Gary Almeter hears a song being whistled, and his reaction forces him to confront assumptions about others…and himself.
I was recently walking down the street in Towson, MD on a sunny afternoon when I heard someone whistling Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” The whistler sounded like he or she was about 15 to 20 feet behind me. I listened for a little bit. The whistler was flawless. And the song is unmistakable. I turned around to see who it was and was surprised to see that it was a twenty-something black male who was whistling the 80s alternative classic by the sprightly British chanteuse.
I immediately thought of Brett Staples’ essay, “Walk on By” about his efforts to assuage white people’s fears of him when they meet him on the sidewalk by whistling Beethoven or Vivaldi. Then I wondered if maybe a modern rapper had sampled the salient melodies of “Running Up That Hill” in a modern day rap song and that is how the black man walking behind me knew it. Then I thought that maybe the black man was doing some sort of meta-toying with me – that he was Brent Staplesing me and whistling Kate Bush because he knew that I knew that he could not possibly know who Kate Bush was. Then I said, “Fuck. I’m racist.”
But I’m not. I find racism abhorrent. And the evidence thereto weighs heavily in my favor: I taught scores of urban youth in an inner city high school and loved them all and hugged them and am still in touch with many of them today. I actually taught them Brent Staples “Walk On By.” I encouraged them to not tolerate being treated with disdain when they walked into stores. But that racism is real and rising above it was the best way to combat it.
I watched HBO’s “The Loving Story” about Mildred and Richard Loving, who fought to eradicate Virginia’s miscegenation statute; and I watched Spike Lee’s “Four Little Girls”; I watch all those documentaries. I read To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color of Water and Their Eyes Were Watching God and Invisible Man. I read Randall Kennedy and law review articles about racist sports teams names and interracial adoption and articles about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings and Strom Thurmond and I’ve advocated for reparations at Thanksgiving and I voted for Obama. I have read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and it took me a while, but I think I have a working knowledge of what it means to have white privilege. I know my shit.
Furthermore, I rejoice when my kids are oblivious to race. When she was in kindergarten, my daughter told me that she wanted to be a lunch lady. When I asked her why she said that she liked the clickety clacking sound of the lunch lady’s fingernails on the cash register. When I asked her to describe the lunch lady, the lunch lady’s dark skin was the eighth characteristic she mentioned, only after her dangly earrings, long fingernails, curly hair, Ravens jerseys, purple glasses, necklace with her name on it and jingly bracelets.
But then on an ordinary humdrum afternoon, I instinctively think that a black man wouldn’t – couldn’t – whistle Kate Bush.
On a continuum of attitudes toward race – one end composed of people completely oblivious to the concept, people who see only human beings, and the other composed of Ku Klux Klan members – where do I fall? How do we quantify all these nuances? Who the fuck am I?
I think at the very least I have some implicit racial bias. And I am sorry for that. I don’t know how that happened. I tried. But I am thinking about my thoughts on race, which suggests that I maintain a modicum of self-awareness. Is this anomalous? Do most white men think about this?
A friend told me not to beat myself up – that it would be odd for a twenty something person of any race to be whistling Kate Bush. While I realize that age might have something to do with this, because seriously, a twenty something of any race wouldn’t have been born when Kate Bush released the song in 1985, age is not a factor when I hear someone my age – 40 – whistling a Beatles song. Or a Rolling Stones song. Both of which are as removed from a forty-something as Kate Bush is from a twenty-something. So that factor only serves to erode my racial bias just a little bit.
I will shamefully employ the tired argument that I have black friends. With whom I hug and laugh and share dinner. But sometimes I playfully tease them about Prince, assuming that they like Prince. Once, a black friend and I were talking about how she was perceived in the neighborhood. I made a joke about how the other moms in the neighborhood think she is going to car jack them. She laughed. But I think that qualifies as a micro-aggression; harmless on its face but secretly more corrosive than I realize.
So I have room for improvement. There are more “unseen dimensions” to my gestalt than I realized.
I think the thing that bothers me most is that for all my post-Kate Bush analysis, I never stopped and engaged the whistler. I never nodded and mouthed “cool song” or gave him a thumbs up. There’s a story there – the story of how this black man came to know Kate Bush. It probably took and takes courage to listen to Kate Bush. I didn’t earn Kate Bush. She was just always there, at college keg parties, on the radio stations I listened to. She was a natural extension of what was expected of me. The whistler’s story remains unknown and that is how we should fix these things – engaging and talking and telling each other’s stories.
Photo: Angelo Amboldi/Flickr