This column is a continuation of "My White Family," although it can also be read on its own.
When my siblings and I ended up not getting integrated, or de-segregated, by school busing, we continued to spend much of our lives not knowing black people. Two exceptions for me were summer jobs.
My first one, in 1971, was at a Big Boy restaurant. I worked with a black woman of about 40 named Kirby. She was the cashier for the drive-in service and I was a car hop, a parking lot waiter. Between eat-in-your-car orders, Kirby and I assembled strawberry pies and joked around.
One of the hamburgers at the Big Boy restaurant was the Brawny Lad, a quarter-pounder on a rye bun with a slice of onion. One day Kirby asked me, "Geoff, why do they call it a Brownie Lad?" I explained that it wasn't "brownie," but "brawny," meaning "muscular."
I was flattered that Kirby trusted me enough to ask me. I was her informant from the white world on this one. She must have thought I knew the answer, and that I wouldn't judge her for not knowing it. I didn't judge her. There was no reason Kirby should have known a white-ass word like "brawny."
In the summer of 1974, I made pizzas at an Italian restaurant called Melio's. My first contact was one of the cooks, Exa Mae Davis. As with Kirby, we were about as far apart as you could get. She was black, I was white. She was female, I was male. She was about 40, and I wasn't quite 19. She had kids, I was a kid. She was a working-class woman from Ferndale, I was a college kid from Royal Oak. She was a lifer at Melio's, and I was a temp. Sometimes difference can be a unifier. Competition and distrust were suspended for an eight-hour shift.
One peak of our good-natured banter came when there were no more crabs to be deep-fried. Exa Mae said: "Geoff, we all outta crabs. You got any?"
(You can read more about my "Short Happy Pizza Career" here:
As an undergraduate at Michigan State University, the only black person I spent much time with was Richard Walker, my professor for — of all things — medieval German literature. This extended encounter taught me a lot about Middle High German courtly epics and nothing about the lives of African-Americans.
I say "of all things" because it was hard for my young self to understand why an African American would specialize in some old European thing. But by the same token (no pun intended), I also had no discernible German heritage. Why was I, a member of the ethnic group that is never referred to as "English-Americans," learning about the Nibelungenlied and Walther von der Vogelweide?
In graduate school at the University of Michigan, I met another African-American professor of German, the late Vivian Yvonne Greene-Gantzberg, a Goethe expert who also taught in Germany, at Harvard, and at the University of Maryland. I never had a class with her, but we chatted in the hallway. One evening when she was working late in the Modern Languages Building, a professor from another department assumed she was a custodian and asked her to unlock a door for him.
As a professor myself, I've had a number of African-American students, many of whom have gone on to be German teachers. I no longer wonder why African-Americans might get into German. Everything is potentially interesting to everybody. That's how humans roll. Knowledge can certainly confirm identity, but its most potent function is to take us beyond the limits of our identities, which seem so essential but are largely contingent.
I have known many black colleagues at my university. I got to know two of them well enough to meet outside of work. I've had several cordial relationships. I have an innate ability to get along well with people and gain their trust. I don't take credit for it, but it is a great advantage. It helps me seem like one of those people the comedian Roy Wood, Jr., calls "cool white people" who are "down with the struggle."
But have you noticed that my life as a white guy consists of a series of anecdotes? I can probably count on two hands the number of black people I've spent more than a few hours with. And each time I was with an African-American, I turned into a white guy. My whiteness was suddenly marked.
Most of the time I wasn't a white guy, because my whiteness just blended in. It wasn't an issue. But I'd be a liar if I told you I wasn't thinking about racial difference every time I spent time with black people. I wanted good race relations. But that self-consciousness itself foregrounded skin color.
That's why I don't believe people who claim to be colorblind. "I don't see the skin color, I just see the individual," the wishful thinking goes. The claim not to notice skin color itself acknowledges skin color, a self-contradiction. If colorblindness was actually a possibility, there would be no need to talk about it.
One of the reasons why some Americans disliked President Obama was that he constantly reminded them they were white. This is why some claim Obama was a racist: his power and his presence forced them to think about blackness and whiteness. But what's called "playing the race card" is just an acknowledgment that race is an issue.
I don't contribute much to racial prejudice and discrimination. But that doesn't mean I'm helping to eliminate it outside of my very small circle of anecdotal encounters. It would be nice to be one of Roy Wood Jr.'s "cool white people," but my "coolness" is also complacency, contentment with the status quo, the feeling I'm already doing my part.
I also participate in "implicit bias," which Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (who is advising Starbucks on racial sensitivity training) describes this way: "we all are processing and mentally making shortcuts, and some of those shortcuts are harmless and some of them are harmful. And so it's very possible to be a person who eschews racism, believes in justice and equality and still take actions or behave in a way or make decisions in a way that reveals that that person has implicit biases."
It's true that overt racial discrimination, white supremacy, the disproportionate black prison population, and the disproportionate use of official violence against black people are major problems in race relations in the US. But it's also true that even a "cool white person" like me, who "eschews racism" and "believes in justice and equality," is free to not be a white guy at almost any time. In many, maybe most situations, black people don't have the same privilege of not being black. There may be ways to settle and solve racial discord in my country, but pretending to be colorblind isn't one of them.