Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Acting White

If nothing else, Milwaukee is rich in racial tension. The divide between blacks and whites is palpable. I’ve encountered hostile clerks in stores who plainly resent waiting on white folk. I’ve felt the heat of their glares and been the object of their contempt.

Likewise, I’ve seen the withering looks whites cast upon blacks. I've listened to whites complain bitterly about blacks and their effects on crime and housing and employment. But neither side has a monopoly. Like checkers and war, racial divides take two.

I wish I were an exception. But I struggle hourly to resist tagging an entire population with an unpleasant epithet based on the actions of a few. I live behind a multi-family housing unit populated with individuals seemingly bent on living down to every negative stereotype whites hold towards blacks.

The incessant rumble of hip-hop from car stereos, drunken parking lot pugilists and four AM rides who announces their presence with a car horn over and over again do little to foster a good night’s sleep, much less understanding and tolerance.

Yet I feel empathy when I read that unemployment among inner-city black males stands at fifty-percent. Or of another fatal shooting between warring gangs. Or the pathetic story of a desperate single mother with no alternative but to leave her infant in the care of an addict because she had to go to work or lose her job.

2009 has given me a great big taste of what it’s like to be black. As an over-forty male, I belong to a group that has absorbed more than its share of job loss. I have been marginalized. I am invisible. The frustration and the rage are incessant. The world’s primary interest in me is monetary. And if I don’t have any, I should just fuck off.

It is a struggle to keep hope alive. It is a struggle to resist mood-altering substances. (Never mind Spicy Nacho Doritos.) It is a struggle to believe there’s a difference between looking for work and not looking for work, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary.

Being poor and unemployed is hard.

So when I hear the worst elements of black society dictating behavior and beliefs, it saddens me. It saddens me because I'm beginning to understand downtrodden. I'm beginning to understand being kicked when you're down.

Gangsters call getting an education acting white. As they do anything beyond being a street thug or a dealer. Success is white. Unless of course you play professional basketball or football or your name is Jay Z, Beyonce or Lil’ Wayne. That kind of success apparently isn't too threatening to gangsters.

Imagine the fall-out if I—as a white man—had condemned an entire population to such a narrow and unflattering definition. We would have needed bomb shelters—and rightly so. It’s demeaning and pathetic and a cultural death sentence the Klu Klux Klan itself would applaud. Wildly.

So why is it when gangsters tell blacks not to snitch, they comply? Why is it when gangsters point a finger at an office manager or an accountant or even a president and say they’re not black-enough, they’re listened to?

What isn’t black about being a doctor? What isn't black about being a department manager? Isn’t that uncomfortably close to what the good folk of Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia used to believe? That black people just weren’t good for much?

I’ve got more problems than an arithmetic text, and more issues than National Geographic. But in the music of black culture I found a mirror of my own struggles as a misfit. It was medicine, and it helped me. So when I see the culture responsible for that music embrace this destructive lowest common denominator, it bothers me.

It is a troubling irony that those who most need to look up are looking down.

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