Tales of an Undercover Half Black Guy
Race seems to be the issue that can never go away. I have a few jokes in my act about how we will know when racism has been eradicated (when the interracial porn genre no longer exists). President Obama’s election was hailed as some sort of landmark event and yet the two most successful tactics against him are 1) painting him as some sort of exotic outsider without American values 2) or yelling that he is a socialist, with fervor usually only reserved for outright slurs, not proxies for them. With the election of Barack Obama and the aftermath of that election it has cause me to more deeply examine my own racial experience. I still can remember Glenn Beck saying President Obama had a “deep seated hatred for white people,”and was “racist.” That of course struck me as strange (and offensive) because Obama’s mother was white. The grandparents that helped raise him were white. But we live in an interesting time racially – we are busy congratulating our society for electing a mixed race president as some sort of baptism to wash away the sins of racism, while simultaneously trying to use that event as a shield from legitimate criticism of a society where discrimination is still rampant. It is still present, just in more subtle ways. As the late, great comedian Patrice O’Neal said, the reason there is still anger is because white people have that racism that can’t be proven.
I need to say that this is not meant as some anti-white screed by any means, but my experience between black people and white people who do not know I am half black has been very different. Although there are exceptions in each group, black people tend to be immediately welcoming, whereas white people become immediately skeptical.
Like President Obama I am the son of a black immigrant father and a Caucasian American mother. I also have a law degree from a prestigious law school. Needless to say the similarities abruptly end there. Not only is his major accomplishment of POTUS slightly more impressive than my one performance on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, but he is “black” and I appear “white.” I have jokes about my race changing from season to season depending on tan and hair length, but my range goes from Italian to Algerian at best. For most people I am judged as white by their first impression. Fortunately and unfortunately that has exposed me to a lot of things I sometimes wish I had not been. Because for every indignity that people of obvious color may still suffer, I get to experience the indignity of being present for all the things people of color do not hear because of the self censorship that occurs nowadays.
The closest parallels that I have come up with are Jewish people and gay people. These are the groups that, if not bearing obvious hallmarks of their identity, can be privy to the uncensored opinions that they otherwise would not have been if they had sent out signals. I spent my life in private schools and despite real efforts at diversity at all levels they were still overwhelmingly white places. So most of my circles of friends have been heavily white. And they all know my Dad and know that I am half black. But it is when I meet people I do not know or when I meet friends of friends who nothing more about me than my height that things can often get uncomfortable. Here are some greatest hits:
- In a bar a few weeks ago (which sort of got me thinking of writing this), a white friend of a friend was chatting with me and told me that some guy’s car was really tricked out, or as he put it “niggerfied.”
- Same night a stranger approached me in a bar and asked if I played basketball. I said just in small level college a while back. His reply was “Well, what do you expect, you’re white.”‘
- In Ohio, the emcee was called up by the headliner to participate in a dance routine for his closer. I commented to a woman, “Man, he’s really getting into it with his dance moves.” Her response was “Well, he’s black.”
- At a Pittsburgh Steelers game, – just read my write up – http://jlcauvin.com/?p=1212
- A little while back at a bar with a good friend of mine and several female friends of his that did not know me, the song I Will Survive came on. I rolled my eyes because I don’t like the song. One woman said, “I hate this song. Maybe I would like it if I was a black chick.”
- In college after I had had a slam dunk on guy after my last game, a teammate’s uncle congratulated me with a “Great throw down! You dunked it like a black guy!”
- On Spring Break many years ago I was hanging out with a young woman from Texas most of the night. I was very drunk, but then a very sobering moment came up and I don’t know what brought it about, but I cannot forget what she said: “I’m not racist; I just don’t like black people.”
- As a kid, the first memory I have of feeling awkward and conflicted racially was a good friend of mine when we were 10 or 11 years old would always cross the street when young black men were approaching us (even at 4 in the afternoon on a crowded Manhattan cross street). And this is someone who knew my father, which always made me wonder – is he that oblivious to how that would make me feel, or does he not count me among their numbers?
These are just some of the more salient examples of my life of the last few decades. Whenever I do tell people that I am half black there is a shock as if I either harbored a secret or pulled of a magic trick. Of course when I say that I am half Irish there is a “Huh, I did not see that,”response, but when I say “half-Haitian” the response is usually more like “Get the fu*k out of here!!!” And then there is a verification check of “Are you serious?” I have grown accustomed to that. The one that bothers me is the subsequent question a minute later, “Seriously, your Dad is black?” because then I have no real choice but to be insulted and annoyed. To me, the nervous incredulity rings off a bell to me that says “modern day racist,” (even if only a product of my own insecurity from past dealings that were more blatant) the same way I cringe a little at excessive usage of the word “ghetto” to mean anything besides an actual slum. This was what Patrice meant by “hard to prove.” Granted I have some very blatant examples I have been privy to, and believe me these are not the only ones. But if I were to get in the face of someone asking me four times if my Dad was black, he could say, “Why are you so mad? You have to admit you don’t look black.” Then why not the same shock at half Irish? You don’t think I look Irish, either! My theory, based solely on personal experience is that black has a certain cache to it, at least in terms of of our pop culture. It also comes with pitfalls as well; pitfalls I am not enduring (as if I am not paying the tax for the advantages of being part black?). But most importantly, most black men come with a warning sign – their skin and features. That skin and those features may lead to forms of discrimination today as obvious as stop and frisk programs or the never-going-away, DWB (Driving While Black), but it also allows so-called good and enlightened non-racists to censor themselves. How many of those things above do you think would have occurred had I looked obviously black? None. And then to put the onus on me as if I am hiding in plain sight with some sort of deceitful purpose is all I need to understand the insecurities that are present in the questioner.
Now, having grown up with one half of my family a blue collar Irish family, I have heard slurs and derogatory comments in and around my house. And just like the comment of my teammate’s uncle, the comments annoy me. I do not generally subscribe to the “set in your ways” philosophy about old racists. If there were people around that knew better then you should have known better. But in older generations and even today I have become pretty good at detecting malicious racism and benign comments worded awkwardly. Unlike most of my white teammates who found the comment embarrassing, I shrugged it off because it felt more like a poorly worded compliment from someone who thought those words weren’t hurtful. I did not interpret anything he said as ill will behind them towards black people. I am not saying I enjoyed it, but it did not really bother me. What bothers me is that most of the experiences I listed above have taken place in liberal places with young white people. A generation supposedly so much more enlightened, believing that race is completely irrelevant. Perhaps that is true of teens and young twenties, but it does not feel nearly as rosy in my age demographic (33 years old).
A little while back I defended the show Girls, for its monochromatic presentation of NYC because it felt authentic – white women do a lot of self segregating in this city. I felt like that was enough to validate it for me. The only thing missing for me was not the presence of minorities in their inner circle. Rather, what was missing is them discussing race at all. I have been in too many bars in conversations and overhearing conversations when today’s modern liberal, enlightened white people are sharing their real thoughts and quips about race (even Carrie Bradshaw dropped a “ghetto gold” reference on Sex and the City). Of course this is not to say things like this do not go on in other groups, but this is my experience. Undoubtedly someone will comment or share their own experience of being called a “white bitch” or being jumped by a group of black guys, but that would miss my point. My point is that the “new racism” as Patrice O’Neal put it is real, or it i snot that new. Unlike Patrice, I am in more of a position to verify its existence. This is not some “white people are bad” diatribe (calm down Glenn Beck). This is merely a response to people (including people I am a fan of like Adam Carolla) who proclaim highly paid black entertainers and a president of color means that our society is so different than it was before 2008 or 1998 or earlier (yes there is a point in our history where we are obviously radically different and better than, but a coach once said to me that the difference between bad and good is easier to bridge than good to great. I believe we are in the good-to-great struggle now and there is a lot of push back).
I have never identified myself as black or white, except once – law school applications. My college allowed me to check “all that apply” so I proudly applied as white and black. However, most law schools wanted only one box checked. And I checked black. And I felt like a fraud. Not because I did not qualify to check it, but because I do not identify myself as black. I identify myself as mixed race, white and black. Perhaps this is the convenience of not looking black that I can craft my own racial identity in a country so obsessed with it. The same way Barack Obama probably never had a choice to not identify as black. Instead of hailing him as a multi-racial president, which in many ways is even more impressive to the country’s legacy as a melting pot, he has become our first black president. I completely understand why. There are times I wish I looked blacker, simply to avoid the annoyance and shame that comes with being privy to racist or racist-leaning comments every couple of months. It reminds me of The Matrix where one character prefers to stay in the matrix, rather than face the harshness of reality. If I looked blacker I would face other, more well-documented problems, but would benefit from the self-censorship that many people employ when dealing with “ethnics.”
I suppose the reason for me writing this is not to say I wish I was someone different or looked different. But it is to say that for all the progress that society has made, do not fool yourself into believing all is well. I am constantly presented with opportunities where an angry response may be warranted (or at least I would look crazy if I did), but rather incidents that are just enough to make me feel shame for not saying something. In other words if a friend of a friend starts saying provocative things I can ruin everyone’s night by announcing that I am half black and I find the person backwards and wrong or I can do what I normally do which is make a mental note, let it slide and let everyone go on feeling good about themselves. Which is sort of what we have all been doing.