“White people,” “Black People” and Other Kinds of People

Let_That_Be_Your_Last_BattlefieldIn the past week we’ve seen videos of three humans being killed by other humans called “police.” Two of these humans were what folks in the USA call “Black people.” One was what folks in the USA call a “White person.”

Then someone opened fire on some police officers in Dallas, killing five of them. The cop killer was one of the “Black people.” The five policemen were “White people.”

Henry Rollins said some good stuff about this. Here’s why I feel like can’t say anything about these incidents. At least nothing anyone’s gonna care about.

In America they believe in the existence of “White people” and “Black people.”

I grew up in Kenya. There they believed in “White people” but not in “Black people.” “White people” came in two varieties; British “White people” and not-British “White people.” Even as a little kid I knew it was good to let Kenyan people know I was one of the not-British “White people.” Many Kenyans didn’t like British “White people” because the British “White people” had colonized their land. They seemed to have a little less animosity toward not-British “White people.”

I didn’t get the impression that most humans in Kenya identified as “Black people,” even though “White people” and “Black people” in America would probably see them that way. They identified as Kikuyu, or Luo, or Massai or other ethnicities. They seemed to think it was funny that some Americans called themselves “Black people.” My dad had an afro in those days. They sometimes asked him if he was a “Black American.” Americans read my dad as “White people,” even though it was obvious there were some “Black people” in our gene pool. I’ve always wondered about that…

When I was in Kenya, the “Kikuyu people” dominated politics. The “Luo people” did not like that. They were loosely united by their mutual dislike of the British variety of “White people” and “Indians,” which are what Americans sometimes call “Brown people.” But it seemed to me that the “Kikuyu people” and “Luo people” disliked each other even more.

I was 11 years old when we moved back to Ohio, to a small town populated almost entirely by “White people.” Many of these “White people” seemed to hate “Black people” even though they had only ever seen “Black people” on television. I thought those “White people” were stupid. Many of my friends in Africa had been “Black people” who didn’t think of themselves as “Black people” but probably thought of me as one of the “White people.”

For the next few years I lived as a “White person” in America. In Kenya, I knew that as a “White person” could not expect unbiased treatment by the police. I learned that in America, as a “White person,” things were a little better for many of the humans that looked vaguely like me.

But after I became an adult, I started hanging around with the punk rockers. Most of the punk rockers were “White people.” But, unlike other “White people,” the punk rockers in my part of Ohio were often harassed by the police.

Still, I trusted the police enough that when our band of “White people” punk rockers was attacked by a bunch of other “White people” in Dover, Ohio, I called the cops. They broke up the fight and helped us get out of town unharmed.

A few years after that a “White people” friend of mine and I were attacked on the streets of Akron, Ohio by a pair “Black people” who seemed intent on beating us to death. We were saved by some other “Black people” who intervened on our behalf. The cops showed up but it was all over by then. We had already used the opportunity the “Black people” provided us to run away.

After that I started dating a “Black person.” A few times, when she and I were walking together, we were yelled at by people — “White” ones and “Black” ones — who did not like seeing us together. That scared the shit out of me. I didn’t want to get beaten up again.

Then I moved to Japan. In Japan I was no longer “White people.” I was a “gaijin,” literally an “outside person.” As an “outside person” I had fewer legal rights than “Japanese people.” I was refused housing on several occasions because I was an “outside person.” In Japan, it is legal to do this. I was not allowed to go certain places. Again, this is legal. I was often viewed with suspicion since the media tended to make lots of “Japanese people” believe that “outside people” like me were not to be trusted. The police in Japan were generally decent to the “White people” variety of “outside people,” but you never knew. Some of them thought “outside people” of any variety were a threat. The rule of thumb for all of us “outside people” was to avoid the cops.

In Japan many “Japanese people” think “Asians” are backward and they make fun of them on TV. These “Japanese people” don’t think “Japanese people” are “Asians.” They also don’t worry about cultural appropriation. Whatever culture you got, they’ll be happy to appropriate it and make it look cooler or at least weirder. So I’m not crying over “White people” making sushi.

In Belfast, Northern Ireland, where I’m going to lead my next retreat (my third one there) some “White people” think other “White people” are worth killing for reasons that are invisible and incomprehensible to most “White people” or “Black people” in America.

I’ve been an immigrant and a racial minority for nearly half of my life and a “White person” the other half. This has made it nearly impossible to express my take on racial issues in ways Americans can understand. My frame of reference is not aligned with that of “White people” or “Black people” in this country.

Even most of the “White people” who see themselves as allies of minorities and immigrants seem incomprehensible and, frankly, often kind of silly to me. A whole lot of the time they seem fixated on ideas that don’t correspond to reality. But to many “White people” who see themselves as allies of “Black people,” I am a “White person” who is therefore incapable of understanding “Black people’s” issues. They tell me to just shut the fuck up. So I do. It’s less stressful that way.

My experiences in Kenya and in Japan and in Akron, Ohio the night I was attacked have made it impossible for me to accept the existence of “White people” and “Black people” except as a kind of arbitrary fantasy like “Kikuyu people” or “Luo people” or “outside people” or “Catholics” or “Protestants.”  But if I say that, I risk being lumped in with clueless “White people” who say things like, “I don’t see color.”

I do see color. I’m just not sure if I see it the same way.

When those “Black people” were beating the shit out of me that night in Akron, one of them shouted, “We don’t like the color of your skin either!” I didn’t understand why he said that. I wondered who this “we” he invoked actually were.

The fact was I very much liked the color of his skin. I thought it was beautiful. I thought my own skin color was kind of sickly by comparison. I didn’t like most “White people.” I probably shared his distrust of the police. We probably listened to the same radio station, WDMT. We probably both liked “Atomic Dog” and thought that what they played on the “White people” stations like WMMS was crap.

But that night he and his friend were “Black people” and me and my friend were “White people.” And, though there were “White people” in the neighborhood where they attacked us, only the “Black people” tried to help us. Maybe they didn’t see me and my friend as “White people.” Maybe they saw us as people they could help.

What does all of this say about the racial stuff that keeps happening in America these days? Probably nothing that fits any of the narratives currently trending on social media. Therefore nothing much worth paying attention to.

Henry Rollins is right. We can’t expect the government to fix this stuff. We have to do it ourselves. We can protest. We should. But protests can only expose a problem, not fix it. We have to work on this stuff on an individual basis, interaction by interaction.

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September 10-11, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland 2-Day Retreat

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September 27, 2016 – Wimbledon, London, England – Talk and Q&A

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October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture

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