The Whitest Thing I Could Do

Let me tell y’all what it’s like
Being male, middle-class, and white
It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe
Listen up to my new CD

“Rockin’ the Suburbs,” Ben Folds

Sunday, I drove to Athens, GA, with friends to do the whitest thing I could do—attend a CAKE concert.

The most recent concert I attended was The National in Asheville, NC—very white—and before that, R.E.M. in Atlanta, GA—extremely white.

As a writer and a teacher, a significant amount of my time and energy is devoted to race, racism, white privilege, and inequity—particularly as those intersect education.

And while I have often outed myself as a redneck and confronted my own tremendous privilege that has contributed to my professional success, I have not ventured into my whiteness in any way other than to interrogate its mostly harmful contributions to a people’s claimed commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all regardless of race or any status.

Sitting in The Classic Center in Athens as the lights were still up and the crowd gathered, I confirmed what I suspected: a crowd as far as I saw entirely white, many couples, and a wide array of ages clustering in their 30s and 40s.

The crowd and the concert were incredibly amiable; people were having fun, and the band in its typical way was casual, sardonic, and on form.

I don’t know by experience, but I suspect the mostly all-white crowds at, say, concerts for country music singers/bands are quite distinct from the chill, nerd-heavy fans of CAKE, a California band who records in a solar-powered studio, abandoned a lucrative major label, and flaunts their leftist politics through their eclectic musical style and smart-to-sarcastic lyrics from frontman John McCrea.

The concert was oddly low key and energetic with McCrea initiating a faux-battle between two halves of the crowd to highlight, as he invoked, that we all really have more in common than not.

CAKE began playing about 10-15 minutes after the scheduled start, with no opening act, but with a planned intermission and a tree give-away.

I am going to hazard a guess that the auditorium that night was filled with mostly good people—despite the goofy white-folk swaying and occasional unimpressive aisle dancing.

I will also hazard that most people attending and many who could have simply witnessed the crowd would be compelled to identify those attending as just a normal gathering of average folk.

And here where I cannot set aside my discomfort at my own inescapable whiteness.

“Privilege,” Roxane Gay examines, “is a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor,” continuing:

There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege and the list goes on and on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold because everyone has something someone else doesn’t….

One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do is accept and acknowledge my privilege. This is something I am still working on. I’m a woman, a person of color, and the child of immigrants but I also grew up middle class and then upper middle class. My parents raised my siblings and I in a strict but loving environment. They were and are happily married so I didn’t have to deal with divorce or crappy intramarital dynamics. I attended elite schools. My master’s and doctoral degrees were funded. I got a tenure track position my first time out. My bills are paid. I have the time and resources for frivolity. I am reasonably well published. I have an agent so I have every reason to believe my novel will find a home. My life has been far from perfect but I have a whole lot of privilege. It’s somewhat embarrassing for me to accept just how much privilege I have.

Black and female, Gay speaks directly to the necessity of admitting privilege and then what I cannot avoid now, what I could not avoid while sitting at the concert: embarrassment.

It is a disturbing and distinct—but mostly ignored—fact that to pay for, drive to, and then attend a music concert is the consequence of a tremendous amount of time and financial privilege.

To utter “normal” or “average,” too, is a concession to the centeredness of “white” and to perpetuate the marginalizing of the Other (read as “not white”).

Despite my belief in the value and importance of art and pop culture, they are luxuries, they may be frivolous.

The people that could be fed, the suffering that could be comforted—while privileged white folk sing along to “Sheep Go to Heaven” and “Satan Is My Motor.”

The world, I know, is not a zero-sum game; it is possible for some to have without others going without.

But that is not the case in the U.S. White privilege has and continues to deny for some while catapulting others—and it is exponentially increased by gender, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation.

This sense of embarrassment has risen recently as well when I was being interviewed about my struggles with anxiety. While I am now eager to share, I paused during the interview and added that I hoped I didn’t sound as if I was whining—fearing I was echoing the persona in Ben Fold’s “Rockin’ the Suburbs” who groans, “All alone in my white-boy pain.”

My first concert was in Greenville, SC, during the late 1970s, and the acts were Mother’s Finest, Heat Wave, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. I drove a handful of my black teammates from the varsity basketball team to the event, and saw no other white people that night.

Yellow pot smoke filled the auditorium, and while I was a non-smoker, I occasionally and dutifully passed along a joint casually working its way down the row of seats.

In most ways, it is incredibly hard to fathom that night and that me as well as the journey from my conflicted racist and redneck past to sitting in the audience a couple nights ago truly happy and very much enjoying being at the CAKE concert.

That teenaged me has been replaced and is always here inside me.

And maybe it is because of that I remain quite uncertain about what to do with this embarrassment.

All of us walk around in the statuses given us—along with the privileges and disadvantages that they bring.

I am at peace with my own confrontations of my privilege, with my own commitments to dismantle those privileges and to guard against using them as weapons or to pretend they are what I have earned.

Yet, the embarrassment remains:

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

Dickinson, I think, offers a hint that this embarrassment from privilege is the unexplainable human quality too few experience—a conscience, a moral response to the “This World.”

And so I am left with my whiteness and an embarrassment of riches that afforded me the oasis of sitting in the audience and driven to happiness from the the trumpet of Vince DiFiore, a happiness about being alive and the possibilities of the human condition.

This, I think, is our greatest justification about art.

“Jesus wrote a blank check,” I sing in my mind:

One I haven’t cashed quite yet
I hope I got a little more time
I hope it’s not the end of the line.

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