My Name Is Tim, and I Am Addicted to White Privilege

The cast of Chokehold: Rokia Shearin, Roland Lane, David Gow, Michael Oloyede and Marija Abney. Photo: Alberto Bonilla.
Hi. I’m a racist. Photo: Nicky Paraiso.

Hi, my name is Tim, and I’m a racist. It’s been about 24 hours since I committed my last racially motivated act. You see, I was on the subway, and there was an empty seat next to this young African-American dude right where I was standing, but he had dreadlocks and a hoodie and he looked a little aggressive and like he wouldn’t be OK with a white homo like me sitting next to him, so I decided to go to the other end of the car where there was a nice-looking older white lady and I took the empty seat next to her.

And, yeah, I was sort of conscious, or I guess you could say “woke,” about this incidence of everyday racism. But in that moment it just felt instinctual — you know, like self-preservation — because in the past sometimes when I’ve made the decision, or the mistake, to take the closer seat, I’ve had guys like that mutter “faggot” under their breath or purposely move their leg away from me as if I were going to grab them. Like in a very deliberate, signaling kind of way.

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I’ve even had one or two incidents where someone actually spat when I sat down next to them. And maybe that was a coincidence. Maybe they just happened to have a really bad cold and very bad manners. Unsanitary manners. But I have noticed it. It does seem to happen more often than sheer randomness would account for. You tend to notice things like that when you have to be on guard a lot as a person in our culture. But then again, maybe I’m projecting. Maybe I am making that up.

But I do consider it a good day when I can get through the entire day and not be reminded that there are some people who think people like me are gross. Or weak. Or diseased. Or sinful. So why take chances, right? Why invite that? It’s better to just avoid anything that might be unpleasant. I’ll respect your space and move someplace else. It’s better that way.

But even that’s not really true.

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Because in many, many more cases — the overwhelming majority of cases, in fact — nothing at all happens when I sit down next to a guy like that. He’s listening to music and I’m reading. Or vice versa. We completely ignore each other in that way one does in a big city like New York. He gets off at his stop. Or I get off at my stop. Or we both get off at the same stop. But literally nothing happens. We just coexist.

My racism eats into my humanity.

But in that moment before I sit down — that half second of decision — is where my racism roots itself. Eats into my humanity. Prevents me from recognizing my brother and only perceives the other. It’s a mere fractional blip or temporal hiccup — like when you’re watching a digital video and the image jumps ever so slightly and you realize that the filmmaker had called “Cut!” at that point and then the crew picked right up again. And to most viewers it all seems like one smooth take. On the surface the narrative isn’t disrupted. But if you are paying very close attention, if you are really looking closely, you can discern the suture where the rip is. It’s always there. You just have to know to look for it.

Rokia Shearin and Marija Abney in Chokehold — two people whom I love fiercely. Photo: Alberto Bonilla.

I have a show running in New York right now that I directed, written by Tony Pennino. It’s titled Chokehold, and it imagines what might happen if the usual power dynamics governing law-enforcement interactions were to be reversed. It asks “What if a white man were put into the same position that hundreds, if not thousands, of Black men are forced into every day?” It’s a powerful piece. Tony’s white, too, so good for us, right? We’re making work that matters. Two-thirds of our cast is African-American. We are putting the ideal of diversity into practice. Someone pin a white-ally medal to our chests.

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But here’s the thing: That suture, that rip in the narrative, that fear, it was present in the moment before I walked into the rehearsal room for the first time. Will they like me? Will they respect me? Will I say something stupid or wrong or micro-aggressive? Will we get along? Always the “they.” And some of that was just the normal anxiety of working with a new group of people, but not all of it. The most important part of that wasn’t the normal-anxious part.

Will they like me? Will they respect me?

So, yeah, I’m a racist. Even if I am directing a play that attacks racism, albeit one that centers the narrative around a white, gay, middle-class cis-male. Someone like me. And it’s not comfortable or easy admitting this here, in such a public place. I mean, anyone can read this. People I might want to impress may read this. My Black friends whom I love fiercely might read this. My African-American colleagues in the theater might read this. Trust that has been constructed through positive action might be undone by this. People may think badly of me. I know that.

It’s shameful and painful and scary, but as with all addictions — and make no mistake about it, white privilege is an addiction like any other — the only way to begin to address it meaningfully is to take the first step of admitting the problem. The internal problem. The shared problem that all of us coded as “white” have built for ourselves, in the same way that an alcoholic builds their disease beer by beer, cocktail by cocktail. We’ve constructed a prison called “whiteness” and we’re the inmates, but it’s people of color who bear the brunt of punishment for our crimes.

This old white man thinks it is perfectly fine to racially profile young Black men.

This week alone, yet another black man, Alfred Olango, a Ugandan immigrant, was shot and killed by police, this time in El Cajon, CA, north of San Diego. The Republican nominee for President of the United States is attempting an Orwellian rewrite of history by claiming that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, which disproportionately targeted Black and Latino young men, was never ruled unconstitutional — with white demagogues like Rudy Guiliani coming to his defense. And a UN panel ruled that the US owes its citizens of African descent financial reparations for centuries of “racial terrorism” — something a majority of white Americans still oppose (but which their Millennial children and grandchildren support).

We have to do better. This is not a bunch of “racists.” This is not “them.” This is us. So repeat after me. (I’m choosing to have faith that you can do this): Hi. My name is ________________. I’m an American, and I’m a racist.