On Youth: I Was A College White Boy

This article came out of the previous article. Sort of a natural bi-product of writing about someone else’s horror movie.

At the risk of making this story about me, I’m going to tell you a tale about my college friend O. O’s a good guy, an intellectual, a black man. He’s currently at large in the world as a pretty radical academic thinker and speaker about race in the U.S. I’ve seen him complain about his ignorant white students on Facebook; he’s not wrong, and he has a sense of humor about it. When we lived in the same dorm together we acted together– did drama. Years later I saw O in a national commercial spot and reached out to him because he was a complete badass in the commercial, and he wrote back to tell me he appreciated it and he’d appreciated the notes I’d given him when I sat in on a different rehearsal, many years before. So I don’t think there were any hard feelings between us.

I told you all that so I can tell you this: I fucked up.

It was during an improv game O, myself, and my lovely friend M were playing after rehearsal. The scenario that blossomed organically was that he was coming home with her to meet her disapproving countrified father, played by myself. We skated around the issue of race, making it feel like my character was racist without actually saying it– so much so that I accidentally dropped a “boy,” in there, which I immediately regretted but didn’t have the sense to apologize for. To us white folks it was a joke, with the punchline being that my character was actually confused by O’s bald head; he was scared of skinheads without really understanding what they were.

Well, I thought it was funny. At the time.

A few weeks later O freaked out and very angrily dumped his white girlfriend; I was told he called her and a lot of other folks “white devils.” This was during the heyday of Louis Farrakhan, so I can guess where it came from, but it was pretty bad, a lot of feelings were hurt. Much later he made amends, but the fact is he’s still a kind of thoughtful firebrand, an intellectual bomb-thrower and I can’t blame him. Now more than ever there’s ideas that need blowing up.

I know O’s life is not about me and his decisions weren’t about me. He’s dealt with far worse things than one ignorant teenager’s empathy fail. I also know that O has very little use for white liberal bullshit, which is more about making people in my position feel better than it is about improving the world or getting anything done. That said, I wish I’d apologized to his face. I had a sour taste in my mouth after that improv session, and now I can articulate the obvious: you don’t make light of what you don’t understand.

I don’t want to be a part of anyone else’s horror movie ever again.

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