I'm Not Racist, But...

by Michael Channing

This year, as it's happened a few times in the past, my birthday fell on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It's always amazing when my birthday coincides with the day on which we celebrate the life of one of the greatest human beings this country has ever produced. Who wouldn't find that an honor?

When I lived in Florida, every time MLK day rolled around, some tired, old, white person would grumble, "Why does he get a holiday? Why does the post office close for him?" And I would answer, "Because he was badass. How many Birmingham jails did you survive? How many clouds of tear gas did you stumble out of and then preach a sermon the next day? Oh, none? Then shut the fuck up! Did you write 'I Have a Dream'? Wait, you're greeting me at Walmart. Do you even have dreams?"

It was in Florida that I heard the most racist thing ever uttered that didn't utilize the n-word. It began like this, "I'm not racist, but..." Whenever a white person says that, you can stop him right there, because I guarantee you the second half of that sentence will negate the first. And this guy did not disappoint. He said, "I'm not racist, but... slavery did them some good."

Scottish guy in a kilt with sword and shield

This... This wasn't what I expected to find when I Googled "clansman." This doesn't work with the punchline I wrote.

Now I think I know what he was trying to do. He was trying to take a long view of history. He was trying to express that slavery was a single domino in a long chain of historical events. That domino tipped another, and that one another, and so on down the years until Marvin Gaye was born. In a way, slavery lead directly to "Let's Get It On."

But just saying, "Slavery did them some good," sounds cruel. It's like saying to a sick child, "Look, I'm sorry about the cancer, but look on the bright side: You got to go to Disney World. Face it, you never would have met Mickey had it not been for Make A Wish. Your family is poor. Cancer did you some good. Hooray for cancer!"

When he said, "Slavery did them some good," what he was really saying was, "Yeah, I know, generations of oppression, but Pat Boone is hard to fuck to. Slavery did us all some good."

A military radio

This is also a clansman, apparently. Racism is harder than I thought.

Here's a thing that happened: I was at the open mic, sitting in the back, waiting my turn. I spotted my friend Maurice in the audience. Maurice is a black guy with a bald head and a round face. He wears an Andy Capp cap, the kind with a snap-button brim, and usually a plaid tweed blazer. He's a sharp dresser. Plus he has a distinctive barking laugh that boomed out above everyone else in the crowd. I was glad to see him having a good time.

My turn came around, and I did my set. At one point, I heard that laugh from out of the darkness, and I said, "Hi, Maurice. Thanks for coming to the show." At the end of my set, I took my seat to watch the other comedians.

After a short time, the host called out a name I'd never heard, and I watched in confusion as Maurice stood up and approached the stage.

You see, it wasn't Maurice at all. I had mistaken one black man for another black man. And the comedian tore into me from the stage. "What, do we all look alike?" In this case, yes, you look and dress just like Maurice. "And why 'Maurice'? Did you just pull a random 'black' sounding name out of the air?" Half his set was making fun of my accidental racism.

After the show, someone else who knew Maurice explained my confusion to the comic, and we all had a good laugh, and I a sigh of relief.

But there's one thing I haven't mentioned. Maurice is from Nigeria. And while I was on stage, I very nearly said to the black man I didn't know but didn't know I didn't know, "I'm glad you made it to our country."

I'm not racist, but... I almost was.

A big truck for hauling grain

But not quite.

Bad Mistakes, I've Made a Few

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Chokes and Warbles
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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing