“True Believer, Stalin’s Last American Spy” was one I thought I’d leaf through but I got caught up in instead. It’s the story of Noel Field and his family (brother, wife, foster daughter, and friends) all caught up in the web of the Cold War, Russia, Hungary, communism, the State Department, the Dulles brothers, Stalin, and all the political characters you might recall from the 30’s through the 50’s. You have probably forgotten all of that dark time, this book explores it and brings it all back. It’s hard to believe just how weird a time that was.
Another good read.
Thinking About What’s Going On
Here’s a little thought experiment. One morning you’re taking a shower and you reach up with one arm to soap your hair and suddenly realize that your skin has changed color. (Let’s start out here with the idea that you are a white person, but this journey works the other way too.)
You look down and you see that you are unbelievably, a person-of-color! (Yes, white is a color too but very differently perceived and reacted too as you well know…..or at least will soon discover.)
Note your first response to this occurrence. What is it?
Franz Kafka wrote of this experience in “Metamorphosis”. If you haven’t read that horror story, it’s about a guy who wakes up one morning and discovers that he has been turned into a cockroach! Unsettling would be a massive understatement. How do you think the rest of your day, and then the rest of your life will go?
Imagine all the circumstances and note what you might feel in every interaction with people, not just strangers, but friends as well. How might things you felt about every aspect of your life be different just because the color of your skin is “different”.
If you believe that nothing would really BE different, then you are not understanding the reality of a person-of-color. You are denying their experience.
Here’s a small example, when a white person uses the word “cool” as a description of how he or she feels about their response to something as in, “I’m cool with it.” Or as in a general expression of a way of being, this is a different personal experience for a person of color. “Cool” for the white person means “I’m calm. I’m laid back.” For a person of color it means, “I’m going along with this constant insult because that’s the way it is for us.”
I “got” this one day when I was refused service at a funky drive-in restaurant because the person sitting next to me was black. I was outraged, agitated, gritting my teeth and I turned to him, “How in the hell do you stand this? I’d be wanting to kill people who treated me this way!” I growled.
He said in a calm matter of fact voice that took me off guard, “You just do.” That’s what “cool” meant for him and for every other black person who has, day after day experienced this kind of treatment both overt and covert. It’s what must be done to deal with the “attitude” day after day all life long in many an interaction with white people. Cool. As in, “You just keep on.”
Louis Armstrong once recorded a song called “What did I do to feel so black and blue?” and in music the people who can REALLY sing and play the blues, are people of color. The blues for we white folk are usually about lost love or feeling down about life in the moment. The blues for black folk are about LIFE….all the time. We skate on the surface of this only empathizing, a kind of knowing, to some extent, and caring, but not really KNOWING what this daily experience is like. We can guess about it and that’s about it.
The author of Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin found out about racism the hard way. A white writer, he used chemicals and dyes to color his skin dark and then went out into a world he thought he knew well, and as a white person he did. But as a person-of-color he was shocked to discover he didn’t know it at all. If you’ve never read that book, get a copy and learn.
My first wife, a dark-skinned Mexican-American girl born near El Paso, Texas knew about this stuff but as her white husband I did not. When it came to everyday interactions with white people her irritability, about the way she was sometimes not so subtly, treated, both by the Border Patrol agents around El Paso and white people in Chicago where we lived for a time, used to bother me because I felt she was creating trouble over nothing. I couldn’t understand, and did not see, literally did NOT see or feel or hear what she did. I blew these “little “ insults off. I really didn’t “get it”. Yes, now we have a phrase for it, “White privilege” but that term doesn’t really say it. It’s white ignorance and white arrogance that denies that this is going on all the time for people of color. ALL THE GODDAM TIME!
Every day, in almost every situation, social or commercial interactions have embedded in them this “attitude” that white people direct at non-whites that most non-whites react to by being “cool”.
It’s no wonder we whites are so afraid of black anger that our response is to overreact, like the woman in N.Y.s Central Park who felt so threatened by the black birdwatcher who asked that she leash her dog that she called the police in a panic. Yes, we know damned well that if we were on the receiving end of this “attitude”, we’d be full of rage. We don’t know HOW to be “cool” about such a thing. We don’t know, as I didn’t know, how we could stand living with this situation.
I only know about this at an intellectual level….at an emotional level I can hardly talk about it without choking on my own impotent anger and tears, but I have the luxury of not having to live it, I am only imagining it, imagining how I would feel to not be white in our society.
Try this “imaging” for yourself. To the extent to which you can inhabit the fantasy, you might begin to have an inkling of just how “cool” you would have to become in order to get through life as a non-white person and respond to even subtle racism by all the “just dos” that are necessary to be able to get along. …and just how long do you think you could………just get-along?
What I have been doing as sort of my one-man-"crusade" is that when I spot a black person, male or female, (I select older people usually) I sidle up to them (so that I'm not felt to be intrusive) and say; "Just thought I'd let you know, your life matters to ME!" The responses I've gotten range from, "God bless you and thank you!" to, "Man, you have just made my day!"
It's a good thing to do.