Feb. 19, 2015 Sometimes I got complaints from students at PSU who were unhappy with their grades or just wanted to see if they can take me down a few notches. One of my favorites was an annonymous complaint that I made fun of Black History Month, saying there was a sale on cottonballs at Walmart.
I know, it makes absolutely no sense. First of all, I have a better sense of humor than that. And second, I LOVE Black History Month! My joke about it is racists put it in the shortest and coldest month of the year. It should be in May. Give us 31 days, Honky!
But I got called into the “Office of Equity & Complaince” (Kafka reference here) and was interogated. It all blew over but I had to explain to the well-meaning bureaucrat in charge that my whole life has been dedicated to undoing biases like racism and sexism. It’s a feature of each of my classes. I went undercover in some of the most violent white supremacist groups in the world to learn how to do this.
Anyway, my trust in the institutions like that to be partners in that journey, instead of just “management,” died on that day. But it hasn’t taken anything away from my love of Black History Month. My favorite part of it is learning about cool things invented by African-Americans. It’s the nerd in me. One time there was this chubby skinhead chowing down on a bag of Lays Potato Chips. I told him he was a shitty Nazi because potato chips were invented by George Crum, a black guy. He looked sad.
But I wanted to tell another story today. It’s probably the best story the explains why a chose a path dedicated to anti-racism. When I was a freshman at Oxford College (a part of Emory University), winter quarter had a required thing called Oxford Studies. Everybody on campus reads the same book, goes to presentations and lectures and has a general conversation about it. Like an Ivy League Oprah’s Book Club.
The winter of 1982 it was Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s important 1964 book about the state of civil rights in America. Since it was a required book assigned to a bunch of young college kids (most from the South) who would rather be drinking hunch punch than reading another “important” book, there was a great celebration when the Oxford Studies term ended.
Someone in my dorm marked the occasion by ripping the book in half and throwing it into the urinal in the bathroom on our hall. I walked into the bathroom and saw our black janitor, who we all loved, standing in front of that urinal in tears. Here is a guy who cleaned the toilets of privileged white kids who go off to college at 18, not off to work. And here were the words of the man who wanted every child to have that chance in a dirty urinal. It was heartbreaking on a massive scale.
I tell this story because the 18-year-old kid who ripped up that book and dumped it in the john was me. It was just an impulse. Not meant to be racist. But I saw the impact that thoughtless act had on another human being and suddenly the whole thing became clear to me. I was a racist, the product of a racist culture that had the privilege of not thinking about the reality of race in America.
I became anti-racist activist in that moment, to make amends to that janitor who I never had the guts to apologize to. It’s 33 years later and I still cannot think about that moment without tears streaming down my face.
When I was a 16-year-old kid living in Stone Mountain, Georgia (the birthplace of the modern KKK), I was given an assignment in my journalism class to write an editorial. Here’s what I wrote. “If there’s a Black History Month, why can’t their be a White History Month?” If the teacher would have just said, “Randy, every month is ‘White History Month’,” I might have started on this path earlier and spared the knife I slowly pushed into our janitor’s back.
My daughter will know about race. She will know about the white privilege and the obstacles her Latino relatives and other people of color still face. Most of all she will know that these issues are very real and matter to people in the deepest ways.
And to the janitor of Dickey Dorm at Oxford Collge in 1982, I want to say I am sorry. I will continue to make it up to you. I promise.