In 1962, when I was four years old, I saw an African-American for the first time. He had carried my family’s luggage into a motel room in Iowa. I was old enough to notice that he looked different from me, different from my mother, my father, my brother, or anyone else that I had ever seen. My child mind had no information whatsoever about the variability of human skin color. No, my child mind assumed that this man’s skin was white. It assumed that that skin was just covered up, obscured—dirty.
And so I asked, while he was still in the room, “Mom, why is that man’s face so dirty?”
Of course, my mother was mortified. Of course, she tried to explain that his face was not dirty at all. And—of course—the damage could not be undone. As so often happens, the blurted words of children bring out into the light those unspoken horrors and shames that adults wish could be hidden away. Perhaps a child’s innocent but embarrassing questions can be tolerated as a universal human constant—but only in children. Only children should enjoy the privilege of believing that their limited world contains everything necessary for life.
I believe that a grossly limited and self-satisfied view has left every one of us with a knee on our necks. For some of us, it’s a literal knee. For others, it is a knee of crushing neglect—social, economic, psychological, medical. Here, in Michigan, 40% of the people who died from COVID-19 were African-American, “even though African-Americans are only 14% of the state’s population.”¹ COVID-19 has made the reality of systemic racism conspicuous to at least some white folks. But the fact that it took a pandemic to do so is itself a symptom of the same privileged worldview that killed George Floyd.
It is a worldview that is at the heart of Toni Morrison’s oft-quoted metaphor of the fishbowl. For a goldfish, the fishbowl is a world of pleasant, homey waters with languid bubbles, castle decorations, and plenty of flakes on which to nibble. The goldfish sees this world as a perfectly sensible whole, a structure that has meaning because it makes life easy and self-sustaining. What the goldfish does not see, however, is that this meaningful “whole” is enclosed by an invisible and unsensed boundary, a conditioned worldview that cannot be changed without the whole world splashing apart, leaving the fish flopping on the floor, gasping for air.
Now I believe white folks really do get this metaphor. I think we really do get that our fishbowl is really a port-a-potty of our own creation, a fantasy habitat in which we necessarily swim in our own refuse. We breathe it, eat it, and drink it every day. But it’s going to kill us if we do not see our way beyond it. How do we do that? How do we solve this problem, this life-koan, unable to stay in the bowl and unable to leave it? How do we swim free without ending up on the floor, helpless and pleading, “I can’t breathe”?