At a meeting recently, someone referred to me as looking “white collar respectable.”
That’s a lot to unpack. I was somewhat shocked to hear that description.
People who know me might not agree I’m that respectable, and while I have some shirts with white collars, I’ve spent most of my life wearing blue collars, as well as many torn-neck, paint-splotched t-shirts.
Still, with a little effort, I can pass for white collar respectable. I’m certainly white, given the lack of melanin that goes with an Ancestry.com profile which shows my forebears not wandering much further south than Edinburgh.
My combination of age, skin tone, and air of respectability makes me think that if I’d been in the crowd gathered around George Floyd, I could possibly have saved his life. Heck, it’s been seventeen years since my last speeding ticket, despite being stopped for it half a dozen times. There’s a chance I could have pushed the policeman off Floyd’s neck without suffering more than taser burns and bruises.
It’s horrifying to contemplate, but do you know what’s worse?
I probably wouldn’t have done it.
It’s not that I wouldn’t have been in the neighborhood - when I was younger, I lived not far from there and my daughter used to work within a couple blocks of 38th and Chicago. I could easily have walked down the same street that day. And if I’d seen a gaggle of police cars and bystanders, do you know what I would’ve done?
Scurried right by, making sure I didn’t make eye contact with anybody.
Not from cowardice or lack of curiosity, but because I hate a fuss. I hate seeing one and I certainly hate participating in one. I don’t fight over parking spots, I don’t yell at referees, and an argument at work or with a family member leaves me unsettled for days.
I think about it all the time. Two quick steps and a shove. Mr. Floyd could have gotten a couple deep breaths and the attention would shift from him to me. Even the absolute worst-case scenario wouldn’t have been all bad. Let’s face it: a black man and a white man lying dead in the street would have changed the narrative, would have changed a lot of what followed.
Many of my personal heroes are people who’ve made purposeful fusses, big fusses. Why have I admired their lives and rejected their examples?
A featured song on my playlist was written by Pete Seeger. My Name is Liza Kalvelage is based on a letter written by a woman who had emigrated from Germany after World War II. A common question asked of her after she came to America was what she had done during the Nazi regime. Her answer was, “Nothing...just kept my head down and tried to make it through.” People were not satisfied with that answer. In the end, she wasn’t satisfied either; it changed the way she moved through the world.
She wrote the letter to explain why she’d been arrested for blocking the path of a trainload of napalm, attempting to say that in a world on fire, she couldn’t stand to see anything added to the flames.
The line that always gets to me goes, “And now I know what it’s like to be charged with mass guilt, once in a lifetime is enough for me.”
Now, I don’t live in Nazi Germany, nothing at all like that. I need to say that because I love where I live, and the system under which I live.
That doesn’t mean it’s perfect.
As a guy who's had more than his share of breaks because of how I look and where I live, the pressure needs to be on me to make this place and this system work for everyone.
I guess that’s something else to think about, but, then again, there’s a chance I’ve done enough thinking.
Maybe I need to start making a fuss.
Copyright 2021 Brent Olson