I had to put that waiter’s apron on again a long while back, this time in a relatively new establishment that was frequented by the best of Spanish Harlem and the worst of Yorkville. Lots of thugs and corporate types in weekend wear, with a few wanna-be models thrown in for good measure. Toss in an exposed brick façade, some turntables spewing what are commonly referred to as “dope beats” and a decent bowl of buffalo wings and you get the picture. It was hip-hop nation at its finest—and there I was in the midst of it all, trying to make bank.
I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why I didn’t like it there until just the other day when a friend related an interesting story to me. He was riding the A train uptown and happened upon a virulent conversation/argument between a young white guy and an old black lady. It was a public one, the kind that had everyone within earshot pretending to read so they could listen more carefully to what was being said. The white guy told the old black lady that although on the outside he was white, on the inside he was as black as she was. Maybe even blacker. (My only remark at this point in the story was that if he were really black, he wouldn’t have said any of that in the first place. He definitely would have known better than to talk to an old black lady that way. Not one shred of respect. But I digress...) The Not-So-White White Guy was on his way uptown to hang out on W.125th St. so he could “be with his people.” My friend said that bizarrely enough, the entire subway car was filled with “his people” who met his remarks with a silence that was deafening.
Hearing this story dislodged another one that took me back to that hip-hop restaurant. I had just knocked off work and I was standing around waiting for my shift meal so I could leave. One of the white guy bartenders remarked that, because of his love of hip-hop and black people, he was actually black on the inside. He was very serious. The white people at the bar agreed with him good-naturedly, some of them going so far as to express the same sentiment. That was the first epiphany: that burning need that some white people have to “be black” is strange cocktail of guilt, self-hatred and fashion. Here’s an oxymoron for the 21st century: how can you reek of white entitlement and be black at the same time? Or maybe the question to answer is, why would you want to?
Hey, you wigga. It doesn’t matter that you have a black girlfriend. It doesn’t matter how much you love hip-hop culture. It doesn’t matter that you live in the ghetto. It doesn’t matter how you choose to mangle the English language with profanity and slang. Your cornrows. Your doo-rag. Your pimp walk. Your dreadlocks. None of it matters. Draping your makeshift hip-hop blackness over your sense of white entitlement can’t possibly make you black. As a white person, you are given distinct advantages in the world simply because of your race. Ignoring your white privilege doesn’t make it go away. It simply means that you aren’t taking advantage of it at the moment. When you decide to get on with your life, I don’t know what you’ll do with the myriad of choices you’ll have but we can both be fairly certain of one thing: You won’t “be black” anymore.
Here’s what I’d like to ask white people who think like this: How can you EVER play the victim when you benefit from a worldwide system of white supremacy that gives you an automatic advantage?
When the time comes to stop all those Negro shenanigans (and somehow, it always does), I knew that white guy bartender would be the first one to do so. And so did he. “Being black” would be this phase he went through, like when he lived in Prague for a year or when he was really into hip-hop, or when this biracial girl with a really big butt named Janette went out with him one summer or that time when he started his own successful neo-punk rock t-shirt business with his college roommates at Amherst: some story to tell years later that makes him appear to be hip. What bothered me was that someday he could be in the position to effect change and in spite of his being “black on the inside,” he would probably do nothing to alter the status quo. People of color having a fair shot means dismantling the system that gives white people a little something I call “the automatic advantage.” Seeing as how it’s not to white people’s advantage to unhinge something that’s working so well on their behalf, it’s simply not going to happen. At least, not without a fight.
I looked around the hip hop restaurant at the self-professed “black on the inside” white people and I thought: None of you want to dismantle the system that benefits you, so how black can you be? That’s probably what the old black lady wanted to say to the white guy on the uptown train.
I suppose the good news is that entitlement is something that transcends race and gender. Nobody owes anyone anything, ever, no matter who they are or what they look like. Understanding that and living it is the real leveling of the playing field, for all of us.
If you want to read Everybody's Black! (Part One), you'll have to walk through some old kudzu...