ESSAY #21 8.21.21 POSTED 12.14.21

Conversations With Janey

Although race is a construct with no scientific basis, there is such a thing as the “black American experience,” which includes the inequities that remain as a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Still, it is possible to have healthy relationships that cross “racial” boundaries in every aspect of American life. This is our future. Some would like to get there by ignoring the past and declaring that racism is over, but that won’t work. We must acknowledge what has happened, see the impact, and repair the damage before a post-racial society will naturally emerge.

Conversations With Janey

Janey has been my friend for about 40 years now. Our friendship has not been one of constant contact, but one that has included long breaks in communication, as we live in different parts of the country, and our lives have taken us on very different paths. But we are the kind of friends who can have a conversation after being out of touch for ten years, and it’s like there is no gap to bridge—what was there is still reliably there. No effort is needed to reconnect, as there is trust and caring and compatibility.

Janey and I reconnected in the past couple of years, and with each essay I’ve written, she has been one of the first to read it. From her feedback, I can always expect a full expression that is not skillfully suppressed to spare my feelings. She doesn’t need to be concerned that she might be misunderstood or that she is going to somehow damage our relationship. Regardless of how clumsily I might express something, I can trust that she will get the essence and respond to it.

A black woman in America

Oh, by the way, Janey is a black woman. She is a couple years older than me (early 70s), now retired, very active, and always politically astute. I knew her when I was in business—we worked closely for a few years, and our association was profitable for both of us. Mutual trust, support, and partnership developed quickly, and I think we both appreciated that. Over time, I noticed she was careful not to offend, didn’t draw attention to herself needlessly, and was very diplomatic. I was…well…not like that. She was very good with people, and when I was a bit too abrasive, she was able to bring things back into balance. Simply said, we worked well together. It was quite natural, and not at all forced.

Many years ago, I used to listen to a Ram Dass tape on relationships, over and over, and I remember him saying something like, “The truth is, we all like people who agree with us.” One of my brothers expressed the same sentiment, though less artfully, when he said, “I don’t like talking with people who don’t agree with me.” I don’t think Janey and I have ever had a fundamental disagreement about anything. I don’t mean we think or approach issues the same way, but we have never had a conversation where we couldn’t come to a common understanding about an issue, or where we had difficulty seeing a way forward together. We are very different people from very different backgrounds, but there is an inexplicable ease between us that includes trust, understanding, playfulness, laughter, and simple enjoyment of each other’s presence.

Why did we first meet as we did? And why did we connect, part, and reconnect after many years? You could say it was fate, synchronicity, God, or the workings of the universe. I just think of it as how life works when you let it.

In our society, Janey is a black woman—that is what we call a woman in our country who is of color, but who is not seen as white, Latina, Asian, Arabic, Amerind, or Pacific Islander. In our society, “Black” carries a lot of connotations. Just which connotations one has depends very much on which ethnic group one identifies with. And, of course, those connotations can be very nuanced, depending on the dozens of values, beliefs, and experiences that have contributed to one’s personal development, personality, and attitudes. Today, Janey is probably more self-identified with being “Black” than in previous times in her life, as voter suppression laws have stirred up racial animosity and discomfort not seen in over 50 years.

You don’t have to be black to experience that. I am not friends with Janey because she is a black woman, but that does not mean that I don’t appreciate that she is one. It simply means that she experiences the events in her world as a black woman—something that I don’t do, as a white man. It is only in the broadest sense that this has significance, because Janey does not speak for all black women. I have been saying all along that there is not a monolithic “black” way of thinking about, experiencing, or being in life. However, there is such a thing as “being black in America,” and there are experiences that most, if not all, black people have experienced. For example, most know what it’s like to be the only black person in the room, or to be one of the very few faces of color in a sea of white faces—to be different and to be seen as different. The opposite, being a lone white face in a sea of black, is a very rare experience for white people in this country, and when it does happen, it’s almost always voluntary.

Meaningless distinctions

Now, I am going to take a huge swing in another direction, but don’t forget where we were. Inherently, biologically, race is meaningless. “Race” is a manmade invention of a few centuries ago, probably by some of the finest racist thinkers of their time, who were trying to justify keeping dark-skinned people in bondage of one type or another. Race identification is based on features that are literally skin-deep, including skin color and the shapes of certain body features. Our DNA does not recognize race—it is a distinction without scientific significance. With the advancement of DNA sequencing and electronic data collection, people can now discover where their ancestors came from, based on who lives where now, and who lived there 500 years ago. But that still does not determine “race.” In the U.S., 24% of the average black person’s DNA comes from Europe.

In the past, when the census was done, mixed race people were designated with an “M” for Mulatto (instead of a “W” for White or a “B” for Black). Today, no such distinction is made. In other words, the word “Black” is commonly used to describe non-white people who don’t fit other categories as identified a few paragraphs back—it is primarily about skin color, facial features, and hair texture. It is only racial if you want it to be. There are various skin tones spread across the planet, and there are people in India and Australia with dark skin who are referred to as black, but they are not of African descent (at least not for many millennia). There are people in the U.S. with very fair skin and European facial features who identify as black, culturally and ethnically, and some of them have cousins or siblings that identify as white. That’s fine. People can, and should, identify racially or ethnically however they wish to—I have no issue with that. However, as human beings, we are all pretty much sharing the same human characteristics, with broad variations of DNA that are much more mixed than we might think. Ultimately, the make-up of your DNA has nothing to say about your value or worthiness as a human being. We are all the same, sourced from one font, whether you think the source is God, Lucy (one of the earliest human ancestors ever discovered), both, or neither. The process by which your DNA was distributed is as random as what continent you were born on—it was given, not chosen.

So, what the hell does this all have to do with conversations with Janey? Good question. I almost forgot. One of the edifying things about my conversations with Janey is that she identifies as black, but only because she is. She also identifies as a woman, and that has been more of the edge for her. If you saw her on the street, you would think of her as black, but she probably doesn’t fit a white person’s stereotypical idea of what a black woman would be like.

Wow, that is a mouthful— “…she probably doesn’t fit a white person’s stereotypical idea of what a black woman would be like.” I just described something that doesn’t exist. It is so relative, as it depends on finding a stereotypical white person who can describe their idea of a stereotypical black person, and then determining if Janey lives somewhere inside or outside of that hyper-stereotypical description.

I don’t know if I can say what the truth is, but it appears to me (if I were to be so absurd as to attempt to define Janey’s racial, socio-economic, cultural grouping) that she would fit in a subset of educated, retired black females, which would be a subset of another subset that included her social and political attitudes, and separated further by the size and location of the town she lives in. And all of that would be completely meaningless. Janey is an American and can’t be pigeonholed any more than you or I.

Janey’s perspective

Again, as I have written each of my essays, Janey has been generously reading them before they even go to editing. Her responses are often thoughtful and edifying, and sometimes I touch a nerve of one type or another, and she spews. What follows are samples of some of the things she has written to me, with only the slightest bit of editing, for purposes of clarity. 

This is in response to Essay 2: “Progressives and Their Goofy Names:”

I consider myself a conservative Democrat and have always had a problem with Progressives’ approach to just about everything. You are absolutely correct when you say they have brought us movements that have changed the world. They desperately need to change their marketing /slogans. It takes a long time to gain support of some good policies, partially because of the presentation. I absolutely hate the term “Black Lives Matter!” As I walk through my neighborhood, which is still 90% white educated families, I see Black Lives Matter signs are all over the place. That made me happy to live in such a liberal neighborhood. I thought, maybe they get it when I still don’t. I can tell you this, the great majority of my black neighbors do NOT sport the sign in their yards, including me.

The following comments are about Essay 3: “It’s Time: Just Talk With My Brothers.”

Now about affirmative action. Unfortunately, many did not benefit, because they were not prepared. Education was the key to landing those good jobs and entrepreneur opportunities. Affordable education opened up during those times. A sense of unfairness, personal resentment, and say even a deep-seated anger among some whites still lingers indeed. There was a time a man could lose his life for teaching a black person to read. That was to keep them in their place, ignorant with a sense that “they will always depend on us (the white man).” Through stories, later generations were fed the stereotypes that blacks are of lower intelligence and just lazy, wanting the government to take care of them.

That will take me shortly to brother #3’s statement. Resentment of those advancement programs to give blacks a hand up has led to some of the backlash. I feel education has gotten so expensive it is cutting black families out, and college debt is way too high for all young people. A white friend of mine shared what her dad said: “When you start letting blacks into Ivy League schools you get Barack Obama.” A black president was just way too much for some white people to handle. What made it even worse for them is he was pretty much squeaky clean, intelligent, had a beautiful family, proud of their heritage, and was not the picture of how some whites want to see black folk viewed. Made some white men feel even inferior. Gotta mention, he is good looking and sexy, and as Joe Biden once put it, ‘clean.’ There are those that still want to portray black men as lazy, scary, dirty, criminals, ignorant, and I could go on.

Black women are called welfare queens…affirmative action was the right thing, at the right time. I hope, as a people, we are past that. Unfortunately, hard feelings and resentment still exist. I think they are especially heightened with the uneducated, hard-working white man that may have been passed over for job promotions, etc. They may resent black people, women, and immigrants for that and for some living a better life, or even a life just as good. Some white men feel they worked hard for it, and the “others” got it by some other means. They don’t give them credit for earning and working hard for their place in society. That boggles my mind.

Now, brother #3 is what I see as having the opinion of a lot of old white men, when he says, “the welfare system took care of that.” The welfare system was a tragedy for black folks in the long run. Kept them down, dependent on the government, and put “lazy” into the perception of “lazy.” Too many black folks thought they were getting something, and learned to live out of their mailbox. “The check comes on (date)” mentality. Unfortunately, that became a way of life for too many black families, and as welfare dwindled, they didn’t quite know what to do. Aid to dependent children (ADC) may have led some young black women to make bad choices, have more children, because they got more money with every child. The catch was you could not have a man (father, boyfriend, husband) living in the household. Isn’t that crazy? Against the very fabric of the good old black Baptist church that promoted family. Too many missing black men, single parent homes were rampant, and black men having children and not stepping up. I don’t know the statistic. I only know what I know.

The beauty shop and barbershops are very enlightening. They’re the pulse of the black community, where I get a lot of my information. The welfare system was put in place by Roosevelt, I think. I believe it was a tool to help women out when all the men went off to war. It was meant to be a temporary assistance until the economy bounced back, a hand up. I don’t know, but I do know that the welfare system is not where the majority of black folks want to be, and by no means is it a form of reparations. It’s an insulting one if it is. It is a sub-standard and humiliating way of life if it is used for that, instead of the safety net it was intended to be.

One thing this crazy time in our history has done is ripped off the bandage of deeply held resentments, and hopefully there will be some learning in the process. I never gave much thought to labeling someone a racist, and think the word is thrown around way too much. Racists are for sure out there. I know a few black folks who have internalized their feeling of oppression and detest all white people. Guess I would call them racist.

The difficult thing in this, for me, has been choosing which of Janey’s comments to include, because all of what she says is worth considering, and she has said a lot. The above is just a sample, and her comments are always authentic and uninhibited. Does she represent all black women? All black women of a certain age? All black women of certain socio-economic status in the upper Midwest? No, to all of those questions. Like me, Janey speaks for herself, and in doing so, represents some of the thoughts of many people, and many of the thoughts of some people, but does not speak for all black people, nor all of the black people in some demographically identified class, any more than I speak for all white people. Pollsters and demographers do their best to identify people within certain classes so they can understand and predict major movements of people, so marketers and campaigners have a big target to aim at. There is not a monolithic black opinion any more than there is a monolithic white opinion on anything.

Janey is still a black woman with a world view that was partially informed by experiencing life as a black woman. I am a white man with a world view that was partially informed by experiencing life as a white man. The relationship we have developed over the years has very little to do with gender or color—it has more to do with trust, affection and comfort. This is where we are going as a society, and the sooner we get there, the healthier our world will be for our children and those yet to be born.

Repairing the damage

At the level of science, there is no such thing as race. It is an artificial boundary that deserves no consideration in the living of day-to-day life. People already do business across racial and ethnic lines, fall in love across racial and ethnic lines, and agree politically across racial and ethnic lines. If this is the case, why do I keep talking about reconciliation and repair-ations? Because in the past, we have lived according to arbitrary boundaries, and those boundaries have done a lot of damage. That damage is holding us back as a nation and is a heavy weight on our hearts—a block to the unfettered love of all of us, by all of us.

The damage is apparent in the statistics of our justice system, our education system, and the measurable lack of equity in our economic system. I say that as though they are each a single system that permeates our society. But “The System” is made up of thousands of federal, state, and local laws, funding and operational practices of those entities and other independent institutions, and the individual interpretations involved in all of that—this is where systemic racism lives. You don’t need a PHD in sociology or economics to find the data supporting my assertion. My friend Janey is also aware of this, not because she believes she has been a victim of racism, but because she experiences it through conversations with family, friends, and associates—she is a part of the “black community.”

Still work to do

There are a lot of white people who believe that we should all be “color blind” in how we proceed, meaning we should just declare that racism is over, something from the past, and we should ignore the legacy of Jim Crow America. But as I said in Essay 7, “When I See People, I Don’t See Color,” it doesn’t work that way. Yes, we have made a lot of progress in America, and Janey will attest to that. She pretty much believes that some of the affirmative action programs of the 1960s and 1970s supported her in having a successful life. America, rather than being a racist country, is one of the most welcoming and diverse nations on the planet. We have much to be proud of. However, there are racist individuals amongst us, and there is still work to do to weed out systemic racism, where we can statistically see it. We can’t simply declare that racism is an issue of the past until we acknowledge its legacy and remove the obstacles that are there for some of us, due to color or ethnicity. It is not a simple proposition, but a reasonable one, and America is both ready and capable.

As for Janey, I am grateful for her friendship, her perspective, and her extraordinary ability to express it. She, I, and our relationship are reflective of what America is becoming—a society in which race, color, ethnicity, gender, and even preferences are insignificant. We are not there yet, but we can accelerate the process if we have the will and heart to do so. Doubt that, and your progeny will find you on the losing side of history.

Just give it some thought