In 1993, at age 38, I came out to myself as a gay man. I know, I know, a long time coming. From then, things moved pretty quick. Within weeks I came out to my wife. After a month of raw hurt and private decisions, I began coming out to others. Once you’ve told your heterosexual spouse that you’re gay, all subsequent divulges are a cakewalk. However, I learned important lessons during my season of disclosure. Lessons pertinent to this period in which white people scour our relationships to people of color, our police, and our history. As we strive to be anti-racist.
The first thing I learned about coming out to anyone was: the coming out discussion was about them, not me. I had done the hard work, ripped out the screws in the floorboard of the particular closet I’d inhabited and figured out who I was. A few people were unsurprised, which made me wonder how convincing I’d ever been as a straight man. Some folks were accepting, which made me hopeful this redirection would not jeopardize our friendship. Others were immediately uncomfortable, and I knew I’d never see them again. Regardless the response, I was delivering a different picture of myself, one that skewed their perspective. I needed to be available to them.
The other thing I learned was, not to let others’ reaction sway you from known truth. It’s misleading to say I was in the closet. I was totally clueless about being gay. My good little Catholic boy blinders simply had never allowed me to consider it. Thus, the floorboard analogy to my closet. Still, when evangelically inclined family members suggested I attend conversion therapy, I did not follow their advice. Nor did I confront or condemn them. I chose to accept their advice as a gesture of love, however misguided, and let time tenderize their hearts toward me.
We are at a moment in this country where a good number of white people are inclined to hear, many for the first time, that we need to own our majority role in the oppression of people of color, and actively work to change the structure of the society oppression built. We need to listen to James Baldwin; we need to heed Ta-Nehisi Coates. We need to change our economic, education, judicial, and social systems to create equity. And we need to do it now.
It’s important—necessary—for people of color to be in our face. To confront and demand. To shock us out of our complacent illusion of control. Confrontation always attracts attention, but it may not always win hearts and minds. And so, once attention is paid, it can be prudent to discuss and persuade using messaging that aligns with the listener’s preferred receptors. Personally, I find James Baldwin’s arguments stirring, while Ta-Nehisi Coates more difficult to digest. Different styles resonate among different individuals. (Others might say, ‘different strokes for different folks,’ but that phrase is not authentically me.)
In this spirit, I recommend the documentary White Like Me to every white person who has begun to wonder if, just perhaps, the way we live and the benefits we enjoy are borne, even a little, on the back of people of color. The narrator, Tim Wise, is a white guy who analyzes how our society benefits white people, in a direct PBS-documentary style. There’s nothing confrontational about the program, almost no ranting. But the facts that it enumerates are clear and compelling.
Some may feel that it’s a cop-out to present the case against white dominance in a format that caters to whitebread sensibilities. I disagree. White Like Me does not illustrate the rage of Black experience. It possesses none of James Baldwin’s articulate anger. But it can be a starting point to shift white complacency into engagement.
The first book I read when I came out, Andrew Hollaran’s Dancer from the Dance, became my gay guide, my Gatsby, steeped in the excitement, possibility, and loneliness of gay experience. But it was not the book I recommended to friends and family who wanted to know more about being gay. To them, I recommended Robb Foreman Dew’s The Family Heart or perhaps Paul Monette’s Becoming a Man. Easier to digest, accessible, yet still accurate.
That’s how I view White Like Me. It is not the definitive answer. It does not convey the trauma of Black experience. But it is a bridge that leads in the right direction.
White Like Me is a production of the Media Education Foundation. It is available to stream for free via Kanopy, through your local public library. White Like Me is also available for rent at this Vimeo link and for free through this Vialogue link.