It’s a black and white thing (transcript)

Published July 16th, 2016

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Hi, it’s mjp and THIS IS NOT A TEST. I know at the end of the last thrilling episode I said this elaborate and wonderful production was going to be monthly now, but here I am, surprise! The schedule remains monthly, on the first Saturday, but I hereby reserve the right to drop in on you outside of that schedule, and that’s what this is. An unscheduled drop in.

I know we just talked about guns recently, but you know, all these police shootings – I wasn’t going to say anything – I mean, I’ve mentioned before how dangerous it is to be brown in this country, but it’s kind of interesting how many more of these stories we’re hearing now. And make no mistake, we’re hearing about them now because everyone is carrying a video camera around in their pocket. 10 or 15 years ago, these recent shootings would have been reported like this: “Police shot and killed an armed black man in Baton Rouge…” Or St. Paul. Or, go ahead, name a city. That would have been the news report, and that would have been that. You would have thought, “Well, that’s too bad, but they were probably up to no good, or they aimed their gun at the cops,” or whatever you might have thought. Being white. As I assume a lot of you are.

Now black folks on the other hand…these stories are nothing new to them. They’ve been telling us for decades, for generations, that police have been out and out murdering them, but we – and by “we” I mean otherwise well-meaning white people – always thought, “Oh, come on now, the police can’t just murder someone!” Which you kind of have to believe if you want to believe that there’s order in the world, and it isn’t just chaos and killing and misery all the time. But if you want to see it, if you look for it, it is chaos and killing and misery all the time. And it isn’t chaos and killing and misery on the west side of Los Angeles, in Santa Monica or Brentwood, it’s in the parts of the city where black or brown or otherwise non-white people live.

And I’ll tell you here and now – I’ll admit to having had my own biases. Or having my own biases, present tense, as much as it pains me to say that. It pains me because I consider myself to be cool with everyone. I always have. I consider myself liberal and pro-equality, for different shades of folks, different beliefs, different genders, whatever you’ve got that’s different, everyone. When I was 20 years old and the Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass in the national election I was confused. How could anyone vote against equality for women? Isn’t equality what we’re all supposed to be about? And I sat in my apartment and listened to reggae music 12 hours a day, and to me, in my mind, the world was changing and we’d all be cool soon and then we could quit wasting time hating each other for no reason and get on with the important shit. I sat in my apartment in St. Paul Minnesota thinking those things. And I don’t know if you know, but there weren’t a ton of black folks in Minnesota when I lived there back in the 60s and 70s.

And by “not a ton,” I mean virtually none in most neighborhoods. Zero in the little town I grew up in, where I spent the first 15 years of my life. So consequently, not only did I not have any black friends, I didn’t even know any black people casually. Seriously. I’m not kidding. Not one. Didn’t work with anyone, didn’t hang around with anyone – they just weren’t there, you dig? So while I was sitting around believing I was cool, I really didn’t know if I was cool or not, did I. Being cool in your imagination and your intentions is one thing, being cool in real life is another. But all that changed when I moved to Los Angeles and began hobnobbing with actual black people. And I learned something very important when that happened. Sure, I was cool, as I assumed I would be, but eventually I recognized some biases in myself that I didn’t realize were there.

I think they were biases that are unavoidable when you spend the first 24 years of your life in a place that’s overwhelmingly white, where everyone is more or less like you. None of the adults in my family or my life were outwardly racist, they never said denigrating things about anyone different from us, so the biases weren’t overt and out on the surface to see. They were deep inside, and they were biases that came in to play when I was spending time with people who were different than me. And I have to say that when they’d come up it would surprise me. It was some weird shit. We have an idealized vision of ourselves, a story in our head where we are the pure and virtuous hero, and we are good and kind and right about everything. And if your idea of yourself is never challenged, I suppose it’s easy to spend your whole life believing in that hero version of yourself.

But when you’re confronted with the less than heroic parts of yourself, it can be a shock. And it can make you wonder what else you believe about yourself that isn’t exactly true. So it took me a while to come to grips with those biases that I discovered, or to overcome them. At least I think I’ve overcome them anyway. As much as I can. But then I was confronted with something else that had not often occurred to me in my life, something I didn’t give a lot of thought to, and that is the innate privilege I enjoyed by accident of my skin color. And gender, and the country I lived in. A white, American man in the 20th century was about the best, safest and easiest thing anyone could be at any time in the past thousand years of human history. Every advantage is laid out there at your feet. And initially I thought, well, I didn’t seize any of those advantages, I didn’t go to school, I don’t have a good job, my family doesn’t have money – so that’s not me, that privileged white American male. That’s not me.

And that was maybe the hardest thing to shake, that feeling. That defensive feeling. because when you try to come to grips with that, you come to realize that it doesn’t matter how cool you are, how accepting or liberal or loving or open to everything and everyone – that doesn’t matter. None of that can ever erase your privilege. Your advantage. Because to someone who feels oppressed by the people you look like, you’re always going to be seen as an oppressor. I learned that the hard way. When I was the only white face in a group of people, even when everyone was cool, like me, right? When I was the only white face I often felt some of that judgement and distrust from some people. Not all, not even most, but some. And eventually I just accepted it as something that wasn’t going to change no matter what I did, or who I was or how I behaved. No matter how cool I was. And more importantly, I realized that the people who felt that toward me – that distrust, no matter how I behaved – felt it for good reason.

And that might be the key to understanding people who are different from you. Or one of them anyway, and one of the things that, if you are aware of it and conscious of how it affects everybody, it’s one of the things that can go a long way toward actually making you the cool person that you think you are. I don’t know if any of this makes sense. Talking about our differences is still a tricky thing, because people’s feelings get hurt, people get offended, and me, I’m always going to say something wrong or inappropriate no matter what I’m talking about. But what I’m getting at here, or trying to get at, is that in order for us to really talk about how we’re going to stop indiscriminately killing young black men in this country, we have to own up to the fact that we all have biases. Even the most groovy among us. And that the fear and the rage that black people feel is justified.

White people have to understand that feeling of judgement and distrust that non-white people are stuck with when they are around certain kinds of white people. Or maybe most white people, I don’t know. Someone is always giving them the stink eye, someone is always looking for trouble, looking for a reason to be horrible. No matter what they do, no matter who they are, and no matter how they behave. White people have to learn to understand that or we’ll never get anywhere. When you start to try to understand what that’s like, or at least just admit to yourself that it’s real, you’ll be a lot less likely to behave like an idiot, or a Presidential candidate. Maybe you’ll even start to recognize the biases in yourself and do something to squash them. Then you’re more likely to really be cool, right? And when we’re all cool, well, then we’ll have to figure out some other reason to make each other miserable.

And as for that guy in Dallas who shot all of those cops at the protest march – that’s definitely not cool. But I have to say that when I saw all the grief and tears around that, my first thought – and I’m not proud of this – but my first thought was, “Well, what did they expect? Now they know what it’s like to have their friends and coworkers and family members shot dead for no reason.” Then I thought, oh man, don’t ever say that out loud to anyone. Remember what happened to Malcolm X when he said “The chickens have come home to roost” after John Kennedy was murdered? Oh, lordy, people did not like that. Which was a racist response in itself, considering at least one grade school class in Dallas broke out in cheers when they were told Kennedy was killed. A white grade school class. But, you know, Dallas. What do you expect.

But Malcolm was talking about a society that doesn’t have respect for all of its members, like America, and what he was saying was, what do you think is the eventual and natural outcome of that kind of approach to a society? Well, it’s dead presidents, dead police, dead everyone, and no one wins. No one wins unless everyone is respected and treated with dignity. But killing cops sure doesn’t seem to be the answer. If we start killing cops we can’t rightly expect them to stop killing us now, can we. And I know it seems like they just keep doing it and they just keep getting away with it, and nothing ever changes, but waging war on them isn’t the answer. It wouldn’t work anyway, because they would win that war and then things would be even worse than they already are.

But then again, when you feel like someone is waging war on you…I can see how it’s hard not to wage war back. So what do we do? What do we do. I don’t know, man. I know it would help if police didn’t, you know, roll down the street in tanks and riot gear every time a firecracker goes off. But now they’ll point to these murders in Dallas and say, “See! See! We need MORE TANKS! We need MORE RIOT GEAR!”

And so it goes. But yeah, I really thought the world was changing when I was in my 20s because I was changing. And I knew if I could change, it had to be pretty easy, because I was lazy, which meant that anyone who tried even a little bit could change. And in a lot of ways I still believe that. You still see it all the time, don’t you, someone you know who seems to be full of irrational hatred for black people or queer people whatever kind of people, and then something happens that forces them to actually spend time with someone they irrationally hate, and that light bulb hesitantly and maybe reluctantly goes off and they say, “Well I’ll be damned. You know, they’re just like me…maybe I didn’t know what I was talking about…” That’s all it takes, really, is hanging out together. Have some moonshine, smoke some herb, look at the stars. You fucking hippies!

No, but really, we just need to spend time together. But society seems to be segregating itself again. Like for a while there it felt like we were coming together, living together. But then – I don’t know what happened. I will always blame it all on politics and politicians, but something happened and we started to separate again. So I don’t know what the future holds for us here. Or anywhere. America is just one spot of many. Look at the people who voted for Great Britain to leave the European union. A big part of that argument was “immigration,” which is nothing more than a code word for racism. So I don’t know. Where’s Bob Marley when you need him?

But the question, “Can we change?” is easy to answer. Yes we can. We could actually evolve into a species that doesn’t discriminate amongst itself, doesn’t obsess on the differences. I say “evolve” because I’m afraid that’s what it will take. Our view of the world – our experience of the world – is all mental. It’s all in our heads. Our brains create the reality we think we walk around in. The different wavelengths of light that we interpret as different colors – those wavelengths don’t actually have any color. Our brains create the colors based on those wavelengths. The vibrations in the air that we hear as musical notes, those vibrations don’t have any pitch or timbre. Our brains interpret those sound waves and the endless possible variations as pitch and distinct sounds. So if our minds can create an entire world of color and sound, it would stand to reason that they can create a world where we’re all cool with each other.

Is that esoteric enough for you? Ha. It’s true though. We’ve evolved into our world, into the world we’ve made, which is why most of us see the same colors and hear the same sounds. There’s something fundamental in everyone’s brain and eyes and ears that, for lack of a better term, “agrees” on what reality is. What blue is and what a guitar sounds like. And it could be that we’re just not be sufficiently evolved to eliminate racism yet. Or classism, or any other ism you can come up with. Our minds may not have that ability yet, because there are too many prehistoric holdovers from the times when we had to discriminate to avoid extreme danger in nature. Or to justify our plantations or expansion on to other continents.

Or it could be because, like me, we didn’t spend our formative years in a varied group of people. If a group of black and white kids, and Asian kids and Eskimos, all grow up together, their brains are going to be different than mine or my grandfather’s. They are the first step in that evolution. I know some kids like that. Well, they aren’t kids anymore, but I know their brains don’t work the same way ours do. The problem is they live in a world where they’re still the exception to the rule. So they’re like mutants. Ha. Outliers. But they’ll pass their reality on to their kids, and eventually, 100 generations from now, maybe things will be different.

Of course in the meantime if you have some kind of dislike or fear of people who are different than you, you can do something to help that. You do have that choice in your life. You don’t have to wait for society or evolution to change everything. You can do it yourself. DIY. And if you’re a cop, maybe you can leave your fucking gun in your holster a little bit longer, or, you know, pause before you pull the trigger, and maybe not look at every situation where you’re dealing with someone different from you as some kind of existential threat to your soul, or whatever it is that makes you shoot someone for no reason. Just a thought. You know. Do with it what you will.

Laws have helped with things like this in the past – laws that ended slavery and then a century later ended the outright discrimination that was still taking place against black people in America. But I’m pretty sure we already have laws that say don’t shoot someone just because you don’t like how they look. But those laws don’t seem to be doing any good. None of the “don’t kill for this or that reason” laws seem to do any good. So if laws don’t work and if fighting back just makes things worse, I’m not sure where anyone goes from there. It seems pretty clear that we have to find some common ground somewhere, no matter how minor or small or trivial it might seem.

There has to be something that we all have in common. I don’t know what it is. I found it in music, maybe you can find it there too. A lot of people must find it there, since black people invented just about every kind of music we listen to now. Maybe you can find it in something else. If you’re into sports or whatever. Dominoes. Kite flying. Hackey sack…nah, black people don’t play hackey sack. Scratch that one. Just saying if you look around you should be able to find some common ground with anyone you don’t feel comfortable around. Try that shit, it might surprise you. And I know, it might be hard for you at first, but you can do it. It gets easier with practice. Have a beer, talk about your families. You might change your mind about a lot of things.

Okay. Seacrest, out!