I took off on my customary three-mile walk on Saturday morning. I was in shorts, a tee shirt, walking shoes and my fabulous American flag sun-hat that I picked up in an antique store in Old Lyme.

About a half mile into the walk, a young black man approached me from the opposite direction, followed by his two-year-old son with a pretty impressive Afro, driving his battery-powered tractor. I indicated that I wanted to say something.

The man stopped and removed his ear buds.

As I’ve begun to do on occasion, I told him that I was happy to see him and I was pleased to be there with him. I was smiling and making eye-contact.

He smiled broadly. His manner indicated that he was surprised and genuinely pleased to be greeted in that way. We chatted for just a minute and introduced ourselves. Then Shaune asked why I stopped and greeted him.

I told him I was on a self-improvement program. I told him that I found if I made actual, intentional human connection with a person of color when I met him, the event helped me deal with my racism. It helped me recognize him as a man and not as a black man.

This led to ten-minute conversation on the sidewalk. He asked if I read, and I said yes. He said he had a book for me to read, The Color of Law, and invited me to walk with him to his house. His son fired up the tractor, and off we went, around the block to a typically lovely Wethersfield house, the kind of house anyone would want to live in.

He went inside and returned with the book. We continued to talk about racism. He heard me say that racism infects all of us, and eventually he said he knows it’s in him, too. We had gotten comfortable enough that he fessed up.

“You know, as I saw you walking down the street, older white guy wearing an American flag hat, I started getting ready.” What he meant was that I could be a white racist neighbor. His son was with him, and he prepared himself to be defensive. That explained, in part, his surprise when I greeted him in a friendly manner.

It was particularly cool that we had gotten comfortable enough in a few minutes for him to admit that to me.

Shaune and I continued talking. He was facing the street and I had my back to the street. A car drove by, and Shaune waved. Shaune told me that it was a black neighbor. Less than a minute later, the car came back, slowly, and Shaune gave a thumps up. He smiled at me and said that his neighbor had asked him if everything was okay by signaling thumbs up or thumbs down. Shaune’s thumbs up had been the answer. His neighbor just wanted to be sure that Shaune wasn’t having a problem with this old white guy with the American flag hat.

Think about how sad that is. Think about how sad it is that two black guys living in a predominantly white neighborhood find it necessary to check with each other if one is engaged with a white man. And recognize that two white men in a predominantly white neighborhood also might feel it’s necessary to check with each other if one is engaged with a black man. What is that? Why does a simple social situation appear to us to be a sign of a man in danger, simply because of the color of their skin?

Notice, also, that although there is some symmetry to the situation when the colors are reversed, the truth is that the black man is the man who realistically could be in danger. In both cases, if there’s a threat of racial violence, the black man is the guy who’s outnumbered. Although it’s not true in every case, in general in a white neighbor, no one has anything to fear from a black man walking down the street. The black man is the one who’s wondering who’s watching him out the window, who’s following him on the sidewalk in the American flag hat, who’s calling 911.

Bottom line? Thanks, Shaune, it was nice getting to know you. We’ll have you over for drinks. And thanks for the book. I need the education.

3 Replies to “THUMBS UP”

  1. Good story Mark. Following last week’s essay, I’m glad but not surprised that no one got a fat lip.

    I still find the word “racist” vexing. When you talk about exploring your and your neighbor’s racism, I understand what you mean. When later you observe that you could easily be mistaken for a “white racist neighbor.” I get that completely different meaning too.

    With a topic this fraught for most people, we need to be careful about relying on context alone to distinguish between timely self reflection and bigotry.

    • Thanks, Paul

      I’m sure that people who are familiar with my writing know that I’m not always as precise with my word usage as I should be in order to be well understood. My word choice is sometimes sloppy. “Racism” is one of those words, and it’s complicated by the fact that the word means different things to different people. For me, racism is about a system of thoughts and habits that infects people and causes them to treat a group of people unfairly and unjustly. I think the great majority of white Americans are “racists,” because virtually all of us learned some collection of behaviors that contributes to the unfair and unjust treatment of Blacks. For me, being a racist doesn’t mean a person is a bad person – they can be perfectly well-intentioned, but their behavior, the behavior they learned in our culture, has unfair and unjust effect.

      Thus, white people on Cape Cod are racists, white people in West Hartford are racists, white people living in my house – that would be me, are racist.

      It’s unfortunate that people think that being called a racist is a terrible thing. I have a collection of behaviors that makes me a racist just like I have a collection of behaviors that makes me a Buffalo Bills fan. Each may be desirable or undesirable, but the simple collection of behaviors doesn’t make me a bad person.

      Others will argue with that definition, because they think “racist” should mean what I call an “overt racist.” That’s someone who consciously chooses to be unfair and unjust to Blacks. Or a “conscious racist,” as opposed to what most of us are, which is “unconscious racists.”

      People should know, probably many already do, that Isabel Wilkerson has just published her latest book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. In it, apparently, she explains that racism is just another caste system. It operates on the same principles that India’s caste system operates, except that India doesn’t use skin color as a differentiating feature as we do. Wilkerson says, and I think she’s right, that we should talk about the problem here as a caste problem rather than as racism, precisely because “racism” is almost hopelessly imprecise and loaded word, and the words we use to talk about caste create less ambiguity. We will see if her approach to the problem of vocabulary catches on and generates more light and less heat on the general subject.

  2. Thanks, Mark, for an excellent vignette that is illuminating and inspiring in several ways, and The Color of Law is recommended by me. It’s not a fun, beach read, but it makes a clear exposition for the causes of the wealth gap in this country and how the governmental (at all levels of government) contribution must be rigorously examined and eliminated.

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