Every White Person Has To Own Their White Privilege If They’re Ever Going To NOT Be Racist

A recent production of James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” in Washington, DC.

First things first: racism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s not up to the racist or the person who might be racist to decide whether or not they’re racist. They’re a little too close to the subject to judge.

So — no white person can say “I’m not a racist”. It’s not up to you. I know — that makes it tricky. “How do I know I’m not being racist at any given moment then?”

You don’t.

The fact is, we’re all “racist” in that we differentiate between ourselves and our immediate tribe with everyone else. It’s hardwired into our DNA. Other social animals do it too. Survival instinct, ya know?

But, being intelligent animals (or, at least, fancying ourselves intelligent), we have the ability to check our impulses and native instincts. It’s a little like not shitting the moment the urge hits you like, say, a horse might. Humans have learned — go elsewhere to do that — may we suggest the bathroom? Just like with moving our bowels, sometimes it’s just not convenient to do it. So we hold it in for as long as we need to.

Because we can.

It’s not a matter of denying our racism, it’s a matter of keeping it in check at all times. The goal is, in time (with personal experience), eliminate those feelings altogether. It’s a little like changing one’s bowel habits — to extend the metaphor. A bad diet produces bad bowel habits with plenty of bloating and discomfort and difficulty that only gets worse over time. If you change your diet though — voila!

I was having prostate issues. I cut back on caffeine. Now I don’t have prostate issues.

And we all know how important it is having adequate roughage in your diet to help clean everything out. Maintaining a diet instead of eating whatever you like is hard work.

So’s not being a racist — and you have to do it every single day.

I know the moment I realized I was an “institutional racist”. Now, I grew up an “other”. I’m Jewish. I was told by my culture that I was a “Chosen People”. Considering the cruelty visited upon my tribe, perhaps it would have been better for us if this god creature had chosen someone else. I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust where institutional racism became industrial racism.

I am old enough, sadly, to remember knowing there were quotas — unspoken but understood: a certain number of Jews or Blacks or Latinos or Chinese or Japanese or Indian (if any) to be invited into “the club” — a private school, a country club, a college.

I do know the sting of not having privilege.

But I don’t know it — personally — on the scale my black and brown brothers and sisters have been forced to endure. Having white skin, there was always the chance for me to “pass” for a bit — until the real white people heard my last name or stopped to reconsider the shape and cut of my nose. White Europeans are bullies — cultural and otherwise. But certain tribes were always excluded from Christian privilege. Romani people were one. Armenians were another. And, of course, there was always the Jews.

Still — white European culture and bullying are pervasive enough — and, by the time I was born American Jews had begun assimilating enough — so that I was afforded a significant amount of white privilege even though lots of that privilege was denied me. I still had some white privilege where others had none.

It’s just a fact.

I grew up outside of Baltimore, Maryland in the 70’s. My parents were ardent theater-goers. There was a big theater downtown called “The Mechanic” (after one of it’s big donors — last name Mechanic) where big touring productions of Broadway shows played. A few blocks away was Center Stage, an Equity LORT theater that staged original productions using Equity actors. Real quality stuff. Great plays with lots of great actors — known, unknown, about to be known.

It was 1982. The year after I graduated from college. I was visiting from New York. My parents had subscriptions to both the Mechanic and Center Stage but couldn’t make that night’s Center Stage performance and didn’t want to waste the tickets. They gave them to me. I was able to use one of them.

The show was James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner”.

Right off the bat — though I loved theater, though I’d just graduated from Vassar College as a DRAMA major — I hemmed and hawed. “That,” I told myself, “Is going to be a boring couple of hours.” That was my fear. How could a show about black people possibly be interesting to me?

Assuming that other peoples’ cultures are uninteresting is… if not exactly racist, it’s stupid. Let’s call it racist adjacent. In my defense, I went. I was lost but not a lost cause.

The Amen Corner‘ is about Margaret Alexander, the pastor of a storefront church in Harlem. Margaret is fiercely protective of her teenage son David — especially when her estranged husband (David’s father) Luke (a jazz musician) returns to them because he’s dying. Margaret has always painted Luke as a weak man who left his family because he loved playing music more than supporting them. To Margaret’s growing unease, her son David is showing a similar passion for music over a passion for, say, God.

But Margaret, it turns out, hasn’t been entirely honest or faithful to the truth. Luke didn’t leave her — causing her to find God for salvation — she found God first. Her single-minded devotion to God — to her own religious impulses — caused her marriage to break up. Luke didn’t leave her, she left Luke — who still loves her.

The play asks a lot of hard questions about faith and culture and religion and community and love, and, of course, racism. Racism sits beneath everything.

Whether or not “The Amen Corner” is a great play from a literary standpoint — I don’t know frankly. I’m amazed it hasn’t gotten more attention. If theater is meant to not only entertain but inform, “The Amen Corner” checked off every box there was and then some.

I walked in the door, figuring I’d get a little sleep and ended up so emotionally drained that I was literally the last person to leave the theater when the evening’s performance was finished.

The leads — Frances Foster and Bill Cobbs — as Margaret and Luke — were exceptional. The story grabbed me early and would not let go of me. But that wasn’t what left me drained and touched so deeply that — as I write this, I can feel the same awe I felt then. I was racist to think Black culture would bore me.

That night, James Baldwin, Frances Foster, Bill Cobbs, director Walter Dallas and the rest of the magnificent cast opened my eyes. Of course it’s not boring! It’s human! And all human drama is interesting. All human drama teaches us something. Only an idiot or a racist would turn up their nose at learning more about the other people with whom we share the planet and the present.

That Black culture was as rich as my culture wasn’t the point. That Black culture touched me as deeply as my own — that I understood its values and its struggles and could see myself in their place and care as deeply about their pain as about my own.

That’s what happens when you realize how much we all have in common.

Important point to make here: I do not deserve a medal for this. I don’t deserve a cookie or praise even.

I’m just meeting an obligation — the same obligation everyone has — to come clean. As the name of my blog says — I aspire to live Bullshit Free. It would be bullshit, for instance, for me to say I’ve never benefited from white privilege.

Now jump forward 39 years to 2001.

I’m in my second year as a Co-Executive Producer on Showtime’s sci-fi anthology “The Outer Limits“. I adapt in interesting idea that was pitched to the (all white) Outer Limits writers room about an invention that can “mine” the talents and skill sets from seniors so they can be “passed on” after they die. But those talents and skill sets can also be stolen — “mined” from these seniors before they’re fully ready to “surrender them”. It was, at heart, about warehousing old people.

We shot “The Outer Limits” up in Vancouver but the main production office was based in Los Angeles. While we cast most of the show in Vancouver, LA always cast the lead or leads. I never had any real say over who my main actors would be but I can’t think of a time when the actors cast for me let me down.

The episode — “Fathers & Sons” was about a black family. The dad (played by Anthony Sherwood) was a middle-of-the road guy with a middle-of-the-road job and approach to life. His very ordinary life was a kind of rebuke to his dad — an itinerant jazz musician — who lived with the family (because he was pretty much broke). The dad was especially fearful of the impact his father was having on his son — who aspired to be a jazz musician just like his grandpa.

Gee, it even sounds like “The Amen Corner“. The two leads LA cast were the grandson Ronnie Dell — they got Eugene Byrd — and the grandfather Joe Dell. For Joe, LA cast Bill Cobbs. I didn’t write the episode (borrowing heavily from “The Amen Corner“) expecting to get Bill Cobbs. I just got Bill Cobbs.

Sometimes you have to think the Universe is speaking to you. Or trying to.

I didn’t even make the Joe Cobbs — “Amen Corner” connection immediately. To be honest, I wasn’t that familiar with Joe’s work. Or, I didn’t think I was. Joe’s like a lot of great character actors: they work a lot but you don’t necessarily know their names (even when you cast a lot of actors).

When I looked up Joe’s credits out of curiosity, there it was: “Luke in ‘The Amen Corner’ at Center Stage”.

Ho-ly shit!

I won’t bore you with the long conversation Bill and I had about “The Amen Corner”. I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with some huge actors (well, their names were “huge”) — Kirk Douglass, Tom Hanks, Daniel Craig, Brad Pitt, Whoopi Goldberg (just after she won her Oscar too), Steve Coogan, Joel Grey, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve, Tim Curry, Ewan McGregor & Timothy Dalton to name but a few. Working with Bill Cobbs was right up there with those guys.

I hope like hell I didn’t creep poor Bill out, I became so reverential. It’s nice to be able to tell performers you like how much they mean to you. It’s even better when you can tell them that while you’re working with them.

Having an open mind means having an open mind — not a semi-open mind. Being legitimately too tired to go to a show is one thing. To not go because you’re a systemic, institutional racist?

You NEED an evening of theater to sort you out.

Dear Donald Trump – Coming From QUEENS Is No Better Than Coming From Baltimore

Let that sink in for a second — a bloated orange schlub from QUEENS is throwing shade on Baltimore. Screw you, Donald Trump and drop dead (from either the heart attack or the stroke you’ve been working on — it’s time already)! Even coming from Brooklyn has more cachet than coming from Queens FFS.

I grew up in Baltimore. Well — I grew up in Pikesville, a mostly Jewish suburb northeast of the Beltway. Being a mostly Jewish suburb, anti-Semites called the place “Kikesville” because anti-Semites are clever that way.

Baltimore, while a city, never felt big or threatening the way Manhattan could. It always felt provincial to me — which it was; it’s changed a lot since I grew up there. As I was applying to colleges, the old harbor had been torn down and the Rouse Company was building a controversial project called Harbor Place. As a measure of how provincial Baltimore used to be, the biggest opposition to Harbor Place came from the restaurants in Little Italy, not far from where Harbor Place would open shops and lots of brand-spanking-new restaurants. On the one hand, the Little Italy Restaurant Association had a point — what if Harbor Place put them out of business? But that reflected the smallest of little picture thinking.

The Rouse Company had bona fides. They’d resurrected Faneuil Hall in Boston, turning it into a thriving tourist attraction and marketplace. They’d imagined and built Columbia, Maryland. They’d been building shopping centers in Baltimore for decades already. They were a local company who really did want to see all the boats floating in and around Baltimore’s Harbor rise on the tide and thrive.

I remember going to Harbor Place’s opening. It was thrilling (and tasty). And Harbor Place went on to do exactly what the Rouse Company said it would — it revitalized Baltimore, Baltimore’s downtown and even all the restaurants in Little Italy. Everyone benefited from the massive influx of tourists and locals eager to spend money and enjoy the feeling of a revitalized Baltimore.

Harbor Place’s success didn’t spread as far as it should have or could have however. We all still live in Reality, don’t we? Baltimore was always a hybrid — a Northern city with Southern leanings. Or a Southern city with Northern leanings. Hard to tell which sometimes. Urban blight is as constant as the tides. That’s because we’re a deeply racist society still — and Baltimore was always bad at hiding that fact.

I left Baltimore for college in 1977, returning for a year or so right after graduation in 1981 before moving up to White Plains, New York then Brooklyn then Los Angeles. I’ve always joked about Baltimore — and my need to escape it — that I moved 3,000 miles away and would have moved farther had I not out of real estate at the Pacific. I have not missed Baltimore for two seconds. I haven’t even missed New York, really.

But Baltimore is nothing at all like what Donald Trump called it. I won’t repeat his bullshit because why bother. It’s just more Trumpian bullshit. Suffice it to say that more great stuff has come out of Baltimore than has ever or will ever (or even COULD ever) come from a Trump — even if we let them cheat.

A short list of cool (and useful) things that came from, have history with or originated in Baltimore —

Edgar Allen Poe, Dashiell Hammett & Upton Sinclair

The Star Spangled Banner & Old Bay Seasoning

Harriet Tubman & Frederick Douglass

Gertrude Stein, H L Mencken & Te-Nihisi Coates

Babe Ruth & Brooks Robinson

Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Ric Ocasek & Frank Zappa

Thurgood Marshall, Elijah Cummings & Nancy Pelosi

Barry Levinson, John Waters, Jada Pinkett-Smith,

Blue crab cakes (all other crab cakes are bullshit — sorry)

That’s a short, short, SHORT list. By comparison — all the good things to come from or originate or have history with anything Trump. Are ya ready?

Aside from greed, incest, corruption, racism, rape & treason – what of any value has come from a Trump?

I rest my case.

What WASPS Look Like

I grew up in a bubble.  

It’s true.  Pikesville, MD (just outside northwest Baltimore) was so predominantly Jewish that clever (non-Jewish) people called it ‘Kikesville’.  Get it?

My public high schools — Pikesville Junior High & Pikesville Senior High — were so predominantly Jewish that even the non-Jewish kids took the Jewish holidays off because they knew — school was going to be a ghost town.  Virtually all of my friends were Jewish (not all but close to it).  We tribalized inside the bubble based on which of the major synagogues your family belonged to.  Most of us were reformed or conservative Jews.  The orthodox among us were the outliers. Wait — you don’t eat steamed crabs?  What the hell is wrong with you?

In Baltimore, there was a strong Irish Catholic presence.  Evangelicals hadn’t taken hold yet so the Mainstream Protestant pool was bigger.  Most Protestants aren’t WASPS.  WASPS aren’t just followers of some variation of the Protestant faith, in their minds, they’re its originators — their families go that far back. WASPS are as insulated a culture as Jews can be with one huge difference.  Lots of Jews seek to assimilate.   WASPS don’t ever.   To them, they’re the thing everyone else wants to assimilate INTO.  To them, they are the Gold Standard.  They ARE White Culture.

My closest brush with WASPs & WASP culture was when I got accepted to the Gilman School — where some of Baltimore’s WASPiest WASPS sent their progeny.  I begged my parents not to send me.  Gilman was an all-boys school (a very, very GOOD school) and that seemed an impossibility to me.  I wanted to take my chances with public school like all of my friends (fortunately for me, the Baltimore County School System was pretty good).  WASPs were an alien culture to me even then.

When I arrived at Vassar College, WASPS were among the first shocks to my system.  We’re not talking big, knock-you-on-your-ass shocks, we’re talking ‘the-world’s-more-complicated-than-you-thought’ shocks. 

Quick sidenote: The other culture I ran into that shocked me as I had NO concept of it whatsoever was California Culture.  My first college gf was from Marin County and her wild high school escapades were actual wild high school escapades with naked hot tub parties and drug dealers that made our high school escapades look… well, like high school escapades.

WASPS did everything differently. They thought about food differently for instance.  If my housemates and I were throwing a party (I lived off campus most of my time at Vassar), the Jews in the house always overbought food while the WASPS always overbought liquor.  Who cared if there was nothing to eat so long as the booze kept flowing.  THAT was foreign.

WASPS prayed differently, of course.  And they spoke differently.  They stood differently and engaged with you differently.  In ‘Annie Hall’, Woody Allen nailed the differences between WASP families and Jewish families perfectly with a split screen of two families (one each) at dinner.  The WASPS are all very well-mannered, quiet, always speaking in turn while the Jewish family talks over each other like a tic.  Something of that deep-seated English fear of embarrassment remains at the core of most WASPs.

Being an outsider, I found WASP culture fascinating — especially its latent (as opposed to its blatant) Antisemitism.  The Catholic Church’s history of Jew-hating was a flashing electronic billboard of cruelty, brutality and blood lust.  WASPs on the other hand — at least where I grew up — kept their Antisemitism a little cleaner.  It was so hard-wired into their culture that you could miss it.  But it’s there — even with your friends.  

Look — we’re tribal creatures, every last one of us.  Strange as it may sound, I don’t mind my friends being Antisemitic if, at least, they own that it’s there in their makeup.  Jews making jokes about Jews is one thing.  Someone else making jokes about Jews — just cos they can count Jews among their bff’s — that’s always going to be a dicey, ‘it was in the tone of my voice’ proposition.

After college I shared a cute little carriage house in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn with two dear friends, both WASPs.  A few days after I moved in, we had an Easter party for lots of our friends — and I made the ham.  I was genuinely touched when my two WASP friends and housemates praised my Easter ham for its authenticity.

I had assimilated successfully into them, you see — at least, as far as I was going to be allowed to assimilate…