Must be nice

To live in a world where you’re always right. Even when you’re completely wrong.

I have a little story to tell, although it still pains me to even think about it. (I think this is what’s called “Confessional Blogging.”)

When I was nineteen years old, I took an internship on Capitol Hill. I went to work for the Democratic Representative from my district, but I ended up doing a lot of work for John Lewis, since the guy for whom I went to work turned out to be a Dixiecrat nestled deep into the pockets of Northrup and Grumman and a half dozen other arms dealers. Besides being slimy, he was kind of dull to work for.

So, here I am, this 19 year old idealistic kid from Columbus, GA. I had some good ideas in my head, and some bad ideas in my head. I was not the upper-middle to upper-class child of privilege that Dani (America’s Top Racist, or whatever she’s trying to be, in the clip referenced above…) appears to be, since I had gone to fully integrated public schools, my mother had been an activist with the Urban League and I had played music in all sorts of bands when I was a teenager. However, I still had some persistent misconceptions about what it means to be Black in America, and I was headed for a collision with one member of Congressman Lewis’ staff.

*sigh* I hate to even tell this story.

Moving along.

So, we’re stuffing envelopes, one night, late. Me and John (my roommate, not the Congressman) and the Congressman’s Legislative Assistant. (I just called Lewis’ office to try and see if anyone could remember his name, and everyone was like “Wow, 20 years ago? Mmmmm…. nope.”)

When I got to DC, I almost immediately fell into a musical situation playing in a Blues band. As the only white player in that band, I felt pretty privileged and special to having that experience. So, I yapped about it at the drop of a hat.

So, here we are stuffing envelopes and I am yapping about playing with this blues band, so I turn to the Congressman’s LA and I say “Do you like blues or jazz?”

And he says “What do you mean?” He instantly sensed the assumption behind my question, which was “Well, you’re black- surely you like one or the other…” which was really, really naive and stupid of me. These are the preconceptions one carries away from Columbus, Georgia, I guess.

Not sensing what an ass I was being, I persisted “Well, do you like blues? or jazz?”

And he, sensing an opportunity to impart a life lesson, said “What makes you think I like either one?”

And I wasn’t about to say “Well, you’re black….and black people like Negro music, right?” but that WAS the implicit assumption in my question. I struggled to think of some OTHER way of saying “Well, you’re black…” and muttered some inanity just as it began to dawn on me that I was being presumptuous and that I was perhaps operating under some assumptions that might be kind of idiotic.

God, thinking back on it now, I can’t imagine what an idiot I must looked like. Of course, the full implication of it didn’t really dawn on me until some years later, but even at the moment, I realized I was out on some thin ice. I can only hope that dear Dani has some sort of moment of reflection at some point and realizes that the assumptions that she’s making may not be informed by anything other than her racism.

We live in hope.

3 Comments

  1. Hmmmmm. Makes me wonder how I’d react if someone asked me if I liked klezmer music or Matisyahu, just because I’m Jewish. (Or was… you know what I mean.) Which is sort of a dumb question, but not really an anti-Semitic one. It’s dunderheaded more than it’s malicious, and the dunderheaded can be taught, which happened in your case.

    Can’t see the Dani clip, so I don’t really know what she said and whether it falls into the ignorant slot or the hateful slot. I still maintain, however, that everyone is allowed to be ignorant once, because how else are you going to learn?

  2. Sorry to follow up my own comment, but a better example: People constantly tell me all the time, “Oh! I know sign language!” which is quite presumptuous and assumes a familiarity with me I don’t share.

    And yes, it’s annoying, but at the same time… it’s not really the other person’s fault, y’know, if they don’t much about gradations in hearing impairment and that faulty ears =/= sign language knowledge. (Cf. also, “Wow. You went to law school? And you can’t hear? I’m impressed!”)

    Ultimately, I always end up saying something like, “No, I don’t know sign language. You should teach me sometime.” That’s pretty much the end of that, as far as I’m concerned. Lesson learned.

    And I certainly hope no one who’s ever bragged about their ASL prowess is still going on about what a stupid ableist move that was years later. Wearing moral hairshirts does no one any good, and some would even say is a reverse symbol of abled-person privilege. The arrogance of humility, if you will.

    I don’t need or want anybody to beat themselves up for years over what’s ultimately a trivial slip. I want them to not be ableist. Not that I’m saying you are, Patrick, at all, but… do you see the distinction?

  3. Alex

    Methinks that there is is something of an assumption on everyone’s part in your story – that everyone, *including the african-american* assumed that this was an either/or question that you asked only because he was black. If you asked, say, an asian-american if he or she liked blues or jazz, I don’t think anyone would have batted an eye if the response was “neither one”. If you are in a band that plays jazz and/or blues, and *you* are enthusiastic about what you do, why should anyone assume that your questions means anything other than that you are trying to share something that you care about and enjoy.

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