By David James
Driving through North Hollywood, a few months shy of a legal beer, a glance in the rearview mirror suggested a mop of hair more ragged than normal. As thoughts of a haircut began to register, a storefront advertising unisex hairstyling appeared, and right in front of its door sat the only empty space on the entire block. There were three other customers, and although I was the only white guy in the salon, I thought nothing of it. The two hairstylists were black women, and they each welcomed me with a hello and a smile, and within twenty minutes one of them invited me to her chair.
Over light conversation while clipping and combing, she asked about my job, and I told her I was a flight instructor at Van Nuys Airport and would be conducting a flying lesson in a few hours, and yes, this is my first time here. She did an excellent job, but when it came time to pay, I didn’t have my wallet. Embarrassed and mortified, I stammered through a sincere apology, explaining that it was in a drawer at the airport. I promised to make good as soon as possible, most likely within the hour. Although she was not happy, I believe she trusted me.
* * *
Flash forward thirty years. Solomon and I had just landed Ethiopian Airlines flight 711 in Tel Aviv and were processing through immigration in a line dedicated for aircrews. Solomon was delayed while his bag received the full treatment from Israeli customs. Our uniforms were green, but I was white and he was black. There were seven or eight other pilots processing through, and Solomon was the only one selected for extra inspection. After clearing immigration I wanted to say something light, but the best I could come up with was, “You must have a dishonest face.”
“No, I have a black face. This happens all the time. Everywhere, sometimes even in Africa.” He was right, of course, and compounding the insult was that Solomon would be far less likely to smuggle contraband into Israel than a white Israeli pilot, several of whom we had just cleared customs with. He replied with humor, not anger or even frustration, and his expression told the unmistakable message, See how it is?
We departed Tel Aviv the next day, on duty, in uniform, with all the required documents and ID, yet Solomon was again singled out for extra attention. Our bags went into an X-ray machine that was fully enclosed, and after a few seconds it ejected them from its chamber with force. Without opening my bag, the woman working the machine told me the brands of canned goods I had packed before wishing me a safe flight. When Solomon’s bag was ejected from the machine, he was directed to a nearby table, where the emigration and security personnel spent five minutes picking apart his belongings while quizzing him about his activities in Tel Aviv.
Flying back to Addis Ababa, I brought up the subject of preferential treatment, how even in Africa I noticed white people are often treated with less suspicion than locals. I mentioned to Solomon my initial encounter with this, occurring on my first day in Ethiopia. I was checking into the Addis Ababa Hilton, here for the airline’s interview, and before entering the lobby everyone had to pass through security. After walking through a metal detector and having our bags X-rayed, uniformed guards with handheld detectors provided additional scrutiny, but only for certain people who set off the alarm in the walk-through detector. In this case certain people meant black people, and yet the security personnel themselves were black. No doubt it was the phone in my pocket that triggered the alarm, but when standing with splayed arms expecting the secondary check, the guard said no and just waved me on. For all he knew I could have had an automatic weapon strapped under my jacket. There were about eight of us passing through, two of us white, and the guards’ attitude to us white folk was apologetic, reserving their suspicions for those certain others. A colorfully dressed man wearing a native agbada, middle-aged and most likely on business, was being patted down while his opened bag got the full treatment from two other guards. I didn’t know for certain where he was from, but his appearance suggested equatorial West Africa, perhaps Nigeria or Senegal. I plastered a perplexed look on my face while mustering the courage to meet his eyes, and he just smiled as if to say, See how it is?
I had flown enough with Solomon to feel comfortable broaching the subject of race and was especially interested in his perspective. From previous conversations he knew that I had grown up in a suburb of Los Angeles, where the local high school was 95 percent white, and not a single black student existed in the class of five hundred. Solomon took racism for granted and had learned to adjust accordingly. He was highly educated, multilingual, and well-traveled, yet knew that his blackness would be the first thing many non-Africans would see. Like most of the company pilots I flew with, he was a devout Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, not Muslim, a fact known to Israeli security.
Flying south over the Red Sea between Saudi Arabia and Sudan, I said, “You might appreciate an old joke, and I promise you it’s not racist, yet some folks who don’t really get it might think it is.”
“Go ahead. I’ll tell you if I think it’s racist.”
“Three men at the Pearly Gates. The first was Jewish, the second gay, and the third was black. To get in, they had to answer a question. But the first man said, ‘You know what it was like for us down there. Please assure me it won’t be like that up here.’ St. Peter said, ‘No, of course not. Spell God.’ The Jewish man replied, ‘Gee-oh-dee.’ ‘Correct, you’re in.’ When the second man’s turn came, he also had a question about acceptance, and St. Peter assured him that heaven was prejudice-free. ‘Spell God.’ The gay man replied, ‘Gee-oh-dee.’ ‘Welcome to Heaven.’ The black man also brought up his concerns, reminding the gatekeeper of what his lot was like on earth. ‘No problem with that here,’ St. Peter said. ‘Spell chrysanthemum.’”
Solomon laughed so loud I thought the first-class passengers would hear him. I was relieved at his response and was glad I didn’t follow a hunch to rearrange the characters so the black man was not the victim. He assured me he didn’t think the joke was racist and, in fact, told me it summed up his life experience outside of Africa.
* * *
I drove from the hair salon to Van Nuys Airport with every intention to quickly return with the money. But upon arriving at the flight school, there was a walk-in customer who wanted an intro-flight with a plan to obtain a pilot’s license. Of course I would do that. And of course I would get to paying the debt at my earliest opportunity. I fully intended on owning up the next day, yet the next day seemed to be filled with golden opportunities to postpone it again. As one day led to the next, the honesty remained but the enthusiasm didn’t, until it became too easy not to make the effort. And then I just forgot about it. Except I never really did. In the eyes of the law, I have committed worse transgressions than this, but if severity is measured by sustained feelings of shame, cheating this woman who cut my hair ranks at or near the top.
A few months later I got arrested for drunk driving. I was twenty-one years old, returning from an interview with a cargo airline based in Oregon. Before boarding the flight in Portland, it seemed like a good idea to have a couple of drinks at the airport bar, then a few on the plane. For good measure I had another at a bar at Los Angeles Airport, which would tide me over until I drove home. Shortly after the flashing red and blue lights filled up the rearview mirror, the cuffs were on, and the breathalyzer at the station indicated .10. That was the limit in those days.
Sitting in a large holding cell in downtown Los Angeles, I was the only white guy in a group of about twenty, as everyone else was either black or Hispanic. About half wore prison garb, and the rest were in wide variety of street clothes. I was the only suit and tie in this volatile mix, yet I never felt scared or even intimidated, perhaps because the energy in the room was so low, or I had other things on my mind. One of the black guys (in prison garb) asked what the hell I was doing here, more friendly than aggressive. When I told him, he asked if I had any outstanding warrants. Nope. Then he matter-of-factly said that because I was white, I would be released on my own recognizance, most likely before they had to feed me breakfast. No bail, he said, expect to just stroll on out first thing in the morning. He was right.
I made two promises to myself: Slow down the drinking and do everything feasible to make this DUI disappear. I kept the second more than the first. In those days it was a lot easier to wiggle out of a drunk driving arrest utilizing a variety of legal strategies, more honestly known as bullshit. I found a lawyer, paid him a thousand dollars, followed his instructions, and got off. He told me to find a mechanic to write up a work order to fix a wobbly steering system, and he would take it from there. He assured me I would get off and wouldn’t even have to appear in court. He was as casually confident as my jailhouse acquaintance and just as right. He, too, was white, as was the prosecuting attorney and the judge who accepted a plea down to “unsafe lane change.”
* * *
I stumbled through adolescence and the following two decades oblivious to even the concept of white privilege. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and would probably have given an argument if it was suggested I had begun the race well past the starting gate. It never even occurred to me that being white played a role in strolling from the drunk tank bail-free, even after a more astute black man assured me this would happen and for that reason.
It took a seemingly minor episode in India for a moment of clarity to shift my perspective. While in Lucknow during the second day of a five-month domicile, I came upon a large and crowded bookshop during an afternoon walk. Customers were backed up at the door waiting to enter, a bottleneck created by the store’s security as everyone had to surrender whatever bag or backpack they were carrying. In return they would receive a handwritten claim check. I was the only non-Indian in line, and as I handed over an empty backpack to the young man collecting them, his boss put a halt to the transaction, allowing me to keep it. He even apologized to me on behalf of his junior colleague. I felt a strange mix of privilege and embarrassment, as my obvious whiteness suggested I was more trustworthy (in their eyes) than one of their own. The embarrassment was earned but the privilege wasn’t, and for the first time (after a life of hundreds of subtle examples), I was bothered by preferential treatment based solely on race. These days, if I was in a store back home, and if the clerk was to ask a black customer for ID when using a credit card without requesting the same of me, I would certainly make a comment, perhaps in a voice just a little louder than necessary. But here I was at a loss for words, the transaction complete before I could fully process what happened.
White privilege. I’ve been on the receiving end of it for most of my life, entirely unaware of it until receiving it in far-off lands. It is not that I happily took it for granted in my own culture; rather, I was ignorant of its existence and, most likely, willfully so. Would I have let slide my obligation to a white barber from a shop full of white customers? When I relayed my story of the jailhouse walk to Solomon, he said, with a knowing grin, that that would never happen in Ethiopia because your whiteness would increase the bail, not eliminate it. “Nowhere is it colorblind,” he said.
Category: Featured, Short Story