John Colson: My white skin gets in the way of any understanding

John Colson
Hit & Run

As the demonstrations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement continue around the U.S. and even find outlets in foreign capitals — protests against everything from police brutality to social injustice and institutionalized racism, and a lot more — I find myself thinking a lot about what it must be like to be black in America.

According to a National Geographic online story June 11, there have been more than 1,000 protest events in response to the deaths of numerous black individuals at the hands of police, in particular the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.

And while the prime motivator of all this tumult is the demise of black people in the custody of mostly white police officers, the protesting multitudes have comprised people of all colors and creeds, with more white faces taking part than during previous, similar outbursts of race-related anger and anguish.

In the pages and on the airwaves of what remains of our news industry, there has been a lot of discussion about the white component of these protests, much of it concerning questions of white sincerity and true understanding of the lives of black people in this county, and I’m pretty sure there is a lot of thinking along the same lines that never makes it to print.

It’s not like this is the first time the thought has come up, for me. I’ve been thinking about it in one way or another ever since I was about 6 years old and growing up on the extreme south side of Madison, Wisconsin.

When I say “extreme,” I mean it — I lived in the Waunona Way neighborhood, a wooded enclave named for a road that stretches for a couple of miles along the southern edge of Lake Monona, the southernmost of several in-town lakes that lies a short distance from the city’s southern border.

With maybe a couple of hundred homes spread out on a network of interlocking streets feeding off Waunona Way, it was a mostly white part of a mostly white town. But the school I went to, Franklin Elementary, was located closer to the center of town and adjacent to Madison’s version of the black part of town, which put it basically between my neighborhood and the school.

At least half of the kids at Franklin School were from those black neighborhoods, and thus it was that I spent nine years of my young life in a state of almost-minority status, numerically if not socio-economically.

I played at recess among black kids, I walked to a nearby black-owned barbershop to get my hair cut every couple of weeks. All this is to say that black lives had a lot to do with my life starting at a young age, of that there is no doubt.

But do I really understand what it’s like to be black in America?

No, because my white skin got in the way of any such understanding.

Oh, I played with kids in the black neighborhoods, I had black girlfriends once I realized girls were to be pursued rather than avoided or feared, and I learned that black people were oppressed by this country in many, many ways that I did not fully, viscerally understand.

But from my perch of white privilege, no matter how much I might sympathize, even empathize with the plight of black people here and elsewhere on the globe, I can never really, really get it, no matter how much I might try.

When I hear or read of white condemnation of the BLM movement and the protesters, there often are subtle indications of the systemic prejudice, which sometimes gets close to hatred, against anyone who dares to get in the face of police on the streets, whose presence at a riot or a violent confrontation is taken as proof that all protesters are anarchists and troublemakers.

These sentiments ignore the centuries of pain, death and oppression that went before, and seem to endorse the idea that if the protesters and the rioters really wanted to be valued citizens they would just get an education, go to work, and forget about all of this drama.

The fact is that our economy is set up so that some segment of society — typically black, brown or other racial “minorities” — is always out of work or working at extremely low wages. Education is denied to far too many based on the color of their skin and the hardscrabble lives resulting from that color difference. And that’s only part of it.

I’d be mad, too, if I were black, brown, red or yellow and poor, in the wealthiest nation on the planet.

I have long admired a line that Frank Zappa sang on his 1966 album, “Freak Out!”: “Hey, you know something, people? I’m not black, but there’s a whole lots a’ times I wish I could say I’m not white.”

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