It was my early teens, and I was reading a pulpy science fiction space opera. There’s a scene that describes the protagonist looking at himself in the mirror and you realize that he’s black. I felt the ground wobble (this was the author’s intention). I’d pictured him white. Of course I did. I always did, whenever I pictured the person I was reading about. To have that truth about myself slapped at me so effectively unmoored me. Even more unsettling and chilling was realizing that it was likely that a black kid my age, reading the same book, would have made the same assumption. Because books, like everything else, assume white men as the default human. To be black is to be an exception. To know that this world was not made for you, and the very best you can hope for is to be tolerated. What does that knowledge do to a kid? Imagine.
In our country, here in the 21st century, there is ample evidence that if you are black, and particularly if you are a black male, you are seen by so many as so threatening, that your life is in danger at all times. There is no protection. You’re not safe in your own home. You’re not safe from the police. The courts won’t protect you. Rationally, you might believe that every cop isn’t out to get you. You may even believe that most cops are hardworking and honest and as dedicated to being on your side as they are to anyone else’s. But the cop who pulled you over yesterday and you’re not sure why? You don’t know that about him. Or just now, when you were crossing the park, doing what people do, you might know, rationally, that most of the people you pass are going to treat you fairly and fine, or at least ignore you. But you don’t know for sure about that one, who’s moved a little further to the side of the path, watching you. You don’t know which gesture of yours will set that one off and who they’ll call and who’ll come running and what they’ll do. You're always on alert. At least, you'd better be. You aren’t ever safe. Not ever. Not anywhere. You are always the scary other. I can imagine that. It opens a hole in the pit of my stomach. But I have the luxury of being able to stop imagining. “Privilege” is the word we use.
And I still make those assumptions when I read. It astounds me how hard wired they are. If the byline is ambiguous, until I get a clue otherwise, my laziness will picture the writer of the essay I’m reading as a white male. At least now I know that’s fucked up and I can push back at it. I can look harder for those clues, I can make that image in my mind blurrier and more androgynous and more multi-hued until a real person emerges. But even after all this time, a full half century, it requires a conscious effort. Every goddamn time.
I don’t have the lived experience. Imagining the fear isn’t the same as living the fear. I can set it aside. The gap between imagining and the lived experience is vast. But human beings keep reaching across it. That's partly what art is for.
I read a lot of novels from a very early age. I may not be able to undo the psychological grounding that establishes the white male as the default, but I know it’s an illusion, a constructed illusion established by power. Imagining is a skill. Novels are dangerous. Novels helped me spend my formative years exploring the minds of the powerless as well as the powerful. Enabled me to take on different skins, to see the world through different eyes, and experience the wonders and horrors of the world through the emotions of people very unlike me. Who turn out, of course, to be very much like me in all the most important ways.
I’ve been encouraged to see how multiracial the demonstrations have been. White people listening with humility. Marching alongside. Sharing articles and books that can deepen understanding and enrich the imagination. Asking, “What can I do?” and acting on the answers. My sister says it’s different this time.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like for you.” This is something white people might say when they’re trying to come to grips with the lived experience of black men in America. It’s intended to acknowledge that the experience is something horrible, something that white people don’t have. When said with its usual intention, it’s an attempt to bridge the divide. It’s an attempt to exhibit humility and say, I’m not going to try to tell you how to feel. That’s all a step in the right direction. It isn’t nearly enough.
Because you can imagine what it’s like. You must. It’s hard and scary and then it lays a heavy obligation on you. Small wonder that people turn their imagining away. But our imaginations have to be tougher than that. Where does empathy come from? What does it take to imagine yourself into someone else’s skin? The times demand that you make the effort. And when you've made it, when you're breathless because you've imagined the soul-crushing weight of it, and you've shed some tears over the echo of a pain that you know you can't feel for real, start imagining what you'll do to make sure that this time it is different.