The Whitest Man in America

Author ca. 1953

I see him every day. He stares back at me with those blue eyes of his and pure Northern European complexion. Even his hair is now silvery, though it used to be blond. Could he be any more white? For over seventy years I have put up with his boring Baltic paleness and I guess I’m stuck with him.

No, I don’t wish to be black or any other color, for that matter. Still, whenever I hear the words “a person of color,” I feel myself strangely incomplete and slightly envious. I see all the things I am not and never got the chance to know. What if my identity had been forged in strife rather than immunity? Imagine if my genes could express all the colors I lack. Would that my heart could feel what it’s like to be ignored, beaten, raped, jailed or excluded simply because I’m not of the lighter race. If I could share, only for a moment, the bittersweet mysteries of my brothers and sisters.

As a kid, I would play cowboy, with six-guns blazing at imaginary Indians, but when I watched westerns at the movies, I rooted for the Indians. The more I learned the history of our deplorable treatment of this country’s original inhabitants—which continues to this day—the more ashamed I grew of my American white boy identity. But it wasn’t just the outrageous immorality of it. For me, Native Americans also seemed to have the more interesting story, so different from mine. And despite being vastly outnumbered and ruthlessly hunted and corralled into reservations, they courageously fought back. For sheer bravery, cunning, and audacity, I’ll take Cochise and Crazy Horse over the palefaces any day. Even famed Indian fighter George Crook grew to appreciate the noble dignity of his opponents in their doomed battle with white America.

It’s the story of our country. First, take the land from the natives, and kill those who resist. Then trade some sugar and rum for slaves from Africa to do your dirty work. Breed them like cattle. Grow your economy. Then wage a fake war and steal some more real estate from the brown-skinned Mexicans. Spin your myths of the others’ inferiority and brutality to justify your inhumanity. Split the country apart and spill its young men’s blood till it’s all over, or so you think. But it’s not over, for the myths are too strong and our minds too set.

David Brooks, in an editorial for the NY Times, recently observed that “three-quarters of American whites have no close nonwhite friends.” As for the average black person, 83% of his closest friends would be black. It would seem, he notes, that our country has entered “a phase of trepidation, or even passive segregation,” and asks if there are “enough efforts to create intimate bonds across racial lines.”

I do hope we get there sooner than later, but I am not optimistic that I’ll live to see it. And how exactly do you create such bonds? Intimate bonds do not come easy.

I grew up in Manchester, Connecticut, a small city nine miles east of Hartford. During the 1950s, it was one of those racially homogeneous suburbs to which whites fled as blacks and other minorities migrated to bigger cities like Hartford in search of jobs and a better life.  Census figures for 1950 show it had a population of 34,116 whites and 88 non-whites. By 1960, these figures had grown to 42,102 and 152, respectively. Hardly a demographic transition.

Even in 2000, 82.77% of the residents were still white, though blacks, Native Americans, Asians, Latinos and others had all made significant inroads in this mostly white “City of Village Charm.”

Compare this to Queens, NY, which when Donald Trump grew up there in 1950 was 96.54% white. Of course, he lived in Jamaica Estates, a far whiter and more exclusive place—his fortress against “invading” minorities, who would one day change the face of the neighborhood and the country.

The Beaver

My native Manchester of 1950, on the other hand, had far fewer non-whites than Queens. In fact, it was 99.9974% pure white. So as a kid, I really didn’t have much of a chance to even meet a person of another race, much less establish a close friendship. I remember a couple of black teachers at the schools I attended, but that was pretty much it. It was white-bread city. I use the slang “white-bread” here not just in its racial sense but in its larger meaning as well, with all of my city’s middle class striving, material values, preoccupation with outward appearances and lawn care, and sandwiches made with Wonder Bread. We were all too readily defined by the popular TV series Leave it to Beaver. I hated the Beaver—a whitey, goodie-two shoes twerp who was so sickeningly sweet he made me retch.

Not that there’s anything wrong with middle class striving. It’s OK to want to succeed, but not at the expense of other values. As a young man, I soon began to hate this suburb of my birth and all that it stood for. I found it too limited in its outlook, and far too parochial. I especially hated lawns!

I remember frequent trips with my dad to nearby Hartford, New Haven, and New York and was drawn by the fact that they were filled with people who did not look like me. Of course, I still had no clue how to make contact with them. I was given the usual advice from my parents, who as far as I can tell were not racists—at least not outwardly so—about avoiding certain neighborhoods where more of these others lived. I don’t recall my parents ever sharing any racist views with us.

So I was spared the parental indoctrination of racial hatred and fear that so many kids grow up with. (As to what Donald Trump learned from his father, I can only wonder, like did he ever learn just what exactly Fred was doing at a Ku Klux Klan rally, back in 1927, when he was arrested?) I imagine that if I ever had managed to have a black friend or—gasp—a black girl friend, I might have heard some less than complimentary comments and perhaps even be dissuaded from pursuing the relationship. But I will never know. It just wasn’t an issue we had to deal with.

After college, I briefly became a public-school teacher in my hometown, and by that time class makeup had become a little less homogeneous. I fondly remember one seventh grade black girl in my class, who got my number before I knew what was happening. She knew my sweet spot was humor and would endlessly make wisecracks at my expense. But she was so funny! Now some might call this reverse racism, for I probably never would have let any white student get away with this. But I never let it get out of hand, and neither would she. An air of discipline was maintained, while the two of us found something in the other to share, if only for a moment.

During our back to the land phase in the 70s, my wife and I purchased an old schoolhouse and 100 acres of land in the town of Landaff, NH, which at less than 400 residents arguably had more cows than people and may still have today. Not exactly a place to experience racial diversity. If I thought life in Manchester was unstimulating, this place had it beat. But then, Manchester didn’t have bears, moose, and wild lonely mountains to explore.

Six years later, however, we tired of small town life and eventually moved to Providence, RI, which while not a teeming metropolis did at least have way more people than cows. And more people who didn’t look like us.

Shel Silverstein

And because it was more racially diverse than the rest of Rhode Island, it was surrounded by white flight cities and towns. I remember an incident at a predominately white school in nearby Cranston, where courtesy of a grant from the state arts council, I had acquired a monthlong writer-in-residency. I was reading a poem from a book by Shel Silverstein, and the teacher suddenly asked me not to hold the book up, especially the back cover which displayed a photograph of the author. “I don’t want them to see what he looks like,” she said. I didn’t say anything at the time—a fact which I regret to this day—and briefly gave her the benefit of the doubt, thinking perhaps that she simply wanted the poems to speak for themselves and for her students not to get hung up with how the poet looked.

That night, however, I went home and took a hard look at the photo on the back cover, which showed Shel’s bald head and dark beard staring back in a way that could be construed as slightly sinister. True, he did have a dark complexion, so much so that I had to wonder. But it wasn’t until years later that I Googled “Is Shel Silverstein black?” and discovered I was not alone in asking this question. Turns out, however, he was Jewish. Jesus would have had the same complexion, no doubt. But the mere fact that he didn’t quite match this teacher’s expectation of what a proper white person should look like really freaked her out.

My wife and I had begun to frequent the downtown blues clubs in Providence, where we got to see a number of great black musicians while mingling with a more diverse crowd. Music knows no colors or boundaries—a place where we can put aside our distrust and fear of the other for a time, if only temporarily.

Our love of blues eventually led us one night down unfamiliar dark streets to Wabash Street in downtown Chicago, to seek out Buddy Guy’s Legends, which bills itself as “the premiere blues club in the world.”  We stuck our heads in the door and gazed around us. It was a Monday night, but the bar was filled with patrons, most of whom appeared to be black, waiting for the show to begin. Have to confess, I felt out of place and more than a little apprehensive. What were we doing here? But then as the music started and we all began to sway in unison, the club became more like a church, filled with true believers who had come to hear the sweet soulful music.

That night happened to be an open blues jam, during which the host band plays for about an hour and then invites other local musicians on stage.

At the end of the jam, we were approached by a black musician, the late great Lefty Dizz, a Chicago blues guitarist and singer. At the time, we didn’t know anything about him, other than the fact that we had enjoyed his band Shock Treatment and his wild man performance that night, laced with manic virtuoso guitar playing and raunchy jokes. Later we learned that he had released eight albums and had played with such legendary blues men as Junior Wells and Hound Dog Taylor, and had once recorded at the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago with Muddy Waters and Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones. 

He strode across the room directly toward me with a grim look on his face. Then he stopped and pointed at my Rolling Stones T-shirt. “I got some business with them Stones,” he said. “They stole our songs!”

Not knowing what to do, I just shrugged and smiled nervously, suddenly questioning the wisdom of my wearing a Stones T-shirt to a Chicago blues club. Then Lefty broke into a toothy grin. “Hey, you wanna buy one of my CD’s?” Which I did. We swapped jokes and jive for a time, then he continued working the room. It was one of the best nights of my life.

We eventually moved west to Arizona, in search of sunshine and new adventures. There we built a cozy cabin on five acres in the high-country foothills of Chino Valley, a small ranching and farming community just north of Prescott in Yavapai County, demographically the whitest county in Arizona. We had hoped it would be our retirement home, not thinking about the fact that we were again moving in the wrong direction toward less diversity and a homogeneous neighborhood of people who looked like us. It was no accident that our rapidly growing county was predominately white, filled with Caucasian retirees and migrants from other cities and states who had fled from people of color moving in next to them, threatening their perceived dominance as the master race.

One day, one of my good neighbors perfectly crystallized the prevailing attitudes of our community. “What’s so good about diversity?” she asked me. The question left me temporarily dumbfounded. Before I could launch my defense, she cut me off, expounding at length on her previous experiences and grievances with Asians in her former California neighborhood, extrapolating these to Asians everywhere. I listened and tried to present an alternative narrative, but the conversation did not go well. “I hate diversity,” was her parting comment.

After a few years of this, I got so desperate to see persons with a nonwhite face that, whenever I would see them in the supermarket or post office, I had to fight the urge to go up and hug them. Not exactly the best way to make new friends. Once again, my chances of doing that were severely limited. I felt as if I were regressing into childhood, surrounded by the same kind of white folks I grew up with.

One problem with moving to the country is the tradeoff you make. Sure, it’s nice to be surrounded by nature and clean air, with plenty of room to do your own thing. But that increased natural diversity comes at the cost of cultural diversity. The older I got, the more I realized how much I missed all the little interactions with others that go with living in an urban environment, all the hustle and bustle, jostling and rubbing elbows through the crowd as you go about your daily life. All the polite conversations and even the occasionally hostile ones that remind you of what being a social animal is all about. And I knew I needed these connections more than anything.

Tucked away in our little cabin in the high country, I was not making the friends I had hoped for. Sure, there were plenty of neighbors and acquaintances. But I’m talking friends here, close friends like the kind David Brooks was talking about. And the odds for me ever finding them there were not good.

I found myself increasingly thinking about friends. What does that mean, a close friend? Doesn’t everyone have them?  Give me a dozen and I’ll be happy.

I guess it means having someone who’s always got your back, who will listen and tell it to you like it is, who will put up with your endless shit and still be your friend. Someone with whom you can let down your guard and be vulnerable. And someone with whom you can be a complete asshole, from time to time.

On that score, I was not doing very well. I could count my close friends on one hand. I’m not counting my wife here, though perhaps I should. Married now for forty-two years, we were friends before we became lovers. And our friendship has grown deeper and closer, even when I’m sometimes an asshole. OK, enough of this mushy stuff. What about my other close friends?

Well, there’s Dan, or was that is. Daily I mourn his passing. Another old white guy, same age as me, he was as close a friend as any man could ask for. It was he who gave me my most treasured nickname—fuckhead, which always made me laugh whenever he said it. Sometimes we would sign birthday cards with FH1 and FH2, though we both knew who number one was. For a brief time, he had a promising career as a keyboardist in a Boston rock band, but confessed he had to get out of the music business for fear he would succumb to the crazy, drug-fueled lifestyle. So he landed a management job in a nearby textile factory and settled into a life of crazy, semi-normalcy.

We first met at our old schoolhouse in Landaff, NH. My wife and I had just founded a local nature center offering free programs to the local community on our 100 acres. A recent membership drive had netted us some new members, including one coveted life membership for what then seemed like the princely sum of $100. As people began to arrive for one of our first weekend programs, I eyed a man, with medium length gray hair and neatly trimmed beard, get out of his car and stroll across the lawn toward the schoolhouse. I went out to greet him, and he told me his name. “So you’re our life member,” I said, shaking his hand. Then as I looked into his merry eyes, there was an instant flash of recognition between us. Why, you’re as big an asshole as I am!  Now, I am not the kind who believes in love at first sight or other romantic notions. Love, like friendship, is something you have to work at. But I knew instantly, as surely as I’ve ever known anything, that he and I were to be lifetime buddies.

With Dan, there was a certain chemistry between us, that intimate bond that David Brooks describes. While we did share a love of rock music and the outdoors, these were incidental to what we shared, a vital honest interest in what the other was thinking or feeling, fueled at times by copious drinking and raucous humor.

Dan could bring me out of myself in ways that no one else ever has. If he knew I held something to be sacred, he would push that button relentlessly with mischievous glee. He would delight in getting me into trouble. We would go into a bar and he would strike up a conversation with a gorilla-sized guy next to us wearing a Hell’s Angels jacket and then point at me and casually tell him, “He doesn’t like your boots.”

He was a born comedian, always pushing the envelope of good taste. One time, we and our wives were in a crowded bar. In the middle of the room was a perfect couch for the four of us, though partially occupied at the time by two young women. Before any of us could stop him, he sat down next to them and proceeded to cough and clear his throat most disgustingly, and in no time at all the women moved. Smiling wickedly, he motioned for us to come claim our couch. For a brief moment, I felt both guilty and sad for the two women, who didn’t stand a chance against Dan’s protean power. I suspect they knew they had been conned out of their couch by a master and would later laugh at the episode as we did.

My other close friends were formed on the basis of shared experience rather than love at first sight. There’s my friend Steve, whom I’ve known since kindergarten and who still lives in Connecticut. Despite a few temporary gaps when we briefly lost touch with each other, we have managed to cultivate our friendship across the miles. Like anything worth doing, it requires an investment of time and energy. But all it takes is a phone call or email, and the memories come flooding back. We grew up science nerds, with chemistry sets in the basement and slide rules on our belts, gazing at stars through small telescopes, launching homemade rockets, and setting off bombs in the neighborhood. Eventually, he made a career out of his nerdiness, becoming a chemical engineer, while I remained more a science generalist.

We are different in so many ways. He’s always been the precise, logical, and level-headed one, while I tend to be more emotional, wild, and unpredictable. Maybe that’s what makes our friendship tick. I admired his calm rationality—a quality I’ve tried to cultivate over the years that was sorely missing during my early years—while he envied perhaps my ability to tap and express the intense feelings that came naturally to me. He’s always been the gentle Mr. Spock of Star Trek to my raging Dr. McCoy.

Whenever we do manage to get together, we immediately start conversing on whatever topic happens to emerge. We don’t always agree, but we listen respectfully to the other and talk nonstop until one of our wives sticks her head out of the bedroom and tells us both to shut up and go to sleep.

This ability to see some quality of otherness in a person, something perhaps missing from your own life, is crucial to forming close friends. I think of my friend Jeff, whom I first met at our nature center in New Hampshire, back in the early 1980s. He worked at the time for a large state conservation group, so he and I decided to join forces in planning some joint programs for our two organizations. We both shared a passion for nature and protecting the environment, as well as for the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft. These days, I am more of an armchair naturalist and environmentalist, while he, on the other hand, refined and cultivated his passion into a lifetime career with the National Park Service. He is currently a ranger/naturalist at Saguaro National Park in Tucson, AZ. As things worked out, Tucson is also where my wife and I eventually settled, so now I have at least one close friend who is neither dead nor living on the other side of the country.

We get together as often as we can, enjoying lively discussions about politics, culture, and of course nature. And sometimes we take road trips, usually to some nearby natural area. But close as I feel to Jeff, with all the shared memories, there is a gulf I cannot bridge. A true nature purist, he has read the entire Journal of Henry David Thoreau several times. Indeed, he lives and breathes the life of his hero. He is an intensely private man who, like Thoreau, has never married. There is a certain loneliness and ascetism about him, a firm determination to hear a different drummer and lead a more authentic life in a world which grows ever less amenable to thoughtful experiments in living. I see him on a road I will never travel and treasure that part of us we are able to share.

Now that I live in downtown Tucson—which while not exactly New York or Chicago is more racially diverse than any place I’ve so far inhabited—my chances of making new friends have improved considerably. And who knows, maybe I’ll eventually bond with a friend who’s not white.

Of course, despite David Brooks’ call for more “efforts to create intimate bonds across racial lines,” you can’t force such things. And so what if my friends are white or black? Why this continuing preoccupation with the myth of race?

We speak of race as if it had some real biological significance. Over a century ago, American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois warned that this crude term was being used to account for differences that are more social and cultural than biological. When we start pigeonholing people into white and black groups or whatever groups, using these arbitrary classifications to justify our prejudices, we ignore the full depth and richness of human diversity. As modern genetics has borne out, again and again, race is nothing but a social construct.

Perhaps we should call it racial identity instead, how we see and define ourselves in relation to others while we hide from a truth some of us would rather deny—that we are all African, all descended from those first human ancestors who evolved on that continent, millions of years ago, to eventually spread into every habitable corner of the earth. We are each a medley of gene configurations and colors, though some of us, like me, are less colorful than others. I wish the feds would add a box to the new census form, so instead of “Caucasian” I could check off the box marked “all of the above.”

I have made many new friends since we moved to Tucson, and who knows, maybe some will one day become close. It would be nice if one of them turns out to be a person of color, if only for the chance to know and share a background most likely different from mine.

And what of Donald Trump, now that he’s moved out of Queens? If you Google him, you’ll see that he has a lot of friends. There’s Rudy Giuliani, of course, and ever loyal security man Keith Schiller, along with fellow developers Thomas Barrack and Richard LeFrak. Some sources even list a few black friends, such as Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West, and Russell Simmons, though lately those friendships appear to have gone south. Calling them friends is like my calling the black woman I occasionally high-five at the gym a friend.

As Washington Post reporters Marc Fisher and Michael Kranish wrote in their recent investigative biography Trump Revealed, Trump “never really had close friends.” Trump says as much when he confessed to reporters that his friends are mostly business related or people he sees socially. “But they’re not friends like perhaps other people have friends, where they’re together all the time and they go out to dinner all the time,” he said.

What does he see when he looks in the mirror? Trump’s words to a biographer are telling: “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same.” He is still that frightened little kid hiding behind the gated walls of the childhood home he has never really left, safe and secure against the tide of minorities threatening his world.

If I looked into the mirror and saw the same clueless white boy who grew up in a safe, Connecticut suburb, it would scare me shitless. It would be like living in some Twilight Zone episode, where you’re doomed to forever act out the past. I believe I’ve grown some since those days. Despite the wrinkles, white hair and wattles, I see a face I can live with, still open to possibilities.

Donald Trump and I are roughly the same age. I’d like to think there’s still time for both of us to forge some new intimate bonds with friends who will not only put up with our shit but tell us when we’re full of it. Friends who can help us get over and out of ourselves. And if some of them turn out to be friends of color, teach us both how to be less white and to leave behind our childhood homes.