This is Stephan Blanford – Ph.D., elected member of the Seattle School Board, father, husband, co-worker, athlete, and friend. I met Stephan 11 years ago when we were working at Seattle’s Alliance for Education, a non-profit supporting Seattle Public Schools.
At the time, this handsome, dark-skinned, black male, sported thick stylish dreadlocks, a statement about who he was – a strong, independent, black man who had earned the right to be himself. My wife thought the “dreads” were beautiful but provocative and worried that they would stand in the way of his success professionally. My question to her was always would she say the same if a white friend had the same dreads?
In the day, Stephan and I frequently discussed racial issues. Addressing the racial divide, achievement gap, and racial composition of Seattle Public Schools’ were important elements of the work we were doing. One day as we were entering an elevator I was conscious that others in the uncrowded elevator moved away as we stepped in. Later, Stephan told me how common that experience was. He told me that it didn’t matter if he was in jeans, running gear, or a business suit; white people edged away from him in an elevator or just passing on the sidewalk. I’ve never forgotten the experience or his awareness of it.
I consider myself a long range optimist, nevertheless long before I knew Stephan I was convinced that America would never get over slavery. I shared that dark insight with M 15 years ago. As the beneficiary of white privilege I think about my own prejudice and bias every day, and I’ve come to believe that no matter how many times we remind ourselves, no matter how many cultural awareness seminars or sensitivity trainings we attend, no matter how outraged we become at examples of racial profiling or police brutality we, as a nation, will never get over slavery.
With an increasingly polarized America, an alarming number of black deaths at the hands of white police officers, the ascendancy of the alt-right and questionable white-supremacist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, fake news rhetoric coming from the Trump administration I, as a patriotic ex-Marine/American, am alarmed at the direction my country is taking.
Over this past weekend, two Indian-American software engineers were shot in a Kansas bar by a zealot who cried out “Get out of my country” just before he killed one and wounded the other. During the same period Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia were vandalized while, since the beginning of the year, more than 100 Jewish community centers across the country have been targeted with bomb threats.
As an older white male, I’m the beneficiary of unearned advantages; I was born white, male, and middle class in the richest, most powerful country in the world. I don’t envy white privilege because I have it. I’m not afraid I’ll be pulled over by the police because of the color of my skin. I don’t worry that my pay will be less simply because I’m a woman. I’m not afraid to pray in public, because I’m not a Muslim. I don’t think much about anti-Semitism because I don’t have a long beard or wear a yarmulke. These are some of the advantages of my unearned white privilege.
Last weekend, M and I saw the James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro where Baldwin’s words concerning the deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King make a chilling statement about the disparity between the American myth and the nation’s failure to reconcile the myth with reality. It helped me see the extent of my own privilege.
James Baldwin, for those who don’t know his work, was an American poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, and activist who, at age 24, moved to Europe to escape racism and homophobia. He returned to the US in 1957, recognized as an important literary figure. Disillusioned by the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, John and Robert Kennedy, he returned to France in 1970 where he lived until his death in 1987.
The documentary chronicles his observations and disillusionment. In Baldwin’s own words, the filmmaker looks at the lives and deaths of three black Americans – Medgar Evers, the mild mannered field secretary of the NAACP, Malcolm X, the firebrand, success by any means, activist and MLK, the non-violent civil rights leader – three examples of distinctly different social justice approaches, Baldwin shows how all three were thwarted and ruthlessly assassinated in their quest of equality and justice.
When I was in the 3rd grade at Issac I. Stevens Elementary in Seattle, I had a black classmate named Corky White (ironic?). One day after school I took Corky home with me to play. When my father came home, he and my mother huddled in the kitchen for a while before summoning me for a “talk,” the gist of which was that I was not to invite Corky home ever again. I complied though I didn’t understand it then and I don’t understand it now. Corky was a friend but my own parents deprived me of his friendship. I knew they were wrong and, just like standing in the elevator with Stephan, I have never forgotten what it was like to feel racism at work.
Stephan’s “dreads” are gone now. I question whether that makes him look more professional. M and I can disagree about that, but the important thing is that he’s a hard working member of the Seattle School Board and considering a run for Seattle City Council. I wish him well.
I don’t know what happened to Corky. We moved to another part of the city, and I lost contact. I really liked him. I hope he’s doing well, but it’s a good bet that he’s had a harder road than I have. I wish I knew, but right now I’m more concerned about the direction the Trump administration is taking us. I’m not an alarmist, but I am alarmed. I value the diversity of my friendships, my freedom from oppression, and my right to speak freely. It feels like all three are under siege.
I resist poking fun at DJT. He’s a soft target, but we underestimated him too often on his way to the White House. During the election cycle he was blowing hot air but had no power. Now, he has the power to affect lives, and some of his senior advisors have significantly darker visions for America. We’re in dangerous territory. It’s time to wake up, take a stand, and let our voices and votes be counted. Those of us who are unhappy with the election need to accept responsibility for the result and see that it doesn’t happen again. If only 51% of eligible voters show up at the polls we can only blame ourselves.