Thursday, June 11, 2020

Letter to White Folks

“I hate him!” was my first response after meeting Aaron Williams. He was playing piano so beautifully at an Orff Conference and then the next time I looked, he was playing some swingin’ jazz drums. A little bit later, I looked up and he was playing bass. Now he was really pissing me off. I went up to him and asked about his training and he said, “I was a percussion major. Here’s a video of me playing 4-handed marimba.” Okay, now I was really getting upset. “But really, I’m a tap dancer. Oh, and I play some flute. And sing.”  By now, I really hated him! It just isn’t fair that one human being should be graced with so much extraordinary talent. 

But there was more. He taught young kids! And he was humble. And he was kind. And he was sweet. So I hated him yet more. Which is to say I loved him.

And since that day, I’ve worked with him in many different settings, played music with him, hung out with him. And the more I got to know him, the more I loved him.

Now please keep this all in mind when you read something he posted recently in Facebook. The off-the-mark comments of so many people—telling him they were sorry, assuring him they thought he was awesome, etc. — depressed the hell out of me. So please, just listen to what he says. Deeply. Put yourself or your children in his shoes. 

And if you get to be Sally or Josh without ever having to think about these things, that’s called a privilege that you didn’t earn, but are enjoying because of a diseased culture. For this healing, take off your mask and start talking. Read the hundreds (thousands?) of books available, see the movies (scores and scores and scores—The Help, Hidden Figures, Green Book, Just Mercy etc. etc. etc. ), talk to your neighbors and the people who were not allowed to be your neighbors. Make your own list. Every silenced voice that begins talking, every ignorant mind that begins learning, every closed heart that begins opening, is a step toward the world every human being deserves, a place where Aaron can just be Aaron. Here he is:

When I was a kid, I didn’t realize that I was black. I just felt human. I felt like Aaron. I felt like me. Sure, I was aware that I had brown skin, just as I was aware that the sun is yellow and the sky is blue.

So what happened? Well, unfortunately, having brown skin in America transforms your reality. Each day, the world looks at me and says, “Hey, you’re black!” Or “Ew, you’re black!” Or “Wow, you’re black. That’s so dope!” Or “Aww you’re black. How tragic.” Or “Hey, I pulled you over because you’re black.” Or “What’s it like to be black?” Or “Can you teach me how to be black?” Or “You’re irrelevant to this conversation because you’re black.” Or “You’re quite articulate for a black person!” Or “I thought you worked here because you’re black.” Or “I’m going to follow you around my store until you leave because you’re black.” Or a hundred other variations.

But here’s the thing. In real life, the words “because you’re black” are rarely spoken. They are snugly wrapped in a blanket of implicit bias. This makes them no more comforting.

What you see here is the variation, “I hate you because you’re black.” No pretend, no hiding, no political correctness, no bias blankets or microaggression mittens. In an odd way, the clarity is refreshing. I’m honestly not sure which is worse: the fact that I receive such comments, or the fact that my reaction has become “great, hate speech.”

What I want is simple. To feel human. To feel like Aaron. To feel like me.

This is why I haven’t spoken out much on Instagram. I have a ton to say, and I say it in other places. But IG was my sacred space. My virtual escape from the incessant “Hey, you’re black” and a chance to be the music-loving, people-loving, knowledge-loving person who spreads joy through music and discovery. Unfortunately, this cannot be. Not yet. Not with the world going through such a profound shift in consciousness.

When I was a kid, I didn’t realize that I was black. I just felt human. I felt like Aaron. I felt like me. Today, I feel black.

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