T. Kearny Vertner, III
Here's what we haven't been doing enough of to combat racism.
Since the sad death of George Floyd, our nation has been given much to think about regarding both where we have come from - and where we want to be. I've tried my best to listen to the hard stories of what it means to grow up Black in the U.S., and while they're essential to hear, they're heart-wrenching. We keep telling ourselves that this shouldn't be the way things are in 2020, yet there's not a month without another senseless, tragic killing by an incorrectly-trained police force with some problematic perspectives on their role within the community. Throughout all of this, I've tried to collect my thoughts on what we should be doing. On Wednesday, I discussed something that could help from a policy angle regarding the oft-misused term police militarization. Today, I'm troubled not by what I can do, but what I could have done and what I must vow to do better in white space.
I'll start by telling a story from my childhood. I recall I was about nine or ten years old and an adult friend of the family - a white male - decided to tell me a joke:
So there are four people left on an airplane with only three parachutes: the President of the United States, the Pope, and smartest Black man in the world, and a Boy Scout. The President announces, "I'm the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, and the country could fall into chaos without me," so he grabs the first parachute and jumps.
The smartest Black man in the world pronounces, "the world would be a much poorer place without the amazing gifts born from my brilliance!" He grabs the second parachute and jumps.
With just one parachute remaining, the Pope gracefully extends it to the young Boy Scout and explains, "Son, I have lived a good long life, and I am ready to rejoin God. Take the last parachute and go."
The Boy Scout attempts to interject, "But sir - !"
"Don't argue with me, son. Just go. It's alright."
"But sir - !"
"There's not a lot of time, son. Put on that parachute and go," the Pope said, sounding more exasperated.
"But sir - we can both go," the Boy Scout finally gets out. "The world's smarted ni**er just jumped out of the plane with my backpack!"
Now I'll be honest: I laughed. I felt a bit uncomfortable, and I'm not particularly proud of it, but I still laughed. In fact, I've retold that joke without the racist element, and it's still funny. Also, let me be clear: while I grew up in Virginia, open racism was not part of our regular lives. My parents were both remarkably liberal in their views and found it explicitly intolerable. Nobody in my family was wearing white hoods or used such contemptuous language without sharp rebuke, yet moments like these have not necessarily been unusual when I find myself in what I like to call white space.
The best way to explain white space is through elements of what many writers and sociologists are terming rape culture. While the concept doesn't have a strict definition, the best way to understand it as the acceptance of rapes as an everyday occurrence, and even a male prerogative. It's said that the pervasiveness of sexist attitudes, inappropriate jokes, so-called locker room banter, etc. create an environment where the handful of men who would consider raping feel that it's acceptable and that all of the other men are doing it. While it's less common now, I recall growing up in the eighties and nineties where almost every teen or college movie involved viewing women as mere objects to be conquered, usually with alcohol or excessive social pressure.
Fast forward to a few years ago, where I was flying a mission on a military aircraft with 11 other crew members. As with most slow missions, the crew started telling stories to keep themselves engaged and awake, and a young officer began to regale the crew with the tales of his days at his service academy, where he would "go out every weekend and offer to go up to the bar and buy girls drinks - but then ordered them triple!" He proudly bragged to the all-male crew over our headsets about his countless conquests, and - not wanting to rock the boat - I grudgingly let it go at first. As he kept going, I eventually looked around the back of the aircraft, and I saw a lot of wide-eyed fellow enlisted nodding as though listening to a great sage offer them precious wisdom. Finally, I had to risk it and call him out:
"Sir, do you ever reflect on your time as a sexual predator and regret it?"
Of course, he stammered out a poor hasty rebuttal, but the damage was done. After I explained it a bit further, asking if any of those women would have consensually slept with him had he not given them too much liquor, he relented and became quiet. I was terrified, but it was important to me to finally say something and help the rest of the crew understand that this was not acceptable. The rest of the flight was uneventful... but quieter.
A Safe Space
That was a crew of all men. As a white man, I've seen plenty of instances where groups of men will say completely inappropriate things. Not just unseemly when women are around, but inappropriate period. Unfortunately, it's not only a problem when I'm in a space with people who share my gender, but also my race. People will say and joke about awful things because they feel safe. They think I'm one of them and that it's safe to say what they do, even if it's in a hushed voice with a glance over their shoulder. They think that I must share their views because their views are clearly shared by everyone that looks like them. That's my shame.
I'm proud that I spoke up for women on that flight. I'm proud that I invaded their safe space and challenged their assumptions that night. What I'm not proud of is that I haven't done it every time. Not for women, other races, or different ethnicities. I have failed to speak up too many times. When I find myself in that white space, sometimes the comments come too fast. The jokes are too shocking. It's exhausting to fight all of the time. It's risky to rebuke a teammate - or worse - a superior.
These are all the excuses I tell myself. Sometimes, I succeed and overcome that reticence to fight like I want to. Sometimes I have corrected people. Sometimes, but not always. I need to do better. I also know that my experience - my failure - is hardly unique; we all need to do better.
I'm not proud of my failures, but I have to acknowledge them. The color of my skin has bought me access and privilege that others lack. It's not to say that I haven't worked hard, but I know that people who don't look like me would have had to work much harder to achieve what I have. I think it's important to acknowledge this reality and for people that look like me to recognize it as well. I'm glad to hear more people having these kinds of honest conversations, and I dare the leaders within an organization to share their experiences. Moreover, I dare folks - especially organizations leaders - to join me in challenging those assumptions when we find ourselves in that white space. Let's work harder to be the people our sisters and brothers hope we are when they aren't around.