SIGNIFYIN’ by Mikel Kwaku Oshi Holt
My grandson was exasperated and wanted to express his feelings on the person who had prompted that emotion.
We had been searching for a parking space in the hardware store parking lot on the near Southside for several minutes when we noticed a customer heading to a space near the entrance.
We paused the car a few car links from the spot, and I told my grandson (who had gotten his driving permit a few days earlier) to put on his turn signal.
As we waited for the guy to start up his car and leave, we noticed an elderly White woman driving toward us.
We assumed she paused to allow the parked driver to pull out but instead, as soon as he did, she quickly pulled into the now open spot.
Clearly, she had to see us waiting, our turn signal on. And she also had to know we had already claimed the spot, or of the unwritten rules of the road relating to first come, first serve.
If she did, however, she ignored both, and as soon as the departing car pulled out of the spot, she arrogantly disregarded our status.
The scenario prompted my grandson’s frustration.
He immediately launched forward, ready to verbally confront the woman before I stopped him, explaining it would do no good, and further, a confrontation could very well backfire on us.
My thoughts immediately went back to a lecture given by former Milwaukee Superintendent Howard Fuller years ago about the importance of providing Black students with critical thinking skills.
Both the schools and parents should challenge youth to utilize the knowledge they gained through class work and life to assess, analyze and decipher scenarios to determine the proper path they should follow.
This scenario offered two overlapping realities I couldn’t help but introduce as life lessons.
There are three things working against us, I explained to my grandson—an honor student who is normally the mildest mannered kid in town.
First, the confrontation or the woman’s reaction could draw attention to us—not a good thing since we were on the Southside—notorious for its hostility toward Black folks.
Second, it would be our word against hers if the police arrived. And you know who they would believe.
Lastly, and most importantly, she was Whiter than toothpaste, looked older than Bernie Sanders and probably carried a White Privilege credit card in her purse.
(I can recall what happened only a few months ago during a similar situation involving a Black woman and an elderly White woman on the Southside; an almost identical scenario.
That sister is still in jail, although she was probably at fault, albeit never really given the benefit of the doubt.)
Of course, there is the possibility that the elderly woman operated out of a different set of rules—maybe she thought she was in the right, or that we were “gentlemen” and “should” have allowed her to have the spot closest to the door.
In truth, if I had noticed her before she zoomed into the spot, I probably would have given up the spot, said hello to her in passing, and made sure she knew we were Black and not in the area to carjack her.
But the situation didn’t play out that way.
Thus, this being an excellent teaching moment, I offered my grandson another reason why the White woman felt she owned the spot.
“It’s called White privilege,” I told my grandson.
It’s one of the remnants of apartheid, the (mistaken) belief that they own the world, and we just live in it. It is the manifestation of systemic racism and of Jim Crow laws, covenants and ingrained attitudes.
Most White people are not racist, but they all benefit from White privilege by virtue of their color.
They might not realize it, but when they get served first or get the best seats at the restaurants, they are benefitting from White privilege.
When the police give them a warning, its White privilege. When they get a citation and we fill the prisons, it is—you guessed it—White privilege.
White privilege is illuminated by the fact that it is easier for a White high school dropout to secure a home mortgage loan than a Black college graduate.
White privilege is the reason most corporate boardrooms are almost exclusively White males; middle managers in non-government positions look more like Tom Barrett than Marvin Pratt.
It’s why you see so many White faces working on the $1 billion highway construction while the Milwaukee Black male unemployment rate is the highest in the country.
Educator Peggy McIntosh, says of White privilege that “Whites in Western societies enjoy advantages that nonwhites do not experience as ‘an invisible package of unearned assets.”’
Given all of that—and hopeful there was no brain overload—I encouraged John to use his critical thinking skills to assess the situation, consider the possible outcomes, and make decisions based on sober logic and not drunken emotionalism.
What I didn’t tell my grandson (but will in the future) is that there are occasions when you throw reason and logic to the wind, you do what your heart, and not your head says.
There will be times when righteousness outweighs common sense, where you will challenge the odds and do what feels right, instead of what’s lucid.
I remember once when my wife and I had traveled up to Superior to watch my late son’s AAU basketball game.
A snowstorm was expected so we planned on spending the night and driving back in the morning.
That evening we stopped at a restaurant and upon entering everybody in the establishment stopped eating and stared at us as if we were the Walking Dead zombies.
And I lost it. In a loud voice and with a menacing stare I shouted out, “y’all got some kindda’ problem. Never saw Black folks before?”
My wife stood beside me with a look of determination on her face. She was ready to watch my back…and side. (Black women, as you know, don’t back down; which is good and bad, if you get my drift.)
It was obvious that on that night, 100 miles away from the security of the Black community, unarmed and outnumbered, we stood our ground and was willing to take on the entire city.
We grew up during the civil rights movement. Our experiences had tainted our worldview. And I was not a follower of Martin Luther King’s philosophy of non-violence. Plus, I was just fed-up with dealing with racism and prejudice. So I reacted. No critical thinking. Just raw emotion.
It could have turned out bad…Very badly. Fortunately, it didn’t. The Whites went back to minding their business and we got our meal (which we inspected verrrrry carefully).
There will be those moments, I plan to tell John, where you’re willing to sacrifice everything while standing on a platform of righteousness.
Sometimes you are pushed to the point of confrontation. We’re all rubber bands in that respect; and racism, prejudice and White privilege are large walls we want to kick down instead of trying to walk around.
But in general, I told my grandson, the general response is to consider treating the type of scenario we had encountered with the wisdom taught in the African rights of passage lesson about maintaining peace in your household: When confronted with hostility or an angry word from your mate, remember the organ God gave exclusively to men.
(Hit me up on Facebook if you can’t figure that one out.)
Pick your battles, I told my grandson, and when necessary just swallow and move on. Remember, there’s always another parking spot, it just might not be as close to the door.