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The Black Card
Here's your barrier. What's your excuse?
Several months ago, a friend and I joked about giving each other race cards. He, being Jewish would give me his Jew card, and I being black would give him my Black card. We would then be free to make as many jokes and epithets and other craptastic comments as we wanted without fear. We thought it would be a great podcast, but we never got around to it.
Yesterday I came upon a brilliant discovery, which I knew for quite some time but never had a reason to go down that road. The provocation came from my recent high school reunion, at which my favorite teacher and I engaged over various existential questions, the most salient of which had to do with Guns In America. I note in passing for any of my fellows that this is the second event which unnerved me in the slight way one feels when having an entirely secular discussion with a silent Catholic elephant in the room. It’s weird to only discuss contemporary Americans without discussing eternal human souls, and consequently dismissing such contexts out of hand. It’s weird to me. Then again, I am ‘overly’ philosophical.
I made a comment with regards to (wouldn’t you know?) the number of unarmed black men who are killed by cops on an annual basis. My suggestion is that some people know how to dodge bullets, and actually the more you actually deal with the entirety of the judicial system, the more likely you are to come along peaceably in your encounters with cops. Tangentially, there are stark social differences between various sorts of black Americans. Doing the old bifurcation - there are two kinds of black people with regard to their mental fitness. There are those who were called ‘nigger’ at home by their parents and there are those who were not. The end result is some kind of psychological damage and deep existential dread suffered by some fraction of black America. Suffice it to say that I am the sort who can make an un-ironic joke about my psychological imperviousness. Bottom line for me, by some process the word ‘nigger’ doesn’t trigger. At all. Zero. Period. Nobody ever convinced me that I was one. I mean I knew that in the 5th grade.
“So why do you use the word?”, he asked. “Because I’m a writer”, I replied. “I say whatever the fuck I want.”
In a moment of inspiration, four days later, I thought about the litany of exceptional qualifications I am given by those who find it necessary to lecture me about the pitiable conditions of the Statistically Average Black American. I was literally told that I should spend some time in Alabama so I could ‘educate myself’. But what came out of my head was this.
A Brief Imaginary Discussion
Bowen: I’m going to tell you how stuck you are in your racial framework.
Smith: What do you mean?
Bowen: I’m going to show you. Call me ‘nigger’.
Smith: No. I’ll never use that word.
Smith: But that’s admirable.
Bowen: No, I feel sorry for you. And you’ll never use a gun either, right? These are two sides of the same coin. You can’t call me ‘nigger’ because, you cannot bring yourself to believe that I would not use that against you behind your back and rally other so-called black people against you personally. You cannot bring yourself to believe that I, as an individual, am incapable of being psychologically damaged by that word. You cannot bring yourself to believe that somewhere deep in my soul, I have no need to be constantly reassured. You are invested in the idea that I was one of those with some kind of psychological damage and deep existential dread or that I must be politically committed to rid the the Negro Race of this and associated problems.
Furthermore, you cannot bring yourself to believe that other so-called white people will not see this as just another word, like ‘dickhead’ or ‘douchebag’, and they will predictably weigh it much heavier. Or to put it in religious terms, it is blasphemy. It is an unforgivable sin. It is anathema; it is an offense worthy of immediate excommunication.
Similarly, like putting a gun in your hand, exhaling this word out of your mouth now forever alters the center of your moral gravity. You are incapable, incapable of seeing any ethical exit from the act of saying ‘nigger’ or of owning a firearm.
Smith: No wait. You’re mixing metaphors. A gun is deadly. Wearing a gun in public is a deadly threat.
Actually this is a conversation not had, and I did mix the metaphors here. But at a Constitutional level, the matter of free speech and bearing arms are fundamental and it matters that they are explicit.
Although my mind goes to ‘My Dungeon Shook’ by James Baldwin, I don’t have the full text at hand. Some of it is here:
There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.
So basically many so-called white people like Smith are as white as they want to be, but many feel they are trapped by history and are thus as white as they must be. So they can never accept my Black card. The find they must inescapably play against type which only puts them deeper into it. They must always point to black degradation in which they exaggerate their responsibility, and point out black elevation in which they must also exaggerate their responsibility. To give that all up - to turn one’s back on all of that - is to drain meaning out of their American life.
The absolute same thing must be said about so-called black people like Jones, with whom I didn’t engage in this imaginary conversation. But it would be easy to see that Jones would also exaggerate their responsibility or disgust and would never consider giving up his Black card.
It’s a noisy pas de deux. The circular dance is tiresome and tedious.
I wonder without worry how many immigrants and epiphanies we witness in a year. Clearly the trend has been towards increasing racial embedding. How long will Americans wear the masks? Surely some people cannot imagine America without them.
Hmm. Maybe I’ll go back and read this from two years ago.
Meh. It’s wordy. It could have been said more succinctly.
You see? I already accept people. It’s so totally easy. I accept and respect their basic humanity, but I only find the things they fill their heads with to be infinitely intricately puzzling. Lord they do protest too much.
So the bottom line is that we Americans pretend like we are members of oppositional races and that only we can consider ourselves existentially and psychologically equal within our own racial groups. The very idea of trading away all of that meaning for non-meaning is a bridge too far for many of us. Sucks to be them.
Imagine going through life without ever playing cards.
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