I have made a lot about the world changing last November. I did not know it at the time, but that is not the only thing that changed….
A few days after the presidential election I was riding a bus northbound from downtown Seattle. It was a double-long bus and nearly all the seats were taken by commuters headed home from a day’s work. I sat midway to the back on a bench that faced across the isle. Opposite me was a black guy, roughly my age, a construction worker with a tool belt, a hard hat, and a stack of newspapers.
I sat reading a magazine while he was going through the newspapers. The papers, of course, were full of stories about the election. Every so often he chuckled, almost laughed. It was not that he found anything funny, rather he was elated and he simply could not contain it.
I set down my magazine and looked at him. I noticed that a few others had done the same and that nearly everyone, whether or not they continued to pretend to read, was quietly smiling. He looked up and said, “I just still can’t believe it.” I said, “I know what you mean: neither can I.” He handed me one of the papers and said, “look at this one.” As I skimmed through it I chuckled, almost laughed.
I’m a white guy, middle aged, average looking. He was a black guy, middle aged, average looking. Yet through the years, whether my hair was long or short, I doubt many people crossed the street to avoid my path. And even when I wear a grunge over-shirt and jeans with holes, I suspect few shopkeepers worry that I am planning to shoplift. I have never found it difficult to hail a cab. In other words I have not walked the planet under the constant sense that I was being prejudged. I have, however, had the sense when meeting average-looking black guys of about my age that I was over-compensating. I have found myself trying to let the other guy know that I’m not racist, that I’m okay/you’re okay. I have tried to believe that neither one of us has had anything to prove, but I was fooling myself.
He needed to prove that he wasn’t going to mug me and that he didn’t steal, yet that nonetheless he could not always flag down a cab. I needed to prove that I was not racist, and that I was not personally responsible for the endless span of history through which average-looking, middle-aged white guys held up an institutionalized system of segregation so that we could maintain power and extract profit through the exploitation of average-looking, middle-aged black guys. I found myself trying to believe that had I lived at sometime in that long span of history that I would have been the same non-racist guy I am today, the recent odds of that being one in ten, not long ago one in one-hundred, not much before that one in one-thousand. It has nearly always been necessary to navigate racial bias, and it has never been easy, but maybe now it will be easier. Maybe neither one of us now has quite so much to prove. I am not so naïve that I believe that racism and bigotry have vanished and that we now live in a perfectly equal society. I am not suddenly blind to the inequalities yet faced by woman, non-heterosexuals and non-believers. But our new president is a black guy, middle aged, average looking.
I said, “I think he may end up being the best president of our lifetime, maybe one of the best this country will ever have, and it’s not because he’s black.” He said, “thank you.” I said, “well, yeah, thank you too.” We were complete strangers, and I will probably never meet him again, but in that moment we were brothers. He reached out, fist down. I reached out, fist down. We bumped.
It is not that we are exactly alike, we are different. But possibly for the first time in my life I was not compensating for anything, I wasn’t apologizing for anything, and neither was he. So what else changed last November? I’ll give you a hint….
He is middle aged, average looking.