By ERIC A. HOWALD
Jason is one of the few people I remember from my grade school days.
I remember him because he was the first African American student in the same grade and same classroom as me. This was in the late 1980s when I was growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis, Mo. I attended private, Catholic schools for the first eight years of my education and there simply wasn’t a lot of diversity in my classrooms, or the school as a whole.
The main reason I remember Jason is because of his hair. It was buzzed short and probably no more than a quarter-inch at its thickest. Yet, every day he would pull out of his back pocket an ovoid rubber comb with a loop he could slide a finger through. Those combs were all the rage then, and I understood wanting to be part of the cool crowd, but Jason was already a cool guy without it. What puzzled me more was Jason running that comb through his hair multiple times every single day.
It took me quite a while to summon up the courage, but I eventually asked him why he did this.
“It doesn’t look any different after you do it,” I told him.
“You just wouldn’t understand,” he replied.
Better understanding was my purpose in asking at all, and it frustrated me to walk away empty-handed. I was asking him to help me get there, but he felt either that I would never be able to understand, or that it wasn’t his responsibility to school me on the matter. The former, I felt was an insult. The latter was beyond my developing comprehension at the time. Why wouldn’t he want me to have a better understanding?
More than three decades later, Trayvon Martin was killed by an overzealous, and increasingly disgusting, neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman. In the wake of that injustice, African American actor Lance Gross penned an open letter to Zimmerman. He suggested that by killing Martin, Zimmerman inherited all the struggles of black men in this country.
One passage in particular resonated with me: “You will feel people stare at you. Judging you for what you think are unfair reasons. You will lose out on getting jobs for something you feel is outside of your control. You will believe yourself to be an upstanding citizen and wonder why people choose to not see that … But you will have to wake up the next day, put on firm look and push through life.”
Reading that, and then thinking about Jason, pitted my stomach. It still does as I write this. Any answer short of Gross’s open, brutal honesty from Jason probably would have fallen short for me. Regardless, he likely hadn’t lived long long enough to give it voice, and I sure as hell wasn’t worldly enough to understand it if he had.
A recent columnist in these pages suggested that a despicable man should not be ousted from the ownership of an NBA team after making outright inhuman comments about minorities. The owner achieved a godlike cognitive dissonance with his remarks. He’s making money off the hard work and skills of many minority employees.
In a coded way, the writer suggested that the owner has become the victim of reverse racism. In other, more direct phrasing: Feel bad for the old, white, heterosexual male. He needs protection, too.
One day, I’m going to be an old, white, heterosexual male. I was never given a say in the matter. What I can choose is to strive mightily to empathize with people who do not look or act like me. It isn’t motivated my guilt, it comes from seeking the value in my fellow travelers – gender, race, creed or sexual preference be damned – and wanting to learn all I possibly can from them.
I don’t expect to change that writer’s mind about his position. I generally find him to be a thorough and driven thinker on a lot of issues. But, on a personal level, I can’t allow it to stand without rebuttal. He doesn’t speak for all old, white, heterosexual men. At the very least least, not this soon-to-be one.
We’re pushing through this life together, and each of us needs all the allies we can muster.
(Eric A. Howald is Associate Editor of the Keizertimes.)