"Scenes in black and white

I think it’s fair to say that we don’t really talk about race. At least not in public. Many of us only feel comfortable discussing issues of race in intimate gatherings that involve friends, family or other like-minded individuals. Knowing this I’ve decided to expand my friend group.

I thought I’d share some of my own insights and stories concerning blacks and whites and perceptions of “blackness.” As Indianapolis embarks upon another Summer Celebration of African-American heritage and culture with the 36th anniversary of Indiana Black Expo, consider the following observations your behind-the-scenes membership into that club of well-meaning individuals who seek to embrace racial diversity and demystify the concept for the betterment of society.

Scene One: East 10th Street, Indianapolis

While driving, I’m intrigued by the sheer number of people on the street. Many appear to be down on their luck. I can’t help but notice the inordinate number of dark-skinned faces that peer back at me as I pass them by. One black man in particular, roughly mid-40s, stares intently at me as I sit at one of many stoplights. Though he doesn’t talk, eyes filled with destitution speak to me as if to ask, “How did I get here?” In the split-second that exists between shifting gears and pressing my foot to the gas pedal, I tilt my head back and raise my chin as if to say, “Hang in there, brother, everything’s going to be all right.” He musters enough energy to return the gesture and quickly vanishes from sight as I travel down the road.

I suppose there is a tie that binds persons of color together. All colors. In the black community, that bond is a sense of struggle. Many African-Americans are raised to believe that we must work twice as hard as our white counterparts to achieve even the most minimal level of success. Inherently, this societal pressure brings with it a strong sense of self-doubt and a true depression when someone succumbs to the weight of that struggle. Yet we respect each other in the struggle and encourage each other to pull through it. This is often why black folks say hello to each other. We know that in our society, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, being black is the first and last thing most people will associate with you.

Scene Two: my living room

I love television. Some have even called me a television addict. Yet I have a problem with advertising. Why? Because there’s something slightly disconcerting about commercial placement during television shows. You may be unaware of this, but during what is known as a “black” show many advertisers fine tune their product spots with a more demographically appropriate theme or flavoring that you will never see run during the “white” shows.

Recently, while watching an episode of CSI: Miami, I see a commercial featuring a young, very pretty white woman dancing around her living room flaunting her newly acquired dress while the voice-over says that you can get that dress and so much more at a famous discount department store chain. Not a half-hour later, I flip channels to watch a rerun of Martin and I see the same commercial, except this time the young, very pretty white woman has become a young, very pretty black woman. The words of the script are the same, the set is the same and even the dress is the same! This makes me wonder what advertising executives think of us. Do they really believe that blacks won’t shop at this store if we see no black people in the commercial? Or worse, do they believe white people won’t shop at stores if they see blacks in the commercial?

Scene Three: gas station, downtown Indianapolis

Snow is falling. The wind blows hard into the canopy and offers little protection from the cold as I quickly place the gas pump into my car. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice two people. A black man and white woman, both of whom suffer from Down’s syndrome, walking out of the station parking lot. As they get to the edge of the lot, the man turns to the woman and buttons up her coat and ties her scarf tightly around her neck. “Cold!” I hear him say. She agrees and as he turns to walk away she reaches out and grabs his hand as if it were the only thing in the world worth holding on to. The man then turns towards her and smiles and they both walk off into the dimly lit night.

Meanwhile, I am back in my car and I think how beautiful it is to be OK with being who you are regardless of what others think.

Scene Four:

Dave Mathews concert, 2003

Drunk people can be quite fun. I’m certainly not the first writer to point this out and I won’t be the last. A few years ago at a Dave Mathews Band concert I had a conversation with a man I’d never met before. He was your “typical” 20-year-old, free-thinking, white college student complete with cargo shorts and foot sweat indentations on his Birkenstocks. As we both mouthed the words to “Ants Marching,” he leaned over to me and yelled, “Man! I think it’s so cool that you’re here!”

I was happy to make his acquaintance as well, so I responded, “Yeah! I love these guys!”

He continued, “I mean, its good to know that black guys listen to Dave Mathews too!” It was an honest and heartfelt statement. There was no ill will or malicious intent. It was simply his perception of the audience (after all, I was one of probably 10 black men in the audience that night).

However, to put things in perspective I reminded him, “Why wouldn’t I listen to them?” I directed his gaze toward the stage where Boyd Tinsley (a black man) had just embarked on a truly inspired violin solo, supported by Carter (another black) on drums and Leroi (also black) on saxophone.

My new friend looked at me as if to say, “I never thought of it that way.” I looked back at him and gave him the nod of approval and we continued to laugh and bounce as Dave sang in the background, “Everybody’s happy, everybody’s free …”

Scene Five:

Indiana Black Expo, 2005

A dear friend of mine (who happens to be white) asked me last year if I was going to Black Expo. I told him that I was and that I had some free passes I could give him and his wife. He proceeded to tell me that his wife probably wouldn’t go. I asked why not and he said that she “never feels comfortable at things like that.” So I arranged to drop off a pass for him and he asked, “So what time do you want me to meet you?”

I told him, “Well, the pass will get you in but I probably won’t see you because I’m interviewing several people all day for a follow-up story on Black Expo.”

He then said, “Well, I can’t go without you.”

I responded, “What do you mean?”

“If I go without you, I’d get lynched. Think about it. A white guy at Black Expo? All the repressed guilt and dirty looks I’d get. What am I going to do? Walk around and wave and say, ‘Hi, black folks, you know me, Whitey?’ If I go with you I’d have street cred.”

I told him, “A. You will not get lynched. B. Black Expo is an educational and fun event for all citizens, not just black people. And C. Where did you learn to use the term street cred like that?”

We both laughed. But he came along. His wife didn’t. While I certainly understand many white people’s discomfort about being in an area or an event populated with mostly African-Americans (and vice versa), you don’t need to have a “buffer” to attend an ethnically themed event such as Indiana Black Expo. If that were the case, we all would have every Irish person we know on speed-dial come St. Patrick’s Day.

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