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  • Writer's pictureRobin Koerner

How America Made Me White

It took me a couple of seconds to get Stephen Colbert’s joke line, “I don’t see race” when I first heard it.

In the USA, the joke works because no one can seriously imagine everyone’s not seeing race.

But when I first heard it, I had to work that out, because I was born and raised in the UK … and I never saw race.

That’s not because I am more evolved than any American, or more “woke”, or more of anything at all. It’s just that I was brought up in a culture and a manner in which skin color was something one paid about as much attention to as hair color. Colbert’s joke simply wouldn’t work in the England of my generation.

Two Englishmen in New York

I emigrated to the States 14 years ago and within a year had moved to Harlem, where I lived for five years.

While there, I met a gentleman at a party across the water in Hoboken and we hit it off. His name was Jesse. We found we had a lot in common in how we saw the world, which was made all the more of a basis for a friendship by the fact that we had very little in common in how we came into it.

We were both Brits so had all the cultural affinity that comes with that, but he had grown up in Camberwell, which, in his day was to London as the Bronx was to New York before it got safe. In contrast, I had spent my teenage years in an old manor house that had been converted to a private school to which I won a scholarship. He “got out” of Camberwell to become a music producer, while I very much “stayed in” education in beautiful buildings and became a student at Cambridge University.

We started hanging out at his place and mine, and places in between, sharing the experiences of being immigrants to America and being obvious outsiders in the New York neighborhoods in which we lived. As part of all that, we talked a little bit about the American obsession – for that is how it felt to us – with race.

I was a white boy living in Harlem, and so stood out like a sore thumb when I’d go to pick up the A train on 125th Street.

Jesse lived in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, and also stood out like a sore thumb when he’d go to pick up the A train. But not because of his skin color. You see, Jesse is as Jamaican and black as all his neighbors were. But he attracted more attention in Brooklyn than ever I did in Harlem because his T-shirts were all Beatles and Bowie – not a rapper in sight – and his blazer was, well, a blazer.

He used to get quite the kick as he’d approach the cops on the street corner near his A strain stop at Utica Ave., and watch their countenances change as the Beatles and the blazer came into their view. He might even top off the encounter with an “afternoon, mate” at close approach if he was feeling particularly cheeky.

But being the Beatles brother in Brooklyn wasn’t as much fun when he was out with his white wife: at those times, the glares let him know that his skin color mattered.

It turns out that, in America, when you’re around people who think that you should behave a certain way because you look a certain way, choosing the wrong color is much less acceptable than being the wrong color.

Not Far from Ebenezer Baptist, Segregation

A year ago, I attended Netroots, which is perhaps the largest annual progressive political conference in the nation.

The opening ceremony was held in a huge hall with well over 1000 people in attendance – perhaps double that.

After many speakers had shared messages of unity, the stage was given to a small group that identified as Black Lives Matter. They took up regularly spaced positions across the whole stage in a rather formal arrangement.

I can’t remember everything they said, but I shall never forget the ominous line from one of them that made my blood run cold.

She told us, the audience, that they would be holding meetings at the conference from which people not of color will be excluded, and that those not invited “needed to understand why they weren’t invited”.

By the time they were done, the sentiment clearly delivered was, to me at least, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”.

I’d been active in American politics for about seven years at that point, but that moment was the first that I felt threatened – apparently because of the amount of melanin in my skin, which is not a variable that has ever caused me to take a stand for or against anyone.

The audience was applauding the giving up of a very basic, progressive, principle: don’t treat people differently based on an immutable characteristic.

What shook me to the core was to be told that if I didn’t concede that principle, I was someone’s enemy.

No. I won’t get comfortable with your racial segregation. And no, I’m not your enemy, whatever you tell me. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been anyone’s enemy. Or are you just trying to tell me that you’re going to make me your enemy by enforcing my segregation – my otherization? I was shocked, but determined not to generalize from a single experience from the words of a few people at a single event to a whole conference – or a movement, or a country.

That would just be silly.

A Very Limited Perspective

One fundamental difference between my adoptive country, the USA, and my home country, England, is what seems to be the absence of “proportionality” as a principle in law enforcement.

As a big proponent of civil rights, I have for a long time been disturbed by the apparent acceptance in America of an all-bets-are-off approach to dealing with people who are deemed to have transgressed a line. In other parts of the world, the violence associated with enforcement and punishment is much more constrained, it seems to me, to be proportionate to the violation.

Accordingly, while at the conference, I was keen to attend a panel on police violence and a wonderful program that involved (from memory) bailing young men who had been imprisoned for non-violent crimes out of prison for Fathers’ Days. The panel included a judge, a young man who had been imprisoned for a non-violent crime, a mayor, and a civil rights activist.

After extremely moving presentations from all of them, I got to ask the first question from the floor.

I prefaced it with the observation that “proportionality” seemed not to be an important value in American culture – especially when it comes to law enforcement. Moral determinations in America, I ventured, seemed more binary than in my home country of the UK.

My question then went something like this.

“Help me understand the thinking of culture of law enforcement in this country. Specifically, how can a cop arrest a young man for a victimless crime, such as jaywalking or spitting on a sidewalk (the “crime” that had resulted in the imprisonment of one of the young panelists) knowing that the legal process is likely to end up with the young man in a cage – and the cop not think that he’s doing anything other than an act of violence against him?”.

The civil rights activist on the panel most clearly accepted the premise of the question and provided me in some ways the most satisfying answer so afterward, we had a private conversation, which lasted for the better part of two hours.

My new acquaintance gave me the rest of the answer to my question – the bit that, I suppose, he couldn’t give me in public. The real reason why the typical cop goes to work thinking it’s ok to do violence to young black men is and I quote, “white supremacist colonialism”.

I was confused by this new suggestion that the average cop scoffing down his cheerios before work is looking forward to another day of building an empire in which people with white skin get to control people with other skin in some form of vassaldom, so I asked him to elaborate. He didn’t give me any causal link between this abstraction and the cop getting ready for work, but he said something interesting nonetheless: an indifference to violence arises from an absence of “historical redress”.

Something of an amateur historian as well as a trained scientist, I am a lover of big general ideas with a power to explain myriad specific human phenomena, so I was genuinely interested. He begun to compare and contrast cultures in which groups that had been oppressed had a historic moment of violent uprising against their oppressors with those that had not, explaining that the violence we see meted out against young black men by white cops in the States is a direct result of the fact that black people hadn’t had their “historical redress”. His examples of successful redress were mostly violent. They all involved the violation of rights of innocent people as far as I could tell.

Most of the first half of the ensuing conversation was me listening hard for any causation between the absence of this historical general event and the minds of cops, or anyone else, today.

I gave the gentleman as many benefits of as many doubts as I could; as many “for the sakes of argument” and “can you help me understand…?” I never got my answer, but he did explain that police violence followed directly from the British crown subjugating black people on instruction from the pope, and that the first part of the solution to cop-on-black violence was, therefore, reparations to be paid by Prince William – specifically, Prince William. Takings from other people with young Bill’s skin color would follow, presumably.

The problem (and I’m not sure if it was for me or for him) was that, being an educated Brit who has developed a significant interest in history these last few years, I do know something of the history of my native land. And I knew that the claims my conversational partner was making about the relationship between the British Crown and the Holy See were not only wrong – but impossible for so many reasons following Britain’s turning away from the Holy Roman church under Henry VIII.

But I really did want to hear whatever facts he had that I didn’t know. After all, there’s an infinity of fascinating history that I’ve not yet discovered.

So I would indicate, in the most qualified and tentative way that I could, where my understanding of history differed from his, and I’d ask him time and time again what his sources were, or how a particular claim was consistent with a well known historical fact. And whenever I did so, I got the same condescending answer. It was more of a refrain:

“That’s a very limited perspective,” he’d say. Time and time again.

He’d say that even if I wasn’t offering a perspective, but asking for a clarification, or just letting him know what I believed to be the case, or asking him to point out where my understanding was wrong. And after the refrain would continue the conspiratorial narrative between the British Crown and the Holy Roman Empire, utterly lacking in any specific evidentiary facts.

And every now and then, he’d come back to the need for this historical redress, at a price to be paid by people who were hundreds of years away from the white supremacist colonialist story he was telling.

It made no sense at the time.

It would take a friend to help me make sense of it a few weeks after my return home.

Going Down

In the hotel elevator on the last day of the conference, I witnessed a campaign worker for Stacey Abrams, a Democrat running for Governor in the state of Georgia, hand out fliers for her candidate, “a person of color”. The older woman who took her flier thanked her for it. Then another lady, bunched tight in the elevator with the rest of us, asked the older woman if she also knew about the other Stacey, Stacey Evans, also Democrat, also running for Governor. “No,” she responded. “What is she like?”

“She’s a great Democrat, with a solid progressive record.” A list of some of her achievements followed.

The older woman asked, “Is she a person color?”

“No,” replied her fellow conference-goer.

“Then I shall vote for Abrams”.

Stephen Colbert wouldn’t have noticed, of course, but this time I did: the lady who had just made her choice for Governor had the same skin color as I.

Punch More People

The elevator ride prepared me strangely for the happy group of guys and gals who caught my eye in the bar off the lobby, where I got out.

One of their number was distributing his latest creations – T-shirts sporting the slogan “Punch More Nazis”. As someone who is English only because his Austrian Jewish grandfather fled from Hitler, I figured I had a fair basis to inquire, and so I sat down with them all and chatted. A friendly quarter of an hour passed, but I never found out who these Nazis, who need more punching, were.

The ones that murdered my great grandfather in Dachau were, after all, long dead, thanks in small part to his son, the Austrian Jew, who joined the British army as soon as he turned 18 to fight his own countrymen who were responsible for killing his Dad.

Despite that history, my granddad kept his German accent and his German name, which is now mine. And why shouldn’t he have done? My granddad was never defined by any of the groups to which he belonged, even when one of them was engaged in organized mass murder against another.

Like so many actual Nazi-punchers of his generation, he never talked about any of it – except to say one thing. “Remember, the Nazis were socialists.” I couldn’t help wondering in that bar in Atlanta if that advisory might have been of any interest to those new acquaintances who were looking for more Nazis to punch.

I also wondered if Stephen Colbert could have seen the T-shirts – what with their being white on black ‘n’ all.

Target on My Back

The plural of anecdote isn’t data, and more to the point, the singular of data isn’t anecdote. I took my experience in Netroots in that vein.

Not long after returning to my home city, I shared my experiences with a friend called Geoffrey. Geoffrey is also something of an amateur historian, so I thought he’d appreciate the bizarre two-hour conversation that I had had about historical redress and the spooky implication of the justification of force to deliver it.

I was, of course, expecting a surprised reaction; but what I got only a few sentences into explaining this strange alternative history in which centuries of British royals were acting as vassals of the Holy See to enslave black people, was a lot of knowing nodding and smiling.

“Yeah yeah,” he said. “That’s one of the standard narratives. I used to hear that one a lot as a kid.

You people don’t realize it but I’m telling you, there’s a target on your back.”

You see, Geoffrey – like Jesse and the historically creative civil-rights activist – is also of the high-melanin persuasion. He explained about how growing up in a community of folks with the same skin tone, for that was the determining factor, he used to hear this narrative justification (among others) for the coming battle against people with my skin tone by people with his skin tone.

“A target on my back.” It’s almost absurd. I’d never have believed it if I’d not attended one of the most progressive conferences in America, and heard a few people assert – and hundreds applaud – differential treatment by virtue of color, and if, as well, I didn’t have a friend who’d grown up with many like them and let me into that secret. For a “secret” is exactly what he told me it was.

You Can Force People to Play, But You Can’t Force Them to Lose

The folks in Jesse’s neighborhood liked the novelty of having in their midst one of their own – a black Jamaican, who nevertheless had a foreign passport and a funny accent. In an act of neighborly solidarity, no doubt, they kindly invited him to join them for a regular local event to discuss the issues facing their community.

Jesse listened to their grievances, for grievance is what the meeting turned out to be about. Jesse, a black man who had been brought up by his single mother in Camberwell, had never heard anything quite like it.

He’d not have said anything if he’d not been called on specifically at the end. But he was, so he did. Someone asked him what he thought of what he’d witnessed. He told them his truth: that he thought their problem wasn’t their problem. Their actual problem, he thought, was what they were doing right there: a faulty self-diagnosis of victimhood: it wasn’t the physical segregation of those who died long since that had as much impact on them as the mental segregation of those in the room.

His evidence? “England”, he told them, “had slavery too, but we don’t do this” – and he felt just fine in his skin and his dreads.

Does that story prove anything? No. No more than my anecdote from Netroots.

But Einstein did point out that you can’t solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created the problem.

So why would anyone think that any problem could be solved by the same attitude that created it, regardless of the justification?

There are plenty of corollaries to choose from. You can’t defeat racism with racism just by changing the target, hate with hate just by changing the target, bigotry with bigotry just by changing the target, or victimization with victimization, just by changing the target – even to oneself.

I don’t need a movement to make me aware of my privilege. I certainly don’t need a skin color.

Before I moved to America, I was always deeply aware, delighted and humbled, by the huge privileges I’ve enjoyed. They include having enough to eat, a roof over my head, parents who loved me and made me secure both physically as a child and emotionally as an adult, and a wonderful education. They also include living in a part of the world where I have the freedom to speak my truth and pursue the best version of myself without fear.

I am all too aware of all of it. But the only way I can leave any of it “at the door”, is if, just as the BLM folks at Netroots would have it, I’m left at the door.

If you want my help to build a country where more people can enjoy more of the privileges I enjoy every day, just ask me. Don’t threaten me. I’m already in; not out of guilt or because a group that you’ve defined me into owes something to a group you’ve defined me out of.

Rather, I’m in because there’s only one group and we’re all in it.

In fact, the way to guarantee that good people won’t build that world is to tell them that they have to, because they owe something to folks whom they took nothing from, in a room that they’re not invited into.

That game has a name, and a hell of a history. The Nazis played it. The Communists played it. And every day, in much smaller ways, it’s being played all over America.

It’s nasty. And I won’t play it.

The Nazis who played it in the 1930s and ‘40s kept very good records. That’s how I know exactly when, where and how the game ended for my great grandfather, Maximilian Koerner, in 1938. There he is, third from the bottom in this record retrieved just yards away from the ovens where they burnt his body in the concentration camp at Dachau.

The Nazis’ justification for it was, as it always is, historic redress for past wrongs, payable out of the material proceeds of supposed present privilege.

And it was all perfectly moral, you see, because the Nazis weren’t punching Jews because of their physical characteristics: those characteristics were just a way to spot who belonged in the privileged, and therefore the guilty, group.

Yet today in America, there are plenty of people trying to force others to play this game again, despite all the lessons of history. They shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking they can guilt everyone else into playing to lose. Some, like the old lady in the elevator, may do so – but she’s the exception, not the rule.

When you make people play a game like that, and they work out what its organizers think losing should look like, if they’ve got any sense, they’ll play to win.

Before I came to America, I didn’t see color. Now, alas, I do.

Apparently, I’m white. America told me.

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