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Produced by the island at WBAY Boston. From The New York Times and Boston, this is Modern Love.
Stories of love, loss and redemption. I'm your host, Meghna Chakrabarti. Right now, we are watching extraordinary protests around the world against police violence and racism and once again in the United States as a country, we are having a conversation about what it means to be black in America. So today we wanted to return to an essay that's also part of that conversation. It's by Kim McLaren. And it's called Race Wasn't an Issue to him, which was an issue to me.
After the essay, we'll hear from Kim. We first talked to her in 2019 and we reconnected with her on Monday to hear how she's doing right now. But first, here's Lauren Toussant, who stars in the upcoming film The Glorias Laurenz reading Kim's essay. His name was Jerry, a nice man, late 40s, funny and smart, divorced with two grown children, the social worker who had dedicated his professional life to working with troubled kids. He was also, let's be honest, the first to come around.
He was the first man after my own divorce to raise an eyebrow, to take an interest after my ex not only moved out, but moved on. Funny and smart and dedicated to troubled kids is all admirable, but in truth, I would have said yes to a drink with a forefoot gap-toothed trol had one smile in my direction. The self-confidence of a 40 year old divorced mother of two is a shaggy thing. So the fact that Jerry was also white, I noted, but decided to file away for now.
Why worry about it right out of the gate? Yes, race had been an issue in my marriage. Not the issue, perhaps, but an issue nonetheless. But I did not know was whether race arose as a problem because I am black and my ex is white or because I am a person who grapples with race and he is not. That my ex does not grapple with race he would not dispute. He does not care to read, think or talk about it, and he wondered why I did.
My ex believed I always went looking for race, but I didn't race came looking for me. And when it did, I would stand and call its name. When officials in our inner ring suburb talked about closing our borders against a wave of nonresident students sneaking into our schools, when a white woman at my gym reached up uninvited and patted my locks like she was petting a dog, when my sick mother received one level of medical care and my ex's sick sister received another.
At such times he tried to understand my feelings, but he did not share them. And even talking about it made him uncomfortable. It's a dividing line as real as any in America, those who grapple with race and those who do not. But like most dividing lines, it's impossible to tell on which side a person stands by looking at them. Or at least that's what I thought at the time. So I got ahead of myself with Jerry. Why dig for landmines when I may not make it past the way he slurps his beer?
We met for drinks. Spark wise, I felt a little, but we ended up talking and laughing easily for more than an hour. I told him I was a writer. He told me his five favorite books and how they had shaped his life. He told me he'd gone to a seminary as a boy and eventually left the Catholic Church. I told him I had been raised a Pentecostal but mellowed into Methodism as an adult. We talked about our children travels, mutual love of the blues and mutual dislike of the cold, and then he said he would like to read my books.
He thought he would like them. I said he might not. How do you deal with it when people, you know, don't like your work? He asked. I quoted a playwright whose name I couldn't remember who admitted in an interview that he told his friends if there was a choice between being honest and being kind and talking about his work, they should choose to be kind. Don't value your opinion over my feelings. The playwright said. Jerry nodded.
Most people use honesty like a weapon. Like a switchblade, is that like a bayonet? They sliced up your heart, but they are ugly, hurtful words, and then while you're bleeding on the floor, they hand you a Band-Aid. I was only being honest. Honesty is overrated. Jerry agreed. So the following day, when he emailed his attraction, I tried to be both honest and kind. No spark, I wrote. But he was great, good company.
If he was looking for the one, I was probably not going to be her, but if he simply sought intelligent dinner companionships, then Friday evening I'd be more than game. Not a bayonet that I thought, but a butter knife. But still it hurt. Ouch, he replied and disappeared. By the time he resurfaced a few months later, I had suffered through two terrible blind dates, joined an online dating service, carried on several email conversations that died, actually talked on the phone with a few men, met three for drinks back to weigh carefully from each, then cancel the service.
A few of these men were black, the others white, and in no case did I find anything remotely resembling chemistry, in fact, so utterly lacking in connection with these encounters that had made me appreciate and knew how rare is connection in the face of human isolation? Race seemed to retreat a little. So when Jerry called again, I decided to let the Spark Coast because at least he and I could talk. My wounds are licked, Jerry said, have dinner with me.
Why not, I said, maybe in time the spark would come. We talked and laughed for four hours, then knecht like teenagers in a parking lot in the rain.
The next day, we emailed and text messaged each other. It was all so much fun, such a heady relief after the months of loneliness. But then on our third date, things changed. First, he was late and I was irritated. Earlier, I'd had a frustrating discussion with several white undergraduates in my literature of slavery class. All semester, I had struggled to teach them to think critically about race and slavery and history, to have them challenge their assumptions.
They insisted, for example, that racial divisions were as old as time and that the myth of African inferiority preceded slavery, not, as I suggested, the other way around. And they argued that racial genetics were more than skin deep. Whether I wanted to believe it or not, how else to account for the way black athletes dominate most professional sports. That evening, when I shared my frustrations with Jerry, he wondered if the students didn't have a point.
What about all those Kenyan marathon runners? He asked. Isn't it possible are some genetic reason for that, isn't it possible that blacks are just better athletes than whites? A perfectly innocent question. It's something small and painful flickered inside my chest. Logically, if one accepts a genetic physical superiority of blacks, one must also accept the possibility of intellectual superiority in whites, did he not consider that notion that he rejected out of hand or subconsciously believe it? And if I wanted these things out loud, would he like my ex, judge me better or oversensitive?
I I'd mentioned an essay I'd given my students in which the anti-racism advocate Tim Wise, suggests that no one brought up in America can claim to be free of racist indoctrination, that doing so only perpetuates the crime. What Weiss says is that we must all recognize and confront the legacy of the past. I explained, I don't think everyone is racist, Jerry said. Maybe racialized, but that's not such a bad thing. By now, my hands were trembling, so I did not ask what he meant by that, I had a feeling that even if he tried to explain, I would not understand.
I engage with race, but not all black people do I know several interracial couples in which both people swear race is never an issue, almost never comes up at all. I believe them, but it amazes me and I know one thing, I can never join that pack. My ex did not grapple with race at first because he did not have to being a white man in America and later because it frightened him. This difference was a small but steady river that ran between us.
And the more he tried to ignore it, the more I clawed at the banks. And the more I clawed the banks, the larger the river swelled until at last we were engulfed. A black person who grapples with race cannot be with a white person who doesn't, whether a black person who grapples with race can be with a black person who doesn't is a different and unresolved question for me. But on the first point, I'm solid. So when Jerry called and asked if I would meet him for a drink, I agreed, but this time I went only to tell him.
We met at a bar with billions, he wanted to teach me to play, but I said we wouldn't have time. I can't see you again. I said. He blinked with surprise. Why, he said finally. I used my bayonet. Because you're white and it costs too much for me to date a white man, it cost me to be married to a white man for 13 years. I can't do it again. That's ridiculous, he said after a minute.
That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Which proves my point. I said it's not ridiculous. You can't be with any white man. No, I don't think I can. I may as well face that, because, after all, Jerry was a good man who worked with troubled kids and lived his life open to relationships with people of different races. And yet I couldn't be with him, even though, unlike my ex, he did seem willing to grapple with race.
But he was nearly 50 and his grappling apparently was just beginning, whereas mine started at five for nearly 50 years. He lived in America and yet it surprised him that race might even be an issue for us. There was an innocence in this. An innocence born of being white and innocence. I could neither share nor abide. It costs me too much. I repeat it. We were silent for a minute behind us, balls clicked and people laughed.
And now Jerry said, It's costing me. That's Lorraine Toussant reading Kim McLarens essay, race wasn't an issue to him, which was an issue to me. There's more from Kim after the break. Modern Love is sponsored by policy genius. Deep down, we all like to get scared around Halloween, but policy genius thinks one thing should not be scary shopping for home and auto insurance. Go to policy genius Dotcom and see how easy it is to shop over 30 top insurers in one place.
They do all the work comparing quotes, and they even have licensed experts that help find more savings. And if they find a better deal than what you have now, they can switch you for free. So if you're a homeowner, had the policy genius dotcom right now to get started, they've saved their home and auto insurance customers an average of 1127 dollars a year policy genius when it comes to insurance. It's nice to get it right. Kim McLarens essay came out back in 2006, and when it was published, she says she got a lot of angry messages.
It just got characterizes. She hates white people. And that's a very easy way to dismiss me and dismiss what I was saying. What I was simply saying was these issues are real. They continue to exist. This country continues to have issues of white supremacy and racial injustice. And I cannot be with a white man who refuses to acknowledge that. And anybody in 2019 who continues to deny the reality of racial injustice I think is really problematic. So I actually feel in some ways vindicated.
Kim's one regret about the piece was Jerry's reaction to it. Gerri did read the piece and he was furious at first he was furious, even though we did not use his last name, of course.
And to me, Gerri, wasn't the point of that essay. Gerri is representative of a lot of people in this society. And that's what I was really writing about. I wasn't writing about him. I was writing about the unwillingness of a large portion of American society to address these issues head on and how I couldn't be in an intimate relationship with one of those people. So, yeah, Jerry was pissed, but Jerry got over it. Kim is in a relationship now with a man she met three years ago and a year and a half ago, they had a commitment ceremony.
I don't believe in marriage anymore. So that's a separate issue. But yes, I'm well partnered. And ironically or not, ironically, he is he is white. He's a white man. And he's the love of my life. I call him the unicorn, actually, because he's a magical creature who nobody believes exist. But he does. He acknowledges his own white male privilege, and he does not discount or diminish my experience, which is what was happening with Jerry like.
So if I have an experience, if I'm in a department store and somebody follows me and accuses me of shoplifting, and I come home and tell him he doesn't say, oh, you were imagining. And he says that really, you know, he starts cursing with me and then we hug and then we go on and have dinner. That's the end of it, right? It's like we don't have to talk about race because he acknowledges the reality.
It's like you don't have to keep arguing about the wetness of water unless one person is denying that it is. And Kim says that for her, acknowledging another person's reality is essential to intimacy. I'm a big fan of James Baldwin. He is my spiritual guide, my guru, and he really said the writer's job is to look right at the heart of things and to tell the truth about the way human beings are and what it means to be human in this world in order to make the world a more human dwelling place and a more humane dwelling place.
And that's really all I'm trying to do, because we can't make things better until we acknowledge the way things are.
That was Kim talking to us back in April of 2009. We reconnected with her on Monday and we started by asking her how she's doing. I have been alternating between numbness and rage and exhaustion. I did not watch the original George Floyd video. I could not watch it. I am beyond weary of watching. Horrific violence against black people, so it is just been incredibly challenging and incredibly frustrating because this is not new. Here we are again and again and again.
And I'm just I'm just tired.
I am somewhat heartened by the protests. I think they are wonderful. I think they're necessary. I am, quite frankly, more heartened by the protests happening in Amsterdam and Paris and Hong Kong and Tokyo than I am in America because, I mean, America has such amnesia. I covered the Rodney King riots in 1992 when it first happened. There was outrage about those cops beating Rodney King on that L.A. highway and it quickly dissipated. And there has been white outrage before and there have been protests before.
So I'm I'm not going to dismiss it. But protest alone will not change the problem. We need structural change. And for that to happen, white people have to demand it and see it through. Malcolm X said, if you shove a knife six inches into my back and then you pull it out three inches, that's not progress, right?
Progress is pulling the knife way out and then repairing the wound. Right. So even if we have pulled the knife out three inches, that's not progress.
America seems to be beginning to face that we have a policing problem, but the policing problem is only part of the larger white supremacist systemic racism. And I don't know if America is facing that yet, so I don't know if we're making progress yet. It is too soon to declare progress.
And Kim says that this is not a problem that love can solve. I'm from the South, I grew up in the Memphis in the south. White people in black people had very close personal relationships that didn't change the structural racism. I know black women who are married to white men who are racist. I know a woman who says that her white husband is a racist. Loving an individual black person is irrelevant. I don't want your love. I don't want your friendship.
I want you to get out and fix your country. Interracial couples, biracial children. These are not the solution. And it's too, too easy to think that if we all just hold hands or fall in love, that things will change. That is far too easy and it is absolutely untrue. And we have 400 years of history to prove it. To be honest, I'm tired of talking, I'm 56 years old when I went away to boarding school to Phillips Exeter Academy when I was 16, I started then talking in class to people and writing papers and writing for the school newspaper.
I continued it at Duke. I continued it through my journalism career. I continued it through my novels. I continued it through my essays. I have been writing and talking to white people for 40 plus years. I'm tired and I'm pretty much done. James Baldwin said that we are not allowed to give up because of the children, so I will never give up, but I don't need hope to keep fighting and I'm not sure I do have hope in this country.
No, honestly, I can actually tell you the truth. I don't have any hope. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to. I'm going to stop fighting. That's Kim McLarin. She's a professor in the Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College. Her most recent book is Womanish A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life. We've got more after the break. This is Sam Dolnick, I'm an assistant managing editor at The New York Times, our newsroom has been empty since March, but we've been busier than ever before.
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Subscribe and thanks. Here's actress Lorraine Toussant back in April of 2009. Modern Love is one of the columns that my now husband would read to me in bed every week, he would save it and cut it out and bring it home to read to me in bed. And so that's how I came to know modern love. It was a ritual with us. And I'm black and my husband is white. And we talk about race all the time in our house.
It's never far away from how we are thinking, how we're talking, how we perceive the world. So this piece really did resonate with me for several different reasons.
Thanks again to Lorraine for reading this piece. Her upcoming film is called The Glorias. You can also see her in the upcoming CBS series The Equalizer.
Modern Love is a production of The New York Times and WB, you are Boston's NPR station.
It's produced, directed and edited by Caitlin O'Keefe, Original Scoring and sound design by Matt Reed. Iris Adler is our executive producer. We're edited by Catherine Brewer. Daniel Jones is the editor of Modern Love for The New York Times and adviser to the show. Special thanks to Julia Simon on your Streamy In and Molly at The New York Times and Max Liebman, AWB. You are. The idea for the Modern Love podcast was conceived by Lisa Tobin. Additional music courtesy of APM.
I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. See you next week.