Note: The following contains a discussion of white guilt. This is not meant to be a pity fest or a cue for reassurance. I’m trying to, as the title implies, disarm that guilt and start moving forward again.

I mentioned in my last post that I’d made a less than brilliant choice of walking to the subway the last time i was in New York. The story is as follows.

My friend lives pretty far uptown on the east side, and so I needed to get from the Metro-North station at 125 all the way over to the 1 line. Now, it happens (and i suspect this is not in fact a coincidence) that there is not a good way to take the subway cross town that far up. So waiting for the M60, I realize that I don’t know the schedule, and it may not even be running this late. I have no idea where the 101 goes. Feck. I start walking.

Seven blocks in or so, everything is going to plan. People in NYC don’t want anything to do with you. They’d much rather move to the other side of the sidewalk, and just keep moving. The fundamental rule of social compact is not based on interaction, but rather neutral neglect. So when i see a guy walking right towards me, I know something is wrong. As he passes, I keep moving to the left, but he corrects. Slamming his bagged bottle into my right arm then letting it fall to the pavement with a sickening crash, he turns and begins a confrontation.

This is the point at which my heart rate is up, and I begin to realize that I may have done something really, really stupid.

Two guys walking even with me turn just a little and tell me very clearly: “Keep on walking. Just keep walking.” I start to take this advice, but I can hear the man closing in from behind. I’m carrying my backpack, and let’s just say this. I’d tip over pretty easily if i wasn’t ready.

I turn, still walking backwards to keep pace with the two guys who seemed like they might help. The argument that follows is kind of a blur. Something about last bottle, 8 bucks, and a whole lot of angry.

After the other guys say something about it not being my problem, and I repeat an apology without offering any money, he starts to slow. I turn and speed up. I face my helpers for a moment, and feeling infinitely awkward for involving them in a scene they had no interest in being a part of, I say thank you, and walk away quickly.

Enter white guilt. In the rest of the long and chilly walk, I had plenty of time to think. I wondered if I could even remember any of this right. If i saw pictures, could i have picked out the angry drunk guy from the men who helped me? Or had they all been subsumed into a larger cultural image of the threatening black man? Why had I been scared of this walk in the first place? 75 blocks south, would I have even thought about it? Hadn’t humanity actually come through this time? Why was I still shaking? What made me think of this one person as a threat, when the white power that I daily participate in is far more menacing to his existence than he was to mine?

I came back to Yale, and we talked about Malcolm X. As I had been reading, I kept cheering along. It was about time to shake things up, and be decisive, even at the cost of civility.As we talked, I got a ill feeling. In many ways, I’m still an institutional man.

I talked with one of my friends, and we wondered about how we were going to deal with all of this as we try to be white allies in anti-racist work. We agreed on needing a space for us to start defusing some of these issues, emotions, and problems. If the broader conversation is going to keep moving, we need to disarm ourselves before we join. White guilt can be toxic, shutting down discussion, reorienting the space on to white concerns again.

However far I’ve come, I still have my fair share of demons. And they need to go.

Yours in contrition,

-sly civilian

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