I stayed awake for three days straight during senior year fraternity rush. All day socializing with prospective members, late night parties back in the halcyon days of age 18 alcohol, topped by after-hour meetings deciding which guys to offer a bid. Who did we want to welcome as fellow Phi Delts? We took it very seriously.
When a freshman caught enough attention, an upper classman was designated to be his mentor, made sure he met all the brothers, and tried to keep him away from rival houses. At the after-midnight meeting, each mentor made the case for giving his guy a bid.
I was assigned to ‘Jerry.’ Jerry was unlike any other freshmen touring our fraternity; he was black. The previous year, 1975, a black student had visited our house during rush, but he didn’t gain much consideration. A single member could squash any potential brother, and ‘Harold’ was blackballed when his name got mentioned. Two black freshmen joined another fraternity that year; the first African-American fraternity brothers at our school. I was determined that 1976 was the year we’d follow suit. Jerry was a good guy; and besides, it was time.
I agonized how to present Jerry at our midnight meeting. I described his high school background, his interests, that he wanted to study EE and play football. What I never said—ever—was the most obvious thing about Jerry. I never uttered the word ‘black.’
According to the Oxford English Dictionary there are up to 50,000 adjectives in the English language. Most of us use no more than 500. Rarely do we apply more than two or three to embellish a particular noun. The most appropriate adjective is the one that best differentiates. Which is why, if I hadn’t stirred myself into a PC muddle, I would have described Jerry as ‘the black guy’ and everyone would have known exactly which freshman I meant.
I couldn’t bring myself to describe Jerry as black. No one ever called me white, a meaningless descriptor in the ubiquitously white world I inhabited. Yet the term black seemed targeted, prejudicial; a word blacks might choose among themselves, but not one I was allowed.
A variety of terms have described me over the years: chubby, devout, curly-haired, geek, husband architect, father, skinny, secular, balding, writer, cyclist. No one ever called me white, until I went to Haiti. There, I was called ‘blan,’ a Creole derivative of the French world for ‘white’ that’s applied to foreigners of any skin color. An African-American in Haiti might be called ‘blan’ while a fair-skinned native would not. In my case, there was no confusion; I am ‘blan’ in every respect.
In Haiti I began to think of myself as white, which, after all, is a minority human shade. I started calling myself a ‘white guy’. It felt awkward at first, a betrayal of color-blind liberalism.
When I returned home, I realized that whitewashing racial terminology would not make racism go away. On the contrary, as long as white people feel so much in control that we don’t even have to acknowledge the dominant attribute of our privilege, we propagate our superiority.
Whatever happened to ‘Jerry’ and my ridiculous attempt to champion a young man while pretending away his most obvious characteristic? We gave Jerry a bid, but he didn’t accept it. He joined the other fraternity, perhaps because he wouldn’t be the only black guy. The following year, the Phi Delts gave bids to other black guys. One joined; the next year a few more. Change happens over time. These days, fraternity men come in all colors.
Someday, I hope, I can stop calling myself a white guy. But not until white ceases to be the default color of power, and human skin shades become hues to celebrate rather than instantaneous ways to discriminate and divide.