People occasionally ask me to do stuff. Speeches, panels, appearances. Monday I was invited to judge a Halloween dog costume contest. For the second year. Of course I said yes.
It doesn't happen a lot. I don't want to pretend I'm Malcolm Gladwell. From time to time, people ask.
And I try to comply, because it keeps me busy, gets me out of the house, and I suppose huffs a little air on my little flickering ember of local quasi-celebrity. Heck, sometimes they even pay me.
Monday, besides the spooky pooch parade, someone who had asked me to appear at ... well, it seems some kind of story-telling evening related to a certain community. I don't think I'll say specifically which. Draw the veil a little. The event takes place once a month at a North Side bar.
Anyway, last December, this reader asks me to show up the next day to appear at the event. And I say, "Yeah, that's kinda short notice. Ask me another time."
Monday up he pops again, messaging on Facebook. The event is set for Nov. 6. Am I in? At first I think yes, sure, I'll show at up at your event. Then I look at the calendar. Nov. 6 is Election Day. Apt to be a busy time at the paper, not the evening I want to be sitting on a stool in a small club blinking into a spotlight.
I tell him we'll have to kick the can down the road again.
"Pick a month to hold a slot," he urges. "There are a lot of white males wanting to tell stories to our audience. At one point I had white males booked for a year plus a wait list."
I look at this remark and weigh my reaction. You're allowed to think about what you say before responding; too many people forget that.
What would YOU say?
Should I point out the guy writing this to me is white?
He'd kinda have to be, wouldn't he?
I decide to go the low-key route.
"Hmmm, put that way ... " I write. "If there's a glut, I can graciously yield the field."
Okay, he replies.
That might have been the end. But his remark simmered. Low-key is not my style.
"I mean, I'm not corking up for it," I add. An obscure reference. Burnt cork. Like Al Jolson. Meaning: I'm not going to pretend to be black to do your event. I'm goading him, seeing how he reacts. Too many white guys indeed. We have to ration them.
He doesn't reply to that. Maybe he doesn't get it. Instead, he again tries to nail me down for a future date. He wants a commitment.
I think some more."I'll be honest, I find being put in the slurry of generic white people a little off-putting," I write. "If I said I had a lot of..." and here I plug in his particular group "angling for my attention, you'd feel ill-used. I understand white privilege, but at some point it becomes just another way to undercut somebody different from yourself. I was born white, I'm stuck with it."
We went back and forth a bit. He did apologize if he offended me, and I said, no, not offended so much as surprised. We parted civilly, on good terms, which doesn't always happen. A nice guy, trying to ensure a diverse group of presenters, albeit awkwardly. His goal was laudable: a diverse evening. Just not too heavy on the pale end of the spectrum. He wants me, but not too many guys like me, not all at once, since we can be overwhelming. Got it.
And yet. Maybe it's residual bitterness on my part from being designated the paper's poster boy for White Privilege. Maybe I have a little trouble seeing quotas as a positive sign of confidence from formerly-oppressed groups. Maybe this is fall-out from having an unapologetic bigot as president. "I can't do anything about Donald Trump, but I sure can do a whipsong on you." But I'm seeing more what I consider White People Suck messages. Which certainly has basis in the realm of historical fact regarding societies as a whole, while still being unfair applied to specific individuals, such as me. There's the issue of the group versus the individual. History notwithstanding, I'm just not ready to allow myself to be draped with the mantle of pale suckiness. An innocent black shopper feels rightly outraged if a store clerk follows him around the store, based on his own racial fears and pre-conceptions: why should I accept the blame for what other white people who are not me did or are doing?
If I want to hire a guy to paint my house, and you show up with your white face, and I say, "You know, I really wanted to give the job to an erstwhile disadvantaged minority: got any friends of color?" that could be seen as a noble attempt to right historic inequalities. But from your point of view, from the perspective of a disappointed house painter trying to get work, you lost a gig through no fault of your own. And I would be acting in a prejudiced fashion, by punishing an individual for the supposed flaws of his identity group.
I don't want to make too much of this. Fox News sorts are already writhing on the ground, crying about white genocide and whatever. That's not what I'm saying here. Maybe this is just one guy extending an invitation in a ham-handed fashion, forgetting that lumping together anyone's race, even a notorious race with a catalogue of horrors as long as the white race's, is not a winning strategy to get a busy guy to give up an evening to entertain his bar full of friends. I may be a white person, but that's not all I am.