy for White males.

We fear gun violence in White suburban schools.

The world seems less safe to us than it used to.

Maybe all of that’s just what Malcolm X called “chickens coming home to roost” after President John F. Kennedy was killed. None of these problems are new within the Black American community.

Poor housing, limited access to educational opportunity, rampant crime and drug addiction, gun violence that kills children every day — all this is nothing new for Black people.

But now that these same scourges have hit the White community and hit us hard, we can read about it everywhere in the national press.

Even as I write these words, I think of Black friends I’ll show it to before it is published so I can check myself. And I should make clear that I am writing for a White audience. Black people already know everything I am saying, and I don’t need to explain it to them.

I learned it from them.

* * *

All last summer, my wife and I talked about my response in the car to her verbal, racist assault. We wrote pieces about it, tried to make sense of it.

When we talked about it with my older White male friends, they all tried to explain to my wife that they were on my side, that I was right to just urge her to drive and get out of there.

It was, after all, the “sensible” thing to do, my friends said. The guy had at least 4 inches, 40 pounds, and 20 years on me, and I use my words, not my fists. For all I knew, he had a handgun in his glove compartment.

But my wife’s friends from Hartford all said I should have left the car, put myself in that motherfucker’s face, and asked —again — “What did you say?”

My wife said, “There are very few things I’d lay my life on the line for, but this is one of them.”

I would never have expected this incident to happen in Brattleboro, and I was not prepared. We live in what can be a dangerous small city. But this was beyond me.

So I sat there in the car and made my wife drive me home, seething with hurt and rage.

One thing I have learned from this story: While fear and anger, lust and violence, are woven into our national experience of race, the deepest emotion is sorrow.

During Black History Month, we should find opportunities to celebrate and find joy, but we might also look with clear eyes at our past and present, while mourning what has been and what still is.

And it should not just be February. Being a White ally is not a part-time job.

Next time, I will confront the guy, and I’ll see if he will apologize to my wife and maybe learn something,

Next time, I am getting out of the car.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #549 (Wednesday, February 19, 2020). This story appeared on page D1.

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