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Whiter Shade of Blindness

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I don’t think I’m racist. Right. I was raised in the south by a lot of racists. People who refer to “the help.” So, forgive me if I get a few things wrong in the next few minutes.

Black People

For most of the pre-school hours of my week I was tended by a nanny named Faye. She was my champion, my disciplinarian, my hug when life scraped my knees. She was part of our family, we always said it, and we included her children in our family gatherings for the final years my parents were still married. My love for Faye transcends time and place. It also transcends understanding. I visited Faye’s house a few times on the East side, as a child. I have many images to conjure up, but her house was filled with kids and love and laughter. My family home was definitely not like that.

In college, I had a writing class buddy who became a close friend. We struggled with our short stories together. He turned me on to Langston Hughes and I gave him Kurt Vonnegut and my alias Kilgore Trout. We often went for beers after class. Just the two of us. Riffing on jazz together. We met to see Blues at least once a month. George came from a large and largely incarcerated family. He’d taken the GI Bill and was determined to become LH-2. We still share connections. When he’s in Austin we get together. When I’m passing through Vermont I give him advance notice.

White People

Even my mom, who was quite intellectual and empathetic, called them by strange names. Her father and stepmother were from the good old days of Southern racism of the 30s through the 60s. “They” were not like us. “They” loved us. “They” were important to our family. We knew very little about Faye’s life beyond the details she shared during an ongoing crisis with one of her sons.

And today, I simply don’t have many non-demographic friends. I am inclusive. I’m also unwelcome at most inclusive events because I’m the oppressor. I get it. I’m part of that tribe that did and does awful things. In Texas, you’d think we’re still back in the 30s. We are not.

My experience yesterday gave me a new touchpoint for my self-awareness. I was at the funeral of my best friend’s father. (96) And their family support included a wonderful woman, Wilma, who only retired at 81, as her clients were now in assisted living facilities. (That’s where we white people put our elderly if we don’t want them living with us. It’s really expensive. Not inclusive at all. And not actually very good for the health of its residents. My mom basically folded her hand after migrating to an independent living facility during the pandemic. She couldn’t handle the isolation and shutdown. And perhaps a touch of mental fogginess was just starting to appear. “You mean, I can get email on my iPhone?” She was a tech wiz, thanks in part to her tech wiz son, me. “Uh oh, Mom’s not making all the connections,” I said to my sister.

At the funeral, Wilma was hovering in the reception line. I gave her a big hug and thanked her for all the time we’ve been together. A few minutes later, her daughter approached me and said, “You hugged her?” I didn’t understand. “Yes, I love her.” “That’s my mom,” she said. “Don’t you hug her?” “All the time, god bless.” “You are lucky then, she’s an amazing woman.”

“You have no idea,” she said. She squared up with me and obviously had more to say.

“I know who you are,” she said.

“You do?”

“Yes, I remember you. From his 90th birthday party at The Frisco.” (local restaurant now gone). “And you. You said something so awful to me, I’ve never forgotten it.”

“Oh goodness, I hope you’ll tell me what I said.”

“I saw you today. I told my mom, ‘That’s him. That’s the guy.'”

“Whatever it was I said, I apologize.”

“It was dark. I don’t need or want your apology.”

“Okay,” I said. I shut up. She had more to say, and I wasn’t going to step in my own ignorance again. She continued.

“You said it, and I’ll never forget the moment. I was so angry. I wanted to confront you at the party.”

“Wow,” I said. I paused any response.

“You said, ‘Black people smell different.’ How is that? We don’t. We’re flesh and blood just like you. We don’t smell different at all.”

“I’m sorry.”

“And you just act like you know everything. But to say something so hateful. It shook me.”

“I can see you’re still upset…”

“Yes, yes. I’ll never forget it. It was like a chill of evil went through my body.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize to me. I don’t forgive you. Apology not accepted.”

At this point, I understood there was no path forward. She turned and began walking away.

“God be with you,” I said at her back.

“Yeah, right, God!” she snapped back still leaving.

I snuck one in, “The right response is ‘And also with you.’ It’s called Christian forgiveness.”

Of course, I didn’t need to educate this church-going woman with an axe for me. A few more times we passed in close proximity I gave her the indifferent freeze out. She had set her own bed on fire and was happy to lay in it. There was nothing fruitful in further conversations.

Later at an after-party, I didn’t mention the daughter. We praised Wilma and her love and loyalty to their family.

A Bridge Between Us

Here’s the part I’m unclear about. I know I lack understanding. I have empathy. I also understand my opportunities to offer support are limited by the organizations and friends I continue to connect with. I can do more. But, not as an apologist or aspiring politician. As a human.

Wilma and George were just humans. From different cultures and backgrounds. Friends. I am committed to bridging the gaps in my understanding when appropriate. With Wilma’s daughter, there was nothing appropriate beyond Go Dog Go.

“Do you like my hat?”

“I do not like your hat.”

“Okay. Goodbye.”


I had all these ideas for rebutting her retained trauma event. I kept them to myself. In walking back to my car I was trying to understand what I might have said.

“Old people smell different.” That’s more about how much perfume our parent’s generation wore. Hugging them would give you a fragrant afternoon.

“They smell different.” This means older people, like my friend’s mom, who wore some classic perfume that took me immediately back to my elementary school days. The smell was probably transporting me, 16 years ago, today at the funeral the smells were not a big part of my experience.

I’m sorry my culture has damaged our relationships so badly. My empathy extends to action whenever possible. I will march alongside you, I will help you to get health care, and I believe you deserve the same opportunities I had. I’m not a magician. I am just a man walking a path of peacefulness and active kindness.

Bless your heart.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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