A Sunday service at a rural church in western Maryland is, among other things, an interesting exercise in confronting one’s expectation of, well, people.
First, some basic geography: the very northernmost part of Virginia is, for a stretch, separated from the very westernmost part of Maryland by the Potomac River. The tip of this stretch—the northern endpoint of the natural border between the two states—is at Harpers Ferry, which is in West Virginia, at a rocky and beautiful intersection of three state borders. If you follow the Potomac as it flows south and east you will eventually cross under the Point of Rocks Bridge, which is where interstate Route 15 crosses the Maryland/Virginia border. If you follow Route 15 north for a few miles, it will eventually merge with 340 headed northeast towards the town of Frederick, Maryland. If you look to your right just as 15 becomes 340, you will see a fairly humble-looking modern church, grey and angular and unimpressive, in a green field off of the delightfully named Elmer Derr Road, which is a local road that runs parallel to 340 for a mile or so.
If you’re picturing farms and pickup trucks and cows and a certain kind of white person, you’re right on the mark. If you’re thinking a church in this setting is the last place on earth in which you’d want to hear someone broach the topic of Freddie Gray and the Baltimore protests, yes, I am right there with you. Nevertheless, for reasons passing understanding, that’s exactly the situation I found myself in at just after 10:30 Sunday morning: watching with dread as a bearded white clergyman in glasses and vestments directed his congregation’s attention to “the events” in Baltimore.
The idea of this is scary for any number of reasons, and at least some of them are only partially linked with the fact that it was a room full of (for lack of a better descriptor) rural-looking white folks: what’s happening in Baltimore these days and what those events reveal about the leadership of the city and what that all means for the local and state and even national political landscape in the months and years ahead—those things are all a lot more real in Frederick County, Maryland than they are just over the Point of Rocks Bridge, back in Virginia, certainly more real than a progressive might want them to be. For that matter, it’s worth wondering whether they’re more real than they really ought to be.
Consider: Baltimore is an achingly poor and underserved city, one whose current footprint is probably as much as 20% larger than is required by the size of its population and, more importantly, than can be adequately managed by its meager resources. It has long been the case, though, that city politicians with ambitions beyond the city government need to appease and appeal to the larger Maryland population—most of whom would seem to have next to nothing in common with the residents of Baltimore, neither demographically nor in terms of daily realities—more than to their actual constituents, and with the only real tool in their bag being the application of suburban and/or rural, mostly middle-class or better, and overwhelmingly white priorities to a city that is, by definition, urban, and, because of white-flight and brutal neglect, poor and black. It should go without saying that these political dynamics accrue generally to the benefit of ambitious politicians in inverse proportion to their usefulness to the people of Baltimore.
This can take any number of shapes. It can mean the Baltimore Mayor might err on the conservative side in taking state tax dollars for, say, the benefit of city schools. It can mean the Baltimore Mayor might publicly support institutions—like, oh, say, the police—that are generally revered by—and will earn the Mayor credibility points among—suburban whites, but are overwhelmingly and justifiably loathed and feared by Baltimore residents. It can mean instituting ridiculous reforms—like Baltimore’s outrageous nightly curfew on young people, or, more recently, its “emergency” curfew on all residents—that do nothing to curb any types of crime while satisfying the sensibilities of outsiders whose safety isn’t actually at stake even if Baltimore were every bit as violent and anarchic as it is often depicted as being.
These political realities and their consequences create a genuinely sad dynamic where the people with all the power over Baltimore don’t live in Baltimore and have absolutely nothing to do with those who do. So, when a group of rural whites are directed by their white clergyman to turn their attention to Baltimore’s uprising, it matters an awful lot. It matters hugely.
Later on, we’ll get into what the clergyman said from the pulpit and how it was received by his congregation, but before we get there I just want to process with words my experience of expectations and how important they can be. I think this will all be relevant, in the end. Bear with me.
Maybe this is common to everyone, but when I’m in, for example, the grocery store, and I see, for example, a white woman in, say, mom jeans and a t-shirt, in a sort-of subconscious threat-detection kind of way I will make any number of assumptions about this person. It won’t be anything as specific as 2.5 kids and a minivan, counting out in my imagination the little stick-figures lined up adorably on her rear window, one for the cat and one for the dog. No, just broadly, I will assume that she is sort of like me in some general but meaningful ways. She wakes up in a house, she has money to live, she’s got some amount of formal education. She’s got a cell phone. She’s got a TV and some favorite things to watch on it. She has opinions about social issues and politicians, she identifies with a political party, she runs errands and listens to music and has a favorite book. She had parents and grandparents. Right? In basic terms, I assume that the general shape of her life is not too dissimilar from the shape of mine.
This next part will be uncomfortable. I am a white guy. The things I am about to express are unflattering, to say the least, and I’m sorry that they are true, but I figure we’ve got to talk about these things. We’ve got to. Here goes.
When I see a black woman in a grocery store, I don’t make any specific assumptions about her that are meaningfully different from what I assume of the white woman, but, importantly, I don’t assume about her the things I assume about the white woman. In fact, the assumption that I make is that the general shape of her life is dissimilar enough from the shape of mine that I can’t even make any other broad assumptions about it. It’s not so much that I think her life looks any particular way as much as it is that I think it doesn’t look anything like my life.
This instinct is informed—to the extent that it is informed, which is to say, it’s complete bullshit—by a few different things: black Americans are the most racially segregated group in the country, which means in my dipshit exurban community, there aren’t many non-whites, the consequence of which is there are any number of specific ways in which our hypothetical black woman’s daily life is likely not very much like mine; pretty much all forms of media depict black Americans as almost cartoonishly different from safe and privileged and predictable mayonnaise men, like me, and even though I know these depictions to be wildly unfair and inaccurate, they rattle around in my brain whether I like it or not; significantly, racism is a daily reality faced in innumerable ways by black Americans, an experience I know absolutely nothing about. I can conceive of individuals of any race being very like me if I get to know them, but anonymous individuals become archetypes, and I assume I know almost nothing of the shape of that life. White = probably like me. Not white = probably not like me.
So, stripped even further of any specifics, the subconscious assumption I make about a black woman in a grocery store is that she’s unlike me. I don’t think this assumption is common to everyone, and I wish it weren’t true of me, and I fight against it all the fucking time—as I sit here I’m contemplating both deleting everything I’ve written in this draft and performing a spontaneous self-lobotomization. On the other hand, I think there’s ample evidence that this gap—the idea that some people are, on spec, meaningfully like you, while other people are, on spec, meaningfully unlike you—is a cultural characteristic of modern America.
Here’s what I mean, and this is also, incidentally, where this rears its ugly head, at its very ugliest: when an adult white person is charged with a terrible crime, there is an instinct to complete the following puzzle: this person is, broadly, like me; I would never commit this terrible crime; this person is accused of committing this terrible crime; therefore there must be some extenuating circumstance that accounts for this person behaving in a way that doesn’t follow the normal behavioral pattern of someone like me.
The assumed criminality of black Americans doesn’t have to be an active part of a white person’s thinking in order to complete a slightly different puzzle when a black American is charged with a terrible crime, the pieces of which flow from an assumption that the accused is simply not like me: this person is, broadly, not like me; I would never commit this terrible crime; this person is accused of committing this terrible crime; therefore maybe an important way in which this person is not like me is specifically that they would commit a terrible crime.
It doesn’t need to be that stark. Maybe the dipshit liberal version of the final part of the puzzle is, instead, that that person’s environment and culture are not like mine enough that committing a terrible crime, or even being accused of committing a terrible crime, is not as aberrant within that context as it is within the context of someone who is like me.
To my way of thinking, this type of assumption can account for some of white America’s instinct to look for and bring into the light any criminal history of individual black Americans who are brutalized by police. Instead of looking for circumstances that caused someone like us to deviate from a life like ours, we’ll look for background clues to fill in all that we think we don’t know about someone who is broadly not like us. A criminal history will tell us how that person is not like us, and will align our understanding of the world with an assumption we’ve made about it and live with daily—not that black Americans are criminals, but that the shape of the lives of most black Americans is different from the shape of our lives in big, important, and revealing ways.
So, if I’m identifying this thing correctly, that’s, like, a huge problem. Thank you, Captain Obvious. In a just society, I guess it wouldn’t be too much of a problem: we all might seem alien to each other for stupid, superficial reasons, but without any real consequences, so who cares. Here, though, white people are still the largest demographic block and are in control of an overwhelming amount of society’s wealth and resources, and a gap in our ability to understand the fundamental human sameness of people from all races, such that our sense of otherness can be confirmed and shaped by any single act, especially to the degree that this equation yields a fundamental otherness, can, without any of the evil intent we look for in identifying injustices, bring about and sustain crushing daily and systemic injustice.
And that last paragraph totally and stupidly ignores the fact that white Americans control all the access points to wealth and power specifically because of racial injustice. If we have big huge blind-spots in our concepts of groups and individuals and human sameness, even those of us who fancy ourselves progressives, we’ll all be doomed to the same terrible fate, of self-fulfilling our own ugly and baseless and wildly inaccurate assumptions of how the world works, over and over again, one generation after another, forever. You don’t have to hate or fear black people to perpetuate this cycle, you just have to assume in a very basic way that they’re not like you, that the shape of their lives is not like yours, and so the calculus used in understanding a white person does not apply to understanding a black person. That gap, alone, is huge, because it can be easily filled with bad evidence, and our society thrives at nothing quite like it thrives at producing bad evidence against black people.
White people—the group, the block of Americans who can do real damage by having these blind-spots, irrespective of class status and political identity—have the responsibility of undoing the ongoing state of racial injustice in America. Not just because it has been us and people like us and our group who created it in the first place, but because, by virtue of our numbers and our privileges, we are the ones who can and do and will do enormous damage simply by having these dumb fucking blind-spots.
Here’s where this gets tricky, though, for the idiot liberal scum mayonnaise men among us (me): the world has had about as much as it can take of outspoken white saviors, proclaiming their importance from the mountaintop and assigning themselves the role of dispenser of justice. The solution will not be a fucking white dude in an office chair laying out the path to racial equality, even if I wish I could make it so in such a fashion or any other. Right now, the role of white people probably ought to be elevating the voices of the groups (and this should apply to women as well—what I mean by that is men should probably endeavor to elevate the voices of women over their own) who’ve been hurt by systemic injustice, because recognition of those voices is among the many things our group has denied all other groups.
On its face, that’s a clear mandate for white men—shut the fuck up and (in all ways) retweet the historically voiceless (where “voiceless” can be understood to mean “I have been shouting you down for generations”). But! That’s a dangerous line, too, because I’m not sure the world can bear many more safe and comfortable white people retreating to the comfort and safety of their white enclaves while underprivileged groups battle uphill against injustices that are baked into a system so vast and byzantine that no one understands its total shape. I struggle with this nearly every day: what ought to be the role of white men who sincerely want to see the structures of systemic injustice toppled forever during our lifetimes?
It took me far too long to figure out that the first step ought to be posing that exact question to members of a group that have been trampled by history’s great and terrible white men. The first part of one of their answers was to use my privilege to lift the voices of others into the hearing range of people who would otherwise ignore them. The second part of the answer, and probably the harder-to-define part, was this: white men need to talk to each other. If it’s true that white men use each other as standard bearers and for social cues, we need to actively change the standard and provide better social cues.
In short, when we’re not shutting the fuck up, we need to be telling other white dudes to shut the fuck up, and as persuasively as possible. There are white men who will not listen to members of any other group, and so we have to use our position in the group to change the conversation.
This, for me, is a new way of thinking, the notion that the fullest expression of one’s freedom of speech doesn’t necessarily accrue to society’s benefit in anything other than a principled sense, and that contributions to any common conversation need to serve the conversation beyond whatever benefit is gained by simple participation. If this seems in conflict with an American ideal, consider that no one is asking you to not say the things you have to say, but rather to say them where they are most beneficial to our common interests—in the ear of people who will not listen to anyone but you. That there is such a group is an enormous privilege, and this is an invitation to use it. Hijack it, you know? DO I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION? LOOK OVER HERE AT THIS BAD SHIT YOU’RE TRYING TO IGNORE.
This is where we circle back to the packed sanctuary of a rural church in an overwhelmingly white stretch of farmland that happens to lie inside a border which confers to those within it terrible sway over the lives of literally generations of underserved, underprivileged, oppressed, ignored, and brutalized fellow Americans, and a bearded and bespectacled white man in a position of authority, broaching, in a room full of white churchgoers—who, yes, look and dress and sound exactly like you’d expect, down to the tucked-in polo shirts and floral dresses—the popular uprising of a group not like them, and all that was and is at stake every time such a group convenes under such circumstances and takes up the hard work of making sense of something over which they have power but of which they have almost no true understanding.
I wish I had a video or something, an audio recording, or a transcript. When I do have one, I will link it here. This man—this man, actually—refused to use the word “riot” to describe the clashes in Baltimore’s streets. He used the word “uprising,” and, so that there was no confusion, explained to his rapt audience exactly why he chose that word—that it is a designation we would easily grant to similar actions during, for example, the Arab Spring or the Hong Kong demonstrations, but are too reluctant to use when describing the exact same movements, for very similar causes, inside our own borders. That, for that matter, it was the word those in Baltimore used to describe their own activity, and they know more about it than anyone. That the use of the word “riot,” and all that it implies, absolves those who may benefit or be responsible for the underlying injustices, and that it designates as misbehavior what ought to be understood as consequence. He talked about the long and ongoing work of toppling systemic racism. Yes, he read Martin Luther King, Jr., but not on peace—he read Martin Luther King, Jr. on anger and uprising and the dishonest way these things are handled and explained by the oppressors and the privileged. He articulated clearly and unambiguously that it was the mission of his church and of moral people within it to fully support Baltimore’s uprising, in every shape and action. It was great.
I suppose, in the end, that a lot of whatever volume of total work goes into changing things for the better will have to be done by white people. Many of the structures of systemic racism and systemic misogyny and systemic injustice will have to be toppled from within—there’s simply too much of it for it to all come down via the work of smaller groups. They’ll need our sheer numbers, you know? And while we wait for marching orders in this particular fight a thing we can do is bust up our comfort zone a little bit by talking to each other. It will mean some uncomfortable moments around the water cooler and at the barbecue, but we have to bring the conversation, and the right side of the conversation, to places where it will not otherwise make it, like banging open the shutters on the lone window in a dark room. Shit, if homeboy can do it in a Sunday service at a goddamn church in western Maryland, it can’t be that fucking hard.
And an effect of his talking points, as I looked around the room to see how they were being received, was an important banishment of my own sense of otherness in a room full of people I generally assumed I understood on spec. They weren’t sighing, they weren’t groaning, they weren’t storming out in disgust. They were nodding their heads in approval of his message and accepting some of the more challenging truths of Baltimore’s uprising in a way I absolutely never would have predicted. I assumed they were not like me in important ways, and they may be and probably are, but we’ve got this important perspective in common, and that matters. It’s unclear whether we shared that perspective before the clergyman spoke—that matters less. Tomorrow, if I see one of those red-faced retirees in the grocery store, rocking a pristine hair-part and a tucked-in t-shirt, I will not recognize him, and I will still assume I know roughly the gap that makes him not like me, but (and here’s where I was going with this) the actual differences will be—as it turns out they generally are—entirely superficial. I wish I could knock it off with the assumptions. I’m trying.
Anyway, it was an inspiring thing to see. I’m not suddenly going to start going to church—forget that—but, for me, it was an important example of the positive use of privilege, and a reinvigoration of a kind of faith that has absolutely nothing to do with church. We’re like each other in most of the ways that matter most. And we’ve got things we need to talk about. And if you’ll only listen to me, then listen to me.