Friends and Countrymen

It is a great irony that social distancing, forced upon us by the pandemic, has in some ways brought people closer together. The other night I participated in a fascinating conversation among men of a certain age, the boys I grew up with. Our custom was to gather for dinner once or twice each year, those of us in New York, in the spring and again at Thanksgiving. But Covid put a stop to that and we adapted. We meet now every six or eight weeks, on Zoom: doctors and lawyers, CEOs and actors, journalists and teachers. Almost all of us are White and would consider ourselves, if asked, upper middle class. Our Black friends, so few in number, have been candid about their experiences on these calls. More candid, I would say, than when we met in person. The physical separation has, I think, freed us all to speak more plainly about the most urgent issue of the day. For this, in this season of Thanksgiving, I am grateful.

For years we were together eight or ten hours each day. We grew up together, had our minds and wits forged and sharpened in the same classrooms, by the same teachers and the same books. In this experience we are all the same, and yet — as the conversation illuminated — how we experience our lives, even today, is more dependent on the color of our skin than most (White) people in this country are comfortable even admitting to themselves, let alone discussing openly. And that difference in how we experience the very same things, at the very same time, in the very same room: that is the essence of White privilege. It has no place in a nation, in Lincoln’s immortal words, forged in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

J wryly scoffed at the complaint, common in some parts of these United States, that wearing a mask is somehow oppressive. “Black people have been wearing a mask their entire lives,” he said. Enrolled in a school with a coat-and-tie dress code, he returned home to a part of the city where coats and ties were, shall we say, not the norm. J had to fit in to two very different worlds. Wearing two different masks. “It could have been very different for me,” he said, “but I was embraced and accepted at school. That makes all the difference.”

G told us about running to catch a bus: every Black kid is told not to run, not to break stride, not to make sudden movements. Let that sink in: we live in a world where a kid endangers himself by breaking stride when he sees his bus half a block away. Now a teacher in a city high school, G reminds us that we all had to meet a high bar. “We have to expect more” in our schools. “It’s all about graduation rate, so kids get pushed through so the school isn’t financially penalized.” It doesn’t require a degree in education to see that puts the incentives in all the wrong places.

The school we attended is engaged, now, in a project that requires it to examine its past more openly than ever while it contemplates its future. It has for too long been an enclave of mostly White students; the question is how to be more inclusive in a city that is increasingly diverse, and increasingly unequal. It’s hard to be inclusive in Manhattan. High school kids can and do travel the subway on their own, but that’s putting a finger in the dike. The problems of income inequality and racial inequality, of social justice and racial justice, go hand in hand. We might wish to replay the past differently but we can’t turn back the clock; we can only use the rearward view of how we got here to inform a better path forward.

All men are created equal. No man, woman, or child is intrinsically better than any other, and no one should behave as if he is. We on the Zoom call are not a representative sample of America, but we are America. And we want a better America for everyone. Frank, open, honest talk shines a clearer light, for me, on some of the problems we face as a nation. Too many people are too eager to move on, paying lip service and mentally checking a box. But it’s that frank, open, honest talk that is critical to healing and moving on. Putting a name on something, as the cliché has it, removes its power. “Voldemort” isn’t nearly as terrifying as “He Who Must Not Be Named.” And “Tom Riddle” is less terrifying still.

Education is the single vaccine against racism, against inequality, against injustice. We have to expect more; our schools and teachers have to expect more. And we have to stop thinking that education begins and ends with formal schooling; we have to stop using euphemisms and trying to move on. Call systemic racism by its name; talk about it; internalize the conversation. And then, some day, we can all move on. We can all stop wearing masks.

One thought on “Friends and Countrymen”

  1. Beautifully put; I pray we live long enough to see a day when masks are no longer necessary, especially because systemic injustice has been demolished. A demolition built on education and fueled by constant conversation of change.

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