"White Heritage"? It's Only Skin-Deep

08/18/2017 01:06 pm ET

I can’t deny it: I am a white man.

A good friend of mine, a 35-year-old white heterosexual man who is more skilled at more things than anyone else I know, identifies himself as “alt-right” and over the last year has talked more and more about “white heritage,” recently told me I should take “pride” in being white.

My friend can’t understand how I can live, let alone go out in public, without some sort of concealed weapon, a knife minimum. He himself owns a small armamentarium of weapons, including knives, handguns, rifles, and even two AR-15 assault rifles. He’s ready to take on “The Government” and any stray brown-skinned Islamic terrorist who might wander into the woodsy rural area of eastern Connecticut where my friend lives.

I’ve explained to my friend, to no avail, that I don’t choose to live my life in fear—as he apparently does. Of course he dismisses the personal implication of what I say because accepting that he is uncomfortable with “different” people admits the real problem is his own.

It’s more comfortable to project onto others the blame for one’s own discomfort rather than address it in a healthy way.

I assured my friend that my skin color is not the first thing I think about when I wake in the morning. I don’t tend to think of what it “means” until someone points it out in trying to score points—either telling me to be “proud” of it, or, on the other side, accusing me of being racist because I disagree with them about something.

Heritage is about culture and history, not skin tone. It’s about what unites a people. The official slogan of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum,” “From Many, One,” signifies that we share a common heritage in the dream that is America, a nation dedicated to the radical proposition that all men and women are created equal.

I had to laugh at the irony of a conversation I had 10 years ago with a group of older Greek men outside the local Greek church. One of them complained about what he considered the local newspaper’s heavy focus on “ethnics,” referring to the large number of Chinese who have moved to the area to work at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casino-resorts.

The man felt it was okay to say this, and maybe even figured I would agree because I share the same skin tone as others of Greek and European ancestry.

What my friend and this older Greek man fail to understand is that my white (presently nicely tanned) skin tone aside, I am also a gay man. I know what ignorant prejudice looks and feels like.

I am also a person living with HIV, so I know what it means to be the target of haters and fear-mongers, to feel the sting of rejection based on something about me I have no control over beyond taking my medications and minding my health.

Unlike most white people, I also had the experience, during my elementary school years, of having black friends, babysitters, classmates, and even my first-grade girlfriend. My parents moved me and my two sisters from the rural town in Connecticut where their parents lived to a working-poor housing project that in my 1960s growing-up years was a salt-and-pepper mix of black and white. Our black friends were always welcome in our house and shared many dinners with my family.

That experience is what first made me think about why my black friends were treated differently than I was, and sparked my interest in learning more about the “black experience.”

Looking back, I see that it also laid the foundation for my life as an HIV-positive gay white man, a journalist and activist, who abhors discrimination, hatred, and injustice toward people based on something “different” about them.

We’re all different in some way, depending on who considers himself the standard against which others are judged. Rather than judge people based on the color of their skin, how about measuring them by the content of their character, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it?

Character is gauged by such qualities as generosity, honor, integrity, kindness, and loyalty—qualities that must be consciously chosen and cultivated. It takes work.

It’s so much easier simply to hate and insult and persecute others who make you uncomfortable. It’s easier to blame “illegals” for taking “our” jobs rather than admit the real problem is you lack the social skills and ambition to get the education or training you need for a better job.

What we saw in Charlottesville, and hear spewed from the current president, has nothing to do with some kind of fake “white heritage.” It has everything to do with fear. The neo-Nazis, alt-right, white supremacists, and whatever else they choose to call themselves as they parade their filth in public are really the most pathetic of all because they are consumed by fear.

Behind their tiki torches, shields, weapons, and macho swagger, they are small frightened people enslaved by fear to a cause that is, after all, only skin deep.

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