The lesson white people can’t teach

I wrote the first part of this piece three years ago. Just ran across it today and decided it’s ready for an update. No doubt more will come.

— Dave Williams,
June 16, 2020

“Atlanta” written and produced by Donald Glover

September 2017:

One day last week I was looking for a new TV show to watch and came across something called Atlanta. I’d never heard of it but the picture of three young black men with peaches in their mouths was weird. It intrigued me so I took a look.

Here’s how the Hulu log line describes the show:

Two cousins work through the Atlanta music scene in order to better their lives and the lives of their families.

That’s Hulu’s pr department trying to make it sound like a funky Modern Family. The description is so white bread it makes me wonder if someone was trying to intrigue me or chase me away. The weird photo makes a statement of its own. I’m not sure what it is but it sucked me in.

I punched PLAY.

Atlanta took me to a world I’ve never known, where everyone is black and speaks street slang in a dialect that was difficult for me to follow. I turned on captions and it helped but I still struggled a bit to understand what was being said and what it meant. Finally, I just sat back and let the characters develop. I was drawn in.

These people are just like me, but different. We live in very different versions of America.

I’m a white man in my middle sixties.

I’ve never experienced racial discrimination nor knowingly committed any but I’ve always known that it exists and is a damnable sin. I admit to being slightly uncomfortable around people of different classes and cultures. That’s just human nature and it has nothing to do with skin color, sexual identity, religion or nationality, it’s just a matter of “different”. I’m no anthropologist but I wonder if it isn’t an instinctive thing going back many tens of thousands of years to isolate and identify threats from other tribes. I don’t know. I’m just spitballing here. Regardless, we all experience that and almost all of us struggle to eliminate the built-in sense of fear that many people today would label bigotry.

Atlanta is just a TV show but in the comfort of my white middle-class family room it admitted me to a world I’ve never known and can’t visit in real life.

I watched all ten episodes of the first season and I’m all in. I care about the characters and their relationships. I like them. I want them to succeed. I want them to be happy. I love seeing their world through their eyes. It has opened mine.

But this isn’t a TV review. Here’s the point:

Each segment of our lives is a series of doors leading from one place to the next.

At 66, I’m allowed to ease off the pedal. Fewer doors, fewer choices, no hurry.  I don’t have to immerse myself in long term goals and obligations; my kids are grown and raising their own families. My career is achieved and I can stop reaching for the next rung on the ladder.

In many ways I’m just starting to live life on my terms for the first time. I’m learning to let go of insistence and think about what I want to do just because I want to.

Lately I’ve enjoyed stocking bird feeders and watching finches jostle for position.

I find myself saying hello to strangers with greater regularity and sincerity.

Old black men go through this same transformation.

If you’ve not reached this point you have an exciting time of life ahead that you’re probably dreading because you think getting old means wearing out.

Nope.

Getting old means getting free.

When it happens you’ll be amazed by how it clarifies your thinking; you’ll reassess beliefs and assumptions you forged long ago when you were gullible, impulsive and bulletproof. You’ll find yourself saying, “Maybe I was wrong” and being right about that.

In this sense growing old is a gift shared among people of all races.

Atlanta is just a TV show but it opened my eyes to a world inaccessible to me. The characters and their stories are fictional but I trust its cultural authenticity and insights.

In one scene Alfred, aka the rapper called Paper Boi, explains in a moment of frustration why he needs to be successful in music so he can stop selling drugs for a living.

“I scare people at ATMs,” he says. “I have to rap.”

That hit me like lightning.

I’ve never scared anybody by my mere existence. I’ve never had to think about how some might fear and maybe even hate me as a stereotype.

This is what people mean when they talk about white privilege. I didn’t get it until now because I’ve only heard that term as an accusation from other white people who live in my own culture. They try to teach me something while strongly implying I’m a bigot simply because I was confused and defensive. It was a revelation delivered to me in anger. They throw down the gauntlet of shame: “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.” It demands I choose sides and smacks of condescension. It makes me frightened, angry and defensive.

“I scare people at ATMs.”

That’s when I got it.

I have white privilege, I understand that now, no thanks to the message delivery system.

It doesn’t mean I should feel guilty about it. It’s not my fault and nobody can tell me it is. It’s just sad and wrong. It’s human. Maybe in some small way my understanding can help fix it.

June 2020:

My Age of Aquarius, the 1960s, was a time of cultural revolution that was shocking and frightening to my parents’ generation. We who were young found it terrifying and yet exciting. With one foot in the world of Leave It To Beaver and another in bloody Vietnam the activists and advocates for change set their sites on the hopelessly lofty goal of universal peace and love, no more wars or discrimination; flower power, Woodstock and all that. Immediately.

Peace advocate faces National Guard troops, People’s Park, Berkeley, CA 1969
Photo titled “Jan Rose Kasmir”

They advocated world peace by shouting, “You’re either with us or against us!”

And today, “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.”

This is where most people pay their check and go home. You can’t insult people into understanding and accepting your view of life.

Between generations of change our culture needs a nap.

We grow tired of fear and anger. We grow up, grow families and want our comforting lives back so we take a break for a decade or five. We want our children to have the secure, carefree lives we insist on remembering. To some extent they do, but yet they don’t.

Eventually, our kids or theirs gear up for another fight, one that inevitably beats others into confused submission and thus advances the bar of human evolution just a tiny bit before they take another break and bring the next generation in off the bench.

It is frustratingly slow but we have frustratingly short lives and so much living to do between protests.

As an old man who has been there and done that I am glad for the effort. Positive change is inevitable, I think. We do make progress but it is painfully slow, especially painful for the young and anxious.

I’m tired. That’s not a good excuse, it’s just a fact.

I have no great wisdom to impart or solutions to offer. I can only say that I wish people would stop shouting long enough to listen, really listen with open minds and hearts. We might find we have more in common than we believe.

For me it started on a TV show.

“I scare people at ATMs.”

Here’s a best-of reel from Atlanta.

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Author: Dave

Dave Williams is a radio news/talk personality originally from Sacramento, now living in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Carolann. They have two sons and grandsons living in L.A.

2 thoughts on “The lesson white people can’t teach”

  1. I am close to your age(1951) but I hope I learned the same thing when I went to pool and learned to squirt water by squeezing my palms together. taught by a man old enough to be my fathers grandfather. People around watched to make certain a little white kid wasn’t being molested the decrepit old black man. I learned then that what I see isn’t always what other people see. I saw a sweet old man trying to teach me a skill, others didn’t see it that way. What they saw I don’t know and I’m not sure I want to know.

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