The Trouble with Old People

Trouble With Old People | Micro-Affirmations

by Steve Van Auken

I’ve decided this is the year I resign from the White Guys Club. I’m not sure what the procedure is. Probably there is some paperwork.

For a long time I didn’t realize I was a Club member. If like me you were born in the 1940s, and you met the admissions criteria, you were signed up at birth. There was no manual. You learned the rules as you went along. The main lesson was that there were separate teams and everyone was expected to stay in his or her team. In Findlay, Ohio, there were only two teams: a white person’s team and a very small Black person’s team. Findlay prided itself on being a patriotic place. It liked to be called Flag City. But somehow they never got around to sponsoring an all-American team, only a white one. None of the Findlay patriots seemed to see a contradiction.

Mrs. Tatum was hired as a teacher at Whittier Elementary School a couple of years after I had graduated from there, the first Black teacher in the Findlay school system. She was hired by my father, Robert Van Auken, the superintendent. He told me later that some of the teachers at my old school declined to hang their coats in the same closet with Mrs. Tatum’s coat. 

I don’t think I ever idealized my small-town upbringing. I did love the freedom I had to ride my bike for miles through town and country, a world to explore every day. But even as a child I had a sense that there was a snake wrapped around the apple. This knowledge came from our parents. They were outsiders there. They would have punished us for using the kind of racially hateful speech that I heard at times from kids I knew, and from grown-ups too. But until my dad told me the story of Mrs. Tatum, I had not seen the viciousness that lay beneath Findlay’s placid surface. 

And if I had missed that, what else had I missed noticing in other places in all the years since? I thought I had disavowed the White Guys Club. But sometimes I wondered if it was shaping my life anyway.

One of those times happened on a lovely spring day in Akron. I was thinking important thoughts while going through the motions of driving a car. I took a ramp off the Innerbelt, stopped for the light, and turned east — at which point I faced a wall of cars headed west on this one-way street. I accelerated toward them to get to a cross-street and safety. It happened fast, but not so fast that I could fail to notice one of the cars was a police cruiser. I pulled to the curb and began to think about how to use my one phone call.

The patrolman was accelerating sharply as he came around the corner. He had to slam on his brakes when he realized there was no one to chase. We were eye to eye. I gave the contrite shrug that is the universal signal for, “Sorry, I screwed up.” He stared at me and shook his head slowly, the universal signal for “What the hell were you thinking?” Then he drove away.

Did I mention the officer was white? Did that matter? Very likely he was a fair-minded professional doing his job with skill and grace. If I had been Black, he might have seen no need to check my license or arrest me. Or maybe he would have treated me very differently. There is no way to know. The uncertainty is painful. You can’t be sure whether you have been accorded normal human forgiveness or if you have received a poisoned gift — one not equally given and therefore illegitimate.

Black Americans describe receiving everyday words or acts that reveal hostility: micro-aggressions. They may hear a white person refer to “you people.” While shopping, they may find themselves shadowed by a clerk, assumed to be untrustworthy. There are a thousand forms these hostile acts can take. But the underlying message is always the same: “You are not a part of us.”

As a white person, I sometimes have a front-row view of these, as when someone chooses to tell me a race-based joke or story he would never tell if there were a black person present. I don’t like it, but that isn’t enough. If I do not say something, I am complicit. 

White Americans have opportunities to assert we are all in this together. Call them micro-affirmations. They have no power to make a dent in the structural racism in our country. They won’t undo the effects of the decades banks spent excluding African-Americans from mortgages on decent homes in “white neighborhoods.” They won’t remove any of the lead paint that damages children’s brains from the windowsills of rental homes. They won’t erase the hate-filled speech on white supremacist websites.

These are small acts. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. So if you are an older white person, try something different. For example, someday soon you will probably walk up to a service counter. Make it your business to talk to the clerk who does not look like you. You may feel this is a trivial matter. It certainly won’t be the case that she needs your benevolent approval. But to her, this unexpected expression of confidence may be a day-brightener. 

Try being the first to say ‘hello’ instead of waiting to be addressed, especially with a younger person. How many older white guys do you think take the time to smile and say ‘hello?’ Maybe they will smile in return. Maybe they won’t. Either way, it’s fun to defy expectations.

Alright, already. You don’t like hip-hop music. So what? Is there a deeper point in dwelling on this? It’s a type of music, not a sign-post directing people to different planets. Some black people don’t care for hip-hop, some white people do. Do you remember how your parents felt about your rock and roll? So say hello and find something else to talk about.

I don’t know why but white folks have an entrenched habit of gratuitously reporting the color of any non-white person they talk about. “We went to hear this Black comedian on Saturday. He was pretty funny.” Try trusting your stories more. They will probably still work if you don’t report the skin tone of all involved.

It is a sad fact that many white folks are unable to describe an unpleasant encounter with an African-American person without highlighting their race. “We were standing in line to get tickets and this Black guy, he just cut right in front of us and then brought three of his friends.” So the guy acted like a jerk. Would it be possible to tell the story and just call him a jerk, as you would with a white jerk?

Are you ready to stop providing an audience for race-based jokes and stories — even ones told by people who are your friends and “don’t mean any harm”? It’s not hard to say, “I don’t like jokes like that.” Maybe you will cause your friend to think about the implications of what he says. At least you can walk away feeling good instead of feeling diminished.

Like overcoming addiction, leaving the White Guys Club is a task that you don’t do just once. You challenge others’ perceptions, and your own, each day. 

If Club membership requires more than a European-American heritage — if it also requires a certain set of beliefs — then membership is voluntary. We can do something about it. If you and I renounce notions of superiority and apartness, we have made a good start. Then we have to act on it.

You might like feeling you are on your way toward resignation from the White Guys Club. There could be some social price to pay with some white people you know. Still, lots of people don’t really listen to each other anyway so it’s quite possible that no one will even know.

But you will.

Steve Van Auken has now lived in Akron long enough to give directions according to where things used to be.