Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

Two Tiny Experiences as “Other”

Only twice in my life have I ever noticed that I was different. That I was, or could be identified, as “other”. Now to be sure, at neither time did this realization make me uncomfortable. That’s probably because I was in a relatively familiar setting, just among a rather homogenous group of people where I was the guy who stood out. Being the only person in church or on the basketball court who is NOT of color was for me, a non-large very white male, more a case of “huh, that’s different” than a case of ” be on guard”.

More than anything else, that is likely part of the core of what is meant when we hear talk of “white privilege”: I am only at risk if I actually do something wrong.

Sitting here in suburbia, in middle-age, it’s instructive to look back at how I’ve arrived at such a place. A place where I always feel like I could belong no matter where my place takes me. The town of my earliest youth is probably most responsible for this. Southbridge was a dying mill town in Central Massachusetts, although none of us kids new it was dying at the time. Settled initially by French-Canadien ex-pats, a second wave of migration from Puerto Rico occurred before I went to grade school. 10 or 15 percent of my classmates were children of Puerto Rican immigrants, but I knew them only as kids in school or teammates on the various fields of our youth. We fought side-by-side 100 times more often than we ever fought facing each other. Sure, they were different. Their grandparents spoke Spanish while most of ours spoke French.

Home since childhood has been driven more by economics than any other factor; the job has chosen the towns. ┬áMost of my life since then has been lived in worlds that roughly track the Southbridge of my youth, roughly 80% White/20% Black or Brown. People of color were either there when I arrived (and so belonged as much as I), or arrived the same way I did (and so belonged as much as I). At this point I should confess that I’ve never given too very much thought to the color mix of my surroundings. This may also constitute “white privilege” I suppose, the privilege of not needing to be aware of color at all. What makes that kind of funny is that until the very last major move of my life, each time I’ve moved to a new place, many people assumed that I was Black prior to my arrival. Darrell White the presumably Black football player arriving at a new high school or at college? Nope. Short, skinny white guy. Darrell White the first ever Black med student or Black resident at my respective schools? No again. Still, short skinny white guy. Only my voice is 6’5″, and with no accent whatsoever my voice is colorless.

How about those two instances where I did feel different, in church and on the basketball court? In church it was mostly humorous since the other congregants made such a huge effort to make me feel welcome. Indeed, as the only White family among the churchgoers at the Black Baptist church one Christmas it was more than comical when the pastor, my friend the Rev. Mel Woodard, introduced us from the altar (over my gentle objection) to the congregation. “Please welcome The Whites!” With a twinkle in her eye “Lovely Daughter” leaned over to me in the pew: “Duh!” No, other than the obvious pointed out by Megan, in that setting the group made sure that only the most superficial differences existed for me in that room. I would only be “other” if I chose to be.

The basketball court just down the street from Wills Eye was a bit of a different matter, and because of that more instructive when examined through the magnification of the retrospectometer. The rules of pick-up ball are clear, and they are largely consistent in every park in America. There’s a line-up of who has “next”, and if you are not a regular you just call “next”, wait at the end of the line, and hope that you can assemble enough talent on your team to last more than one game. Here, like in church with Mel, mine was almost the only White face, but here I was “other” in every sense of the word. My turn as “next” kept getting lost on the list, the wait for that one game almost 2 hours before one of the park leaders acknowledged the tiny injustice and put my team on the court simply by joining us as our fifth guy. The other White guy was on the team, of course, and he was a stud baller. I was a bit to the right of average for that park; that game was the first time in my life when I was more conscious of what my game looked like than how I was playing. Who do I pass to? Do I take the open shot?

We lost the game, of course. Not so much because of anything I did or didn’t do during the game as that the other team had Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant and no one could stop him (NBA vet, pretty decent player; his son Kobe had quite a run in the NBA). In the comfort of not needing to be the least bit introspective, of not needing to learn anything at all from that morning, all I got until these past weeks from my encounter with Philadelphia inner city hoops was pissed off that I only got a single run after waiting two hours for my “next”. It’s only now as I look back that I realize my sense of being scrutinized, of being conscious of how I looked while playing rather than just playing, needing to be much, much better than the other “average” ballers there that day because I was White. This lack of perspective in the moment at hand is also likely an example of White privilege.

The events–church, a pick-up basketball game–are trivial, but the fall-out, however long in coming, is not. The fact that it is now 35 years since my non-battle with Kobe’s dad and I am just now aware of how I felt may be part of what is called “White privilege”, but moments like this are to be encouraged however long they are in coming, don’t you think? My oldest friends of color, roommates and groomsmen, as well as friends of more recent vintage will likely welcome this sense with little more than a playful “what took you so long” wink, and begin the dialogue. They are, to a man, kind and generous people. The Rev. Woodard’s congregants didn’t even need the comfort and cover of friendship to offer a wink (and in their collective case, countless hugs), so aware were they of how it feels to be “other” until proven otherwise.

Sympathy, my friends, is not enough. Sympathy is situational and episodic, and is therefore also transient. After all, who among us but the most hardened bigots or the most unreachable psychopaths cannot find sympathy for the family of the man killed while instinctively reaching for his wallet, or the families of the officers gunned down while on duty? No, sympathy is not enough because it is only something that we feel, and not something that we are, or even choose to be. Empathy is the magic elixir because empathy cannot be set aside. Empathy is to feel with, not simply to feel for, because it is a part of who we are. But empathy is hard, and empathy takes time. No one would wish the loss of a loved one on another in order to feel “with”. Sometimes empathy is little more than a spark, and sometimes that spark is so small that it goes unnoticed or ignored.

There is a bridge, though, between sympathy and empathy, and it is understanding. Like a physical bridge one must look to the other side and seek to be there. Like any bridge one must have the faith that over the crest in the middle, beyond the road you can see, there lies ahead not a gap through which you will plummet to a certain doom, but a clear path to the other side. The trip may be a difficult one, but as with all trips, it will pass much more easily if in the company of others who either seek to understand as well, or better yet, others who already do. Like all those men and women who came up to me in church and hugged me after Mel’s introduction. Like the guy at the park who joined my team, made sure I got “next”, and told me to come back for a run the next Saturday.

Like my old friends Sheldon and Steve, Rasesh and Mel, as well as newer friends like my colleague Quentin. They will hold my hand and guide me as I traverse the bridge of understanding.

7 Responses to “Two Tiny Experiences as “Other””

  1. June 14th, 2020 at 5:25 pm

    Apolloswabbie says:

    Thank you Darrell, a great adventure and a great story Will told

  2. June 14th, 2020 at 5:26 pm

    Apolloswabbie says:

    I look forward to passing this along to my son

  3. June 15th, 2020 at 12:02 am

    drwhite says:

    Thanks Paul! I look forward to meeting all of your kids some day.

  4. June 15th, 2020 at 2:08 pm

    Dee says:

    Beautiful and thought provoking as usual my dear friend !

  5. June 15th, 2020 at 2:57 pm

    drwhite says:

    Thanks Dee!

  6. June 15th, 2020 at 5:29 pm

    Sean says:

    You’re always eloquent and introspective, and this is yet another example. I can relate to the basketball example. And certainly I agree with you and am with you on that bridge.

  7. June 15th, 2020 at 5:31 pm

    drwhite says:

    Thanks Sean! I realize that a 60yo White boomer has little to offer on the topic. Sadly.

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