Come and Touch the Things You Cannot Feel

This is likely to begin with the most self-privileged thing I have written for a while. I imagine it will also sound disturbingly white.

Last Friday at the gym I was at the end of my usual swim of 1,000 meters (see, I told you). I hadn’t swum in a while, and I had worked particularly hard, so I was ready for a term in the sauna ([cringe]) when the black man jumped into the lane beside me.

Normally this wouldn’t have been an issue. My gym isn’t a utopic melting pot by any means, but neither is it Augusta National. Men and women of all races are members there. In all truth, I tend to see minorities in the pool far more often than I do in the bike studio. And in all truth, I don’t remember ever thinking about the demographics of the membership before.

This time, however, I was aware that following my intended course would mean leaving the pool immediately upon this man’s entrance. In other words, it might appear to him that I wasn’t comfortable sharing the pool with a black man.

I swam a few extra laps. I almost feel as bad about that as about noticing the racial makeup of the pool at that moment.

I think it was a useful experience, albeit one that I struggle to contextualize in the appropriate fashion. Race in America is a tricky thing to maneuver, and it’s useful for the privileged to recognize the parameters of their privilege from time to time. And while I was not specifically called out for my whiteness in this instance, still it was a moment of awareness that I normally am not subject to. At the same time, that moment was gut-wrenching and by definition self-indicting. How terrible, I thought for a moment in that pool, that I be forced to deal with the nasty consequences of a social system where my whiteness creates such a potentially uncomfortable situation through no fault of my own. And then, how awful, that moment, when it seemed an injustice that I be subject on this rare occasion to something another American might be enduring all the time. Even thinking about how this is a useful experience for a white man feels pretty sleazy, as if the world another person suffers through might in some way be a personal classroom whenever I deem it fit to be so. How dare I?

More acute instances of this type occurred a few times during my travels, and this particular moment prompted a recollection of those instances. One particularly memorable moment occurred in Paterson, New Jersey, when one of a trio of black men in the northern part of the city yelled out “Hey white boy! You want–” as I passed by him in my car. I did not hear what the conclusion of his query. Though I had not considered it before, it thereafter occurred to me that there were probably only a few reasons a white man came to this poverty-stricken, almost exclusively black part of a city where blacks nearly outnumber whites in general (and minorities outnumber whites 2-to-1)– a town that, it should be said, most in the tri-state area are usually familiar with only because it is a mainstay in the crime sections of newspapers and local news broadcasts. This man likely thought I was there to buy drugs or solicit prostitution or do something of the ilk, and he was either prepared to offer me one of these things or tell me to get the hell out of a neighborhood white men in search of these things were helping to destroy. But none of those assumptions were accurate. I was there to see the Great Falls of the Passaic River, and to reconcile the current state of the city with what I knew of it from William Carlos Williams’ great poem, Paterson. It didn’t mattered, though. At that moment I was a white man in a black place, and my story had been written for me by those who assumed things about a person they did not know.

Minorities in the country, of course, deal with this all the time. I can’t say how often the average black man, for instance, encounters such external conscriptions, nor estimate how many times he does so without merit because of the sheer frequency of times it does have it. I can’t say how often any stereotyped minority I come across looks at me and assumes that in some capacity I am engaging in these types of conscriptions. And to my discredit, I am certain I do not catalog every time I am in fact guilty of doing such things. (We all tell stories based on cultural stimuli, whether we like to admit it or not.) It is for these reasons that when I do write about race, I try my best to think things through as thoroughly as I can, and to be as careful with my language as possible, lest my presumptions get the better of me. The time I have spent thinking about a single line in the first paragraph of a chapter I wrote about a Louisiana plantation likely runs into the hundreds of hours, for instance, so worried am I still that I got it wrong specifically because of my status as a white man and a Northerner. A book might be written about that line alone (though it would likely be self-apologetic drivel) and not dispel my urge to simply excise it in favor of a subject I’m more confident in discussing.

The same can be said about last Friday’s swim. I doubt the man who jumped into the lane beside me even thought about the incident at all. But then again, maybe he did because he has no choice but to do so in a culture that asks him to tread carefully through the waters of external assumption. I simply don’t know.

What I return to, though, is the notion of intrinsic worth that might be gleaned from such moments, for even if the act feels sleazy or dirty or itself an act of privilege akin to a journey of oppression tourism (ah, to see how those poor children eat from the trash bins, and to casually return to my abundance with credit taken for my visceral engagement of their plight), still it seems an almost necessary exercise for an American of privilege to remove themselves from whatever comforts that privilege has afforded them, if only to recognize the depths of a tumultuous ocean they by their very nature tend to float upon unawares. For so addictive are the narcotics of personal advantage and comfort that we might willingly deprive others of them, whether we know we are doing so or not.

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