I’m seeing this other hashtag flying across my Twitter feed… #whitehistoryclasses…and it puts me in mind of a story I’ve been meaning to tell for a long time in this space. Charitably, when some of us white folk assert there is no systematic racism in this country because all the No Coloreds signs have been taken down, we are being merely clueless. There is more to it than that. I know from personal experience, and I strongly suspect most of us white folk know it too…or would if we wanted to. Gather round the campfire boys and girls, and I’ll relate a little White History for you. A piece of mine anyway.
It was the late 1970s, and I was in my twenties and desperate for work. But I had a reliable car, a little Ford Pinto sedan that was bought and paid for…bought with so few options (it literally didn’t even have a cigarette lighter, although the wiring for one was there in the dashboard) it was easy to work on myself, and über reliable. And I loved to drive it. So one avenue I kept looking at in the Help Wanteds were all the ads for couriers. If I could combine my love of driving with a job that required me to drive places would be ideal…or so I thought.
Problem was, all those ads listed detailed knowledge of the roads in downtown Washington D.C. as a requirement, and not only did I not know downtown all that well, I absolutely hated driving there. Traffic was a horrible and parking was a nightmare all day long. So I kept looking hopefully for a listing from a service that needed someone to work the suburbs instead. And lo and behold, one day I saw one. Must know Montgomery County Roads…said the ad. Well…I was their man!
So I darted out to the address on the ad, supremely confidant that I would ace whatever test they threw at me. Hello…says I. I’m your man. I’ve lived here practically my entire life. I know Montgomery County roads like I laid the asphalt myself. Well…says the owner of the courier service, an elderly man who from the look of him could have retired decades ago…we need to test that for ourselves. And they put me in a small room and gave me a sheet of questions. Describe how, exactly, you would you get from point A to point B. This is going to be a piece of cake thinks I as I sat down.
But the first question asked about a route in downtown Washington D.C. And…I couldn’t answer it. So I skipped to the next question on the test which was…another question about directions in downtown Washington D.C.. And so was the next. And the next. They were all questions about downtown Washington D.C..
So I took the test back to the owner and told him I was sorry, but I could not answer any of it. No worry, says he. We’ll put a radio in your car, you will get your jobs from the dispatcher and if you get lost you can call for directions. I needed the work, so I said well…okay…I can do that. But…why did you write your ad as through you were looking for people to work in Montgomery County?
And I swear to god he patted my knee like he was my grandfather and said, “Oh, we wrote it that way so we won’t get any of them colored boys out here looking for work.”
Well…god forbid us white kids from the suburbs would have to compete with them colored boys from the city who probably know their streets like the backs of their hands.
So I hemmed and hawed and said I really didn’t want to drive in the city…but if you ever need someone to work out in the county give me a call…and I darted out of there. I felt dirty in a way I hadn’t since I stood in a line of about twenty or so other guys and bent over and spread them for my pre-induction physical. Later I sent in an anonymous letter to the county telling them about the ad and the service…but I didn’t actually call the man a racist to his face and walk out on him either. I just didn’t have that kind of nerve back then.
No, I don’t know what it’s like to be a black guy in America. But I know what it’s like to be a white guy. And I know exactly how much was stacked in my favor. Every one of us does. Or could, if we really wanted to face facts.