For a fuller experience, I recommend listening to this while reading.
It was 1995, and we'd figured out how to sell tons more vacuum cleaners to people who didn't want them.
Pee-wee Herman wasn't the only one to slam the door in a salesman's face. Almost everyone did. To get around this impulse, we invented a monthly drawing for people to sign up for. We'd knock and explain to them right on their front steps that we weren't selling anything, just entering people into a contest.
This was pre-internet, so people just went for it.
We'd call them days later and explain that they hadn't won the monthly grand prize drawing, but had snagged the daily prize (like all their neighbors). The prize was a free carpet cleaning. This increased our demonstration and sales rate perhaps as much as 10X. Getting folks to fill out these monthly drawing registration cards (or “Regi cards,” for short, because we were on the move baby and had no time for “stration”) was like printing our own money. We’d hit the best neighborhoods, register everyone we could, and make thousands of dollars in commissions in the weeks after. It was almost easy.
But there was another element at play in my success I didn’t recognize.
One day I took two new recruits out into the field to get some Regi cards. It was a high-end neighborhood and the houses were close together. Perfect arrangement. A hundred cards would be 20-30 demonstrations which was 8-10 sales. I was talking up this exciting formula with the two new men, their shirts starched white, their ties well knotted, their skin dark brown.
I walked up the street one direction, they each went others. Divide and conquer. We’d meet back at the car in an hour or so, the entire neighborhood our wheel of fortune.
Nearly an hour later I returned to the car, sweating, smiling, several dozen cards in a stack held tight with a rubber band. I had been thinking about new chrome wheels for my car. Maybe a new stereo. Hell, maybe both—what a stack!
Both the other two guys were already in the car, their heads surrendered to the headrests, each staring through the windshield. Faces like stone. They didn’t look at me when I walked up, or even when I spoke to them through the passenger window.
“What are you guys doing?”
“Done?” I asked. “All your cards are filled out?”
I can still remember his jaw muscles beginning to flex as he stared straight ahead. An alert sounded in my mind and I silenced it. The alert wanted to make known why he and his friend were done and so obviously angry.
“Dude. Help me understand why you’re not out here doing the work?” I knew why. “Why are you just sitting in the car while I bust my butt?” I knew why. “You’re taking a break after a few minutes work?” I knew why.
“We didn’t get any cards man.”
“None? Why? Why not?” I didn’t want the answer. I already knew the answer.
It was here he looked at me in the eye for the first time, jaw muscles flexing. He pushed his sleeves up dramatically past his elbows. Most of his black arms were exposed to me now, the dark of his skin a sharp contrast to his white sleeves. He twisted his arms back and forth so I could get a good look at them. I still didn’t want to know what I knew.
“You didn’t get any Regi cards because you have sweaty arms?”
I sincerely believe this is a top ten deserved-to-be-punched moment in my life. Alas, this is the power of denying what one cannot know. And what I couldn’t know was this: These two men worked as hard as I did, saying verbatim the words I taught them to say, to the same kinds of people I was saying them to a cul-de-sac over, and it produced nothing. Not even a reasonable beginners’ fraction of my expertise. Nothing. When these men knocked doors, people looked through their curtains and feigned absence. People opened the door and said little more than get off my porch. People quietly locked the door, the click either meant to be heard or meant to be unheard. While I took down home phone number after home phone number, drinking the ice water one homeowner gave me, someone a street over told one of my new coworkers to “Get the hell out of here before I call the police on your black ass.”
The men explained to me, since I so convincingly portrayed someone who needed an explanation, that they had been treated not merely differently than me. They were treated with contempt. And I couldn’t know this because then what could I claim about all my efforts and skill? How can you brag about being the fastest swimmer when your teammates have been fitted with cement shoes?
When we got back to the office I explained what had happened to another white coworker. I was still committed to not learning anything that would make me reassess my place in (on?) society. I hinted dismissively that the only card the new guys had in their pockets was the race card. The white coworker rolled his eyes. “Typical. Lazy bastards.” he said.
His judgment shook me. I immediately felt terrible. Those guys weren’t lazy. Far from it. But what was I going to do now, defend them? So, I accepted that my white coworker was the racist.
From there it became easier to see, reinforced again and again, that my experience was/is generally easier than other ethnicities, for the simple fact that I'm not them. And it became easier to see that to admit this, to face it and put energy into what I might see if I'll see it, is profoundly threatening.
“I’m white, thank God… That is a huge leg up, are you kidding me? I love being white. I really do. Seriously, if you're not white, you’re missing out. Because this s*** is thoroughly good. Let me be clear by the way: I'm not saying that white people are better. I'm saying that BEING white is clearly better. Who could even argue? If it was an option I would re-up every year! 'Oh yeah, I'll take white again. Absolutely….I’ve been enjoying that, I’m gonna stick with white thank you…’ Here's how great it is to be white: I could get in a time-machine and go to any time and it would be awesome when I get there! That is exclusively a white privilege! Black people can't f*** with time machines.” -Louis CK, comedian
My black coworkers were experiencing racism by anyone's definition. Most of us can call that out effortlessly. But the second dynamic is more challenging because it's naming how I, as a white male, unfairly benefit from how racism works. I compound the negative consequences of my privilege by defensively refusing to acknowledge or discuss it as a thing. That is, racism is still happening, and unacknowledged white privilege in a way demands it’s not— IT CANNOT—which gives racism its resilience. It's 2016 and people are still saying, "If you work hard, you can achieve whatever you want." See what this does? It conveniently blames the oppressed to salvage the story of my own hard work, my own security that there's a just and good side and of course I am squarely on it. To acknowledge the inequity disrupts our sense of accomplishment and even our very "goodness."
I am imagining some readers even now are growing frustrated with me because they hear accusations, which means "defend!". Perhaps they're even forming their argument. But if we want the world to improve, expending most our energy on defending how we're perceived may be precisely what's holding it all back. How can there be peace if we've already decided we won't listen to those not experiencing it?
A white friend of mine moved into a low-income, predominantly minority neighborhood a couple years ago. She told me a story that I have heard numerous versions of over the years. She said a city cop got to talking to her about her new digs and at one point leaned in with a knowing smile and assured her, in hushed tones, that he'd add the neighborhood to his patrol and would come check on her family here and there, make sure things were good. She rolled her eyes as she told me this, wishing aloud that the officer would offer this same service and protection for all its residents. Of course not all cops think like this. Of course the officer was offering, in many ways, something good. But can you see how it sets up whiteness for success, just for being white. See how it reveals residency isn't enough for full protection, it must be white residency? Can you see how you might feel, as a person of color, that you're being held back because of that color. That you're not as American as me?
As a white male American, the deck of Regi cards has always been comparatively stacked in my favor. From our Country's founding. I’m benefitting from a system of biases many of us have uncritically adopted as standard. Human nature tends to forget that privilege is something externally bestowed. We tend to make ourselves not see privilege and exchange knowledge of it for narratives about our performing better. Rich kids literally believe they are better than poor kids, for reasons having nothing to do with what they've done. Who would argue that we all grow up and have none of this in us as adults?
Consider how white privilege accumulates into a very different sort of experience than for people of color. And this doesn't even get into the role privilege plays in relation to gender, sexuality, being an immigrant, nor does it deal directly with the huge economic dimensions of this conversation:
I’ve never been discriminated against because I’m white. Much the opposite.
I’ve never been accused of being scary because I was at a store too long, wearing a hoodie, playing music I like, or working in neighborhoods far from my own.
I’ve never, outside of specific childish events I instigated, been harassed, mocked, bullied or attacked because I’m white.
I’ve never been told I speak well for a white person. No one is surprised I’m intelligent.
I’ve never as a child had to worry I wouldn’t have academic support at home because I was breaking new ground by being educated and literate. I’m easily a tenth generation literate man.
I’ve never been told that if I would pretend to be different, dropping the accent and vernacular that’s in keeping with my upbringing, that I’d seem more trustworthy, smart and worthy of inclusion in another’s organization or life.
I’ve never wondered if the cops would be harsh with me.
I’ll never teach my son to grip the steering wheel if pulled over, and to speak to cops like one deescalating an aggressive dog, just in case.
I’ve never felt like if I were another race, my family would automatically make more money at the same job.
I’ve never had to spend more than a few moments as the only white guy in the room. I’m the standard color in this part of the world.
I never have to sort through the dominant culture’s guidelines to find music, clothing, entertainment, spiritual guidance, traditions, customs, holidays, cosmetics, role models, children’s names, art, hobbies, etc. that better suit where I and mine come from.
I never have to worry that I’ll be sentenced with disproportionate harshness for the exact same crimes other races commit.
I never have to be worried I’ll be pulled over for my race, or my car searched more that other races, or those searches being generally understood as more valid despite those searches not producing different results than the searches of other races.
"I never have to worry," is pretty general, but probably a good summary and a place to stop for now. These and countless more ways that I run a footrace on an even track while others are presented a hill, create such disparity of experiences that animosity and tension are to be expected. We must start listening better, because only some of us have the privilege of saying we're tired of talking about race. This is not an indictment on whiteness. It's a real plea for being better, non-defensive listeners.
Next, I’ll talk about what we do— in my estimate—with any acknowledgment that Louis CK is demonstrably correct. As we look at the work left to do where race is concerned in America, what might that work look like past admission of inequity.