The fear of shame

I have a feeling that I’ll be spending much of this week talking about issues around race, racism, the Presidential election, and other related topics.

Growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio instilled in me the idea that racism is wrong – judging others by the color of their skin is wrong, systemic oppression of people along the lines of the color of their skin is wrong, and racism, which encapsulates both of these activities, is must be resisted at all costs. I have long felt tension over this idea. From my earliest memories, I can recall being corrected by my mother whenever I would speak in the way that black kids in my pre-school class would speak. I can remember noticing that the black kids on my street seemed to have different rules. In middle school it seemed like black boys were obsessed with basketball, and black girls spoke loud. And in high school, well…in high school there were all kinds of differences that were obvious in spite of our being taught explicitly that racism was wrong. The lunch room was segregated. The after school social scene was segregated. And the classes were segregated – honors and AP classes tended to be majority white, while the lower level “college prep” classes were frequently majority black. There were lots of exceptions to these rules of course – lots – but I will never forget, in my junior year, the school newspaper publishing the results of a PTA study comparing white and black student achievement, both in classes, and on standardized tests. The school exploded in rage. The student editors apologized to the entire school later that day, over the PA system, and the faculty advisor resigned. We had an all school assembly with a noted black academic speaking on the importance of black achievement. The school system hired a black African sociologist to write a study of the achievement gap, and the school board later rejected it, on account of it not adequately describing the commitment of black families to education.

Being called a racist in my school was basically the worst thing you say about a person. You might be an asshole, you might be dumb as a rock, you might be poor, you might have poor taste, but none of these were as bad as being a racist. Not even close.

When I first discovered Richard Pryor I felt liberated. He said stuff out loud that I could not say – like the n-word. And its not as if I’ve never said that word, but I’m not going to write it here, so if you don’t know what word it is I mean by the “n-word” then you’re going to have to look it up somewhere else. I won’t explain it here. But I will say that listening to Richard Pyror use it over and over and over again in his comedy actually made me feel physically lighter. The way he was so up front about racism (and sex and drugs) was amazing to me, and beautiful. The way he characterized White People was wonderful to me. He was so up front about these things that were so hard to talk about. And racism in the 1990s was really hard to talk about. But Pryor would talk about the differences between white and black people – differences in how they dated, in how they made love, in how they spoke to each other. Differences in how they were treated by the police. In his autobiography, Pryor actually talks about how part of his sketch about police violence, in which he says that a black man who has been pulled over for a traffic violation has to be “talking about ‘I am REACHING into my POCKET for my LICENCE.’ Cuz I don’t wanna be no motherfuckin ‘accident’.  – fans would later tell him about actually saying this to police officers, who would sometimes then burst into laughter when they recognized the comedian’s material. But it was funny because it was part of the real world, and the real world was terrible and fucked up. And it felt good to hear someone talk about that world out loud.

I was, somehow, the co-editor of my high school literary magazine (I was basically useless; New York Times bestselling author Celeste Ng, the other co-editor, did basically all the work) and we organized some poetry readings. I remember there was one girl who had this poem “Smoke,” which she would deliver in this mesmerizing slam style, that was just really powerful and relevant. The magazine asked her to submit the piece, but she declined, saying that she felt it would be misunderstood. To me, this felt like it was part of a larger theme that I heard from black people in my age group – that white people could not understand them or their problems or their feelings in general. A couple of years later, at an open mic that would play a formative role in my life, there was a black woman who sang a song with a refrain of “I make love hard and you don’t understand” and I remember standing there feeling excluded. And of course, you’re not supposed to take this stuff personally. Its supposed to be about society and systemic racism and all that. But I’ve always had hard time feeling excluded. To me, that song said “White people are fake. You are fake, and you have to be fake, because you are white. And you can’t do anything about it. That’s how it is, forever. So fuck you, fuck your whiteness, fuck your privilege. You mean nothing, nothing you ever do will be genuine or real or good, because you are only your whiteness.” It felt like revenge for centuries of racism. It felt like equality required white people to be oppressed, and nothing less could be acceptable.

And I get how that’s narcisstic and all that, and how I get to be a navel gazing blogger because, well, I am white, and I am privileged. But then what? Should I simply accept this state of affairs? I don’t have a good answer for this, and it bothers me. Because racism is wrong, its wrong, and it needs to be fought against, resisted, and overcome. But sometimes I just don’t know what that looks like. And in the meantime, I want to be able to take serious political positions, but I’m afraid to be called a racist. I’m afraid because I can’t bear the shame of it. Black Lives Matter. But I am white and I am white and I am white and there’s nothing I can do about it goddamnit…

Published by samuelbarbour

Besides writing a blog, I also teach, farm, cook, and play music. I live in the Illinois River Valley with my partner, Molly Breslin, who sometimes posts stuff at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: