by Akim Reinhardt
Old white men wearing ties can do anything they want.
-Mike Cooley, “One of These Days” (2001)
I am more powerful than I used to be, and it unnerves me.
I am a white man. And to be a white man in America is to have more power than women and people with darker skin. Just like rich people are more powerful than the poor, and heterosexuality holds more power than transexuality. I’ve been a white guy all my life, a half-century of it now, and for most of that time I’ve been aware that my skin color and increased testosterone endow me with extra power in our society. It’s been a learning curve, to be sure, one that I continue to climb as best I can. And the first lesson came at the hand of my father the only time he ever struck me.
Both of my parents suffered abuse as children, and when they made me and my sister, they swore they would not beat us. But there was this one time . . .
My father was working at a small, private school in the Bronx on a summer afternoon. The owners had hired him to repair a stone retaining wall. My father ran a small contracting business and often had one or two men working with him. Even though I was perhaps no more than six or seven years old, I knew this because I sometimes tagged along with him on jobs, like I had on this day. And so as I watched him labor and sweat beneath the hot sun, moving earth and lifting heavy stones, it occurred to me that normally he would have another worker to at least help with the worst of this grunt work. And indeed, there was another worker there. A black man who was close by, wearing work clothes and tending to some other manual task. So when my father let out a mild complaint about the weight of the rocks and the heat of the day, I offered what I thought was a perfectly reasonable suggestion:
“Why don’t have you have the black man do it?”
He turned, eyes afire, and slapped me across the face.
He thought I was being racist in a way that reminded him of growing up in segregated North Carolina, where even a white child could openly suggest the ordering around of black people. He would not suffer that in me. He would beat it out of me, if necessary.
But as soon as my tears welled up, he regretted it. He understood. Read more »