One night, in the early 90s, I was drinking in a little bar on the campus of M.I.T. with my then-boyfriend and a couple of our friends. We were participating in an orgy of irony typical of the era: watching “Melrose Place” and drinking Knickerbocker in cans (which were ridiculously cheap – $2 each). I was buzzed and feeling somewhat out of my league, surrounded by all of these smart people, and what happened next is something that has haunted me for over two decades.
I started chastising Billy Dee Williams.
That sentence is utterly ridiculous, right? Comical, even. So hang with me for a few more sentences and I’ll explain why this is so awful.
I loudly declared that Mr. Williams was doing a “disservice” to “his community” by being the spokesperson for Colt 45, something that I personally had no problem drinking (because it was “ironic” – this was the early 90s, remember), but Billy Dee had no business promoting, because it was so abused in black neighborhoods and this was an act of betrayal that everyone should be aware of. And I, a twenty-something middle class white girl with a couple of Public Enemy records, was just the person to bring this to light, right?
(God, this is painful to write.)
All of a sudden, a young black man approached our table. “I couldn’t help but overhear what you’ve been saying about Billy Dee Williams.”
“Why do you think he doesn’t have the right to make his own decisions about how he wants to present himself?”
“Well, because….because what he’s doing is dangerous. Colt 45 is, like, aggressively promoted in poor neighborhoods and…that’s…um……bad…”
“So you’re basically saying that it would be like Geronimo promoting Jack Daniels.”
“Yeah. Just checking. OK. You have a nice night.”
I squirmed in my seat, pounding another couple of $2 Knickerbockers, and stewed until the episode of “Melrose Place” was over and I could get my boyfriend to agree to leave. And I ranted at him for the entire walk home, and while we got undressed in his apartment, and even before we went to sleep. How dare that guy question my dedication to WHAT’S RIGHT. I was OPEN-MINDED AND AWARE.
I very much realize that I’m “uncomfortable” writing about this 20+ year old exchange because in doing so, I am outing myself as having engaged in some real smarmy, entitled bullshit. Because I know I am still on the cusp of doing so a lot of the time. Because in spite of my believing myself to be an ally, I understand that privilege drives the desire to make this about myself. Look at me. Look at how aware I am.
I tell this story because I am learning, from some really smart people whose writing pushes me to work through my discomfort and my increasing realization of my own biases and – yes – racist beliefs, that to be an ally is to listen, to share the space in quiet solidarity, and not to make what is happening right now a platform for MY opinions. It is not my place to monopolize the emotional energy. I’m not even sure that writing, and posting, this piece is the right thing to do. But I want to put it out there, to own my privilege and begin the work of unpacking it. I don’t want people cheering me on for being “brave” or assuring me that I don’t have a fuck ton of work to do on myself in the midst of all this pain and anger. That is REALLY not what I am going for.
I am saying: I have said some really dumb shit. I have been a self-styled expert on something that I personally have no experience with. I have ranted while white. I’m working on this.