ESSAY #6 – 10.5.20, POSTED 1.29.21

He's One of the Good Ones

Examining the language and expressions that we use every day can shine a light on the structure and content of our belief systems. Sometimes, we expose harmless bits of our history, but at other times, we bring to the light of day thoughts that diminish others as well as ourselves—thoughts that ultimately rob us of the opportunity and limit our ability to truly come to know others.

One day several years ago, I walked into the break room of the big box home improvement store where I worked and overheard my co-worker Ian talking to a black man I had never met.

“Do you know Bill Thomas?” Ian asked him, referring to another black man, who was not there. “No? You should meet him. He’s one of the good ones.”

Yeah, that’s what he said.

I looked at the man Ian was talking to and he seemed to be taking it in stride. I, however, was mildly stunned. Not only had I not heard that phrase in forty years (or more), I had never heard a white man say it to a black man. Ian had just said out loud the private assessment that some white people make when they meet black people. In the “old days,” saying “He’s one of the good ones” was a sort of secret code that white people would use with other white people. But Ian was using that secret code publicly, openly!

Like most people, I tend to assume that my current thinking and view of the world is somehow true, and everyone else is living in my very relative world. Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that white people were still trying to assess whether they were interacting with good black people or bad black people. And I imagine there are black people doing the same with white people, only with different criteria.


I met Aaron in kindergarten. We lived in a Midwest factory town inhabited by white folk and black folk in a two to one ratio, but my neighborhood was predominantly white, so there were only one or two black kids in my classes throughout my elementary years. It wasn’t that I didn’t know that Aaron was black—that was obvious—but because he was, he was a curiosity for me. I could never figure out what difference his race made. But I also knew, somehow, that he was supposed to be different, and that there was a divide between us that supposedly couldn’t be crossed.

We went to different junior high schools, and then met up again in high school, where we wrestled on the school team together for three years. By our senior year, Aaron had grown into a tall, scrawny kid whose wrestling uniform hung so loosely on him, it left us all wondering where the rest of his body was. He was co-captain that year, and placed in the state tournament, probably at 120 pounds. In spite of how he looked, he was scrappy on the mat and used his height and reach to his advantage. He was also just the nicest guy you could meet, and never had a sour word for or about anybody. He was facile in relationship building (though that was not a phrase you heard in the sixties) and had friends across the racial spectrum.

Since graduation, I’ve seen Aaron every ten years at our high school reunions, and each time has been a happy, expressive moment that included an affectionate hug. Aaron grew a few more inches after high school, and I think now he probably weighs more than both of us did when we wrestled together. It’s not that he is fat—he is just big. He graduated from the University of Michigan, and has had a successful career in industrial relations. I reconnected with him last year as we worked together to plan our fiftieth reunion (a great success, by the way), and he shared a story about attending a cub scout meeting in grade school, held in the back yard of the home of a white family. He had had to go to the bathroom, but the family wouldn’t allow him to go in the house. Hearing that story broke my heart. For some people, that would be a defining moment in life—if it was for Aaron, it turned out well.

When I think about Aaron, my heart gets very big, my eyes tear up just a little, and I notice that my fondness for him has grown into great admiration and affection. I guess you could say that Aaron is one of the good ones.

Andy and Dave

About thirty years ago, I became interested in community and economic development. I had experience in business and real estate development, and wanted to find a way to share my knowledge with the affordable housing community. I ended up attending a multiple-day training on building affordable housing, and while there, I found myself spending time with the trainers, Andy and Dave, two black men in their forties. Andy told me he had lost 50 pounds eating a mono-diet of tuna fish, right out of the can, for an extended period of time. I remember thinking that that sounded like something a white guy would do—my mind simply hadn’t ever associated tuna fish with black people.

Later, I had a private moment with Dave, who shared a story with me. He told me he was from Mississippi, and that his mother had been a day worker in a white home. The white family had a baby girl about the same time that Dave was born, and his mother was allowed to bring him to work, where he shared a crib with that little white baby girl. For eight years, he went to the white family’s home with his mother and played with the little girl—she was his best friend, and they were growing up together. But when he was eight, the girl’s mother told Dave’s mother not to bring him anymore, and after that, he never saw the little girl again.

Let that sink in for a moment.

The two trainers were bright, articulate, and obviously well-educated, and both were very welcoming to me. When I spent my evenings with them, they took me in like a little brother and showed me the ropes. They were open and straightforward, and I learned a few things from them. Yeah, Andy and Dave were probably a couple of the good ones.


Quite a few years ago, my 19-year-old daughter showed up pregnant (without my permission, I dare say), and I wouldn’t say she was ready to be a single mother. She was living with me at the time, and continued to stay with me through the pregnancy and for more than a year after her baby was born. It wasn’t an easy time for either of us. Still, I loved my daughter and the beautiful bi-racial baby boy that arrived that year. I had no idea who the father was, and frankly, I was glad he wasn’t in the picture to further complicate what was already a challenging adventure.

One day, my daughter brought home a round-faced young black man named Mark. He was quiet but solid, and I liked him from the beginning (although by this time I was aware that having or expressing any opinion about my daughter’s choices was the definition of futile). Mark stayed around, and eventually he and my daughter had a child together—my first granddaughter—and got married. Since then, he has been a great, loving presence in their home, a good provider, hard-working, and reliable. If Mark says he will do something, I know I can count on him to do it. He took on the role of father for my daughter’s little boy, and he has been a good parent for both of the children—he would actually play with them when they were little. He is a profoundly agreeable person, and I think of him affectionately as my son. After thirty years with my daughter, he is still around. Maybe he, too, is one of the good ones.

A lifetime of opportunities

I thought it might be fair now to tell a story about a black man that maybe wouldn’t be in the category of “one of the good ones,” but I really couldn’t think of one. Have I met black men that I didn’t get along with or didn’t much like? Of course, and I can say the same thing about some white men I have met, as well as men from any other ethnic background. I guess that’s the point, isn’t it? I haven’t just been lucky! People are people, regardless of religion, culture, color, or accent. When someone has a different background from us, it may take some time to navigate those differences, and to see that we are basically the same, with similar values and desires. To do that, though, we need to recognize that some of the things we believe and hold as truths might need to be tested a little.

When you find yourself uneasy with someone, check internally to see what you are afraid of. The fear will be there, hiding in an indistinguishable blob of thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. When you look at it, you may find it has nothing to do with the other person. A moment of courage may open a lifetime of opportunities, if you extend yourself even slightly. You don’t have to be friends with everyone, or for that matter, anyone. There are going to be people whose company you just don’t enjoy. But don’t let skin tones or hair textures be the obstacle to discovery. There is just too much to lose.

What about Ian?

Now I am going to say something that might seem contradictory to you: Ian is not a bad guy. When I knew him, he was an old southern white guy, about 75, and had spent most of his working life selling insurance. Okay, he’s not “woke,” but from all that I can tell, neither are those who think they are “woke” and who like to sell “woke.” Ian grew up in a time and in a culture that installed some pretty limiting thinking patterns. In that sense, he is like the rest of us—for the most part, we are prisoners of thought and belief patterns that we take for granted as guiding lights for leading good lives. Under deeper examination, we can discover we all have preferences, prejudices, and expectations that limit us in relationships and career development.

Ian appears to have a limited and limiting way of seeing black people, but I can promise you, if he was waiting on a black customer, he would give them the same time, care, and service he would give a white person. I know this through observation. At Ian’s age, it is unlikely that he will ever have an epiphany or a dramatic and meaningful shift in his world view. I doubt that he understands Black Lives Matter, and he may even be fearful about their activity. He just doesn’t have a reason to want to rock his world. I’m not going to tell you that Ian is completely blameless, but I don’t think we need to call him a racist, tar and feather him, and carry him out of town on a rail.

Shining a light on the unexamined corners

Having said all of that, Ian is not alone in this world, and there are a lot of white folk who are possessed of the same unexamined mindset that Ian has been sporting for the last 75-plus years. The problem is this: when you label someone “one of the good ones,” inherent in the wording is the implication that they are the exception, and you must be wary of the rest. That is universally problematic, but most problematic in city hall, county governments, and state legislatures, where policies are enacted and laws are passed with the idea that we have to control those who are not the “good ones.”

It is very subtle. I know that you might think I am making a giant leap here, but I am not. If you are using a personal standard for evaluating people, like most of us do, and you are most comfortable with those who are most like you, like most of us are, you are going to judge people who are different from you through the natural bias in your mind. It can’t really be avoided. William Blake, a little less generously, said, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.” Blake wasn’t just talking about trees.

To take on the mantel of representing the people, politicians have to understand the perspectives of those who are different from them, and be able to argue those positions as well as their own, even if they think those people didn’t vote for them. That’s not an easy thing to do. You have to understand yourself and why you believe the things you do. If you can do that, it will help you to understand others.

Prejudice and bigotry usually live in the unexamined corners of our minds—you won’t know they are there unless you look for them. So then, how do you reach a guy like Ian? I am not sure, but I don’t think evaluating Ian the way Ian might evaluate others is going to be all that useful. Perhaps just assuming he, too, is “one of the good ones,” is a way to begin.

Just give it some thought.