The moment when the white person in the laundry room looks at your whiteness and feels free to claim the falsity that all Black Lives Matter victims are criminals? I just had that moment.
A Thanksgiving commando, amid a week of advance prepping, cooking, and cleaning, I wanted to get a jump on the laundry before tomorrow’s big day. Turkey day 2015 will be my ten-year anniversary of teaching myself how to (become a really rocking home) cook and launching my holiday-orphan Thanksgiving feasts. (Here’s my post from 2005 about that milestone Thanksgiving a decade ago.) So I’ve been greatly in the spirit.
But not so much that my Scooby ears can’t be raised by racism. And not so much that I can’t pivot on a dime and let you have it when I hear it.
I’d seen him down there on and off for three years. Part of a gay couple like Ryan and me. Older, nearing retirement, with plans to move to Florida in a few years. We sometimes talked about Disney World.
Today he choose to tell me how he didn’t go to work because he was afraid people (whom he didn’t name but, you know, wink wink) would riot in downtown Chicago over the heinous Laquan McDonald video. Except he didn’t call it heinous. Instead, he asked me what I thought about it. I told him I thought Chicago was above destroying itself over something so awful, that we as a city can rise above together at times like this.
And then he leaned in and quietly said, “You know, all those Black Lives Matter people were criminals. When you commit a crime, you should do what the police tell you.”
And I verbally flattened him.
Ordinarily my indignant mutterings aren’t quite so on point. But my inner Julia Sugarbaker did not miss the moment to speak truth to ignorance. So while he was taking his next breath, I leaned in myself. But I wasn’t as quiet about it.
I told him what he said was false. Not all Black Lives Matter victims killed or injured by American police forces committed crimes. Not by a long shot.
I told him even if every person of color who has been a casualty of the police had committed a crime, so what? Petty crime does not merit a death sentence. Legally, most crime doesn’t. (To my mind, no crime does.)
I told him what he said was racist. That he looked at me, and saw my skin color was like his own, and felt free to let his inner racism out. And that I’m sure he wasn’t expecting me to have an interracial family. (Which is a pretty dated expectation to have in 2015 America.) Or for me to have white family members that had been in trouble with the law and had been in prison. (Another really bad assumption to have on an imperfect planet.)
I told him that we all have family members who have been in trouble in some way–no matter the color of our family’s skin(s). I told him my white family members who did time weren’t shot to death instead for the crimes they committed and eventually atoned for. But my black family members could be killed by police simply for the crime of innocently walking or driving down a street.
I told him off.
As I walked away, I heard him say, “But you’re from New York.” The irony of the fact that we were having the exchange in equally multi-racial, multi-cultural Chicago completely lost on him.
Although now I can understand why he wants to move to rural central Florida.
And yet, I’m thankful for him. Thankful for every “I’m not really a racist” racist in this city and in this world. Because their words give us opportunities to practice bravery, exercise our own inner power, and speak truth.
At the cost of us never discussing Disney again, I doubt he’ll ever again assume safe harbor with others for the words he is only brave enough to lean in and whisper in public. I can live with that cost-benefit ratio.
This Thanksgiving, keep your harbors open to the tired, the poor, the needy, the homeless. Those of every faith, whether living at peace or fleeing far-off wars. Our minds, our hearts, and our arms can stretch wider than any ocean.
But there is no need to accept casual racism–in your laundry room, at your turkey table, or any place else. Whiteness is only a refuge for racists. Let epitheting otherness be its own reward. Join me in telling those who would label fellow human beings of any persuasion as lesser, “I am not your refuge.” Let hate be a party of one this holiday.