But he seemed to be apologizing for more than his act. He seemed to be guilty about more than making a 13-year-old black girl feel as worthless as the carton that was casually discarded on the ground next to the bench.
I had become familiar with that look before my reunion with Mr. Boots, and I’ve seen it many times since. The eyes don’t meet yours initially. They search desperately for something to focus on, and, finding nothing, shift from just above your ear to the top of your head. Anywhere but your eyes. If by accident the eyes should meet yours, they are stuck there. Sometimes the cheeks are crimson; other times, it’s as if they’ve seen a deceased relative.
I’ve seen it, mostly at the movies.
A few years ago I saw John Singleton’s film “Rosewood” about how a white woman’s indiscretion and subsequent lie caused the deaths of dozens of African Americans, and decimated the Florida town they owned. The lights came up, and as I looked across, I saw a 50-something white couple. Her eyes met mine, his were already scouring the floor. I walked out behind them. He held the door for his wife, she held it for me.
“Thank you,” I said.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, with the dead-relative look.
“What did you do?” I asked. I knew why she was apologizing, but I wanted her to say it. Carry that burden, Atlas.
“It was just so horrible what happened. Just horrible.”
I wondered what she had done in her life to make her think she had to apologize. I wondered why she thought apologizing to me would make it OK. I wondered if she thought it did. It must be hard to carry the guilt for the outrages of history.
White people have been the villain in the past most of people of color — African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Asians. Slavery, internment camps, reservations, invasions. The result of white people behaving badly was an era of political correctness that has made even colored folks nauseous. Even the Bible underwent a makeover. There were apologies — for the Holocaust and the Tuskegee study. There were reparations to victims of internment camps. And for those who didn’t know, there were televised lessons on the Tuskegee airmen, the Negro Leagues and the poverty of Native Americans. And that was good — in a way.
Unfortunately, though, the guilt hasn’t made things between whites and people of color better. This guilt, not familiarity, has bred contempt. And that contempt makes real communication impossible.
When I asked white people what were some of the disadvantages of being white, any response was prefaced with “your people had it so much worse.” Nobody would tell me what they’d tell their same-hued friend or neighbor, that they did the civil-rights thing and affirmative action is in place, so why do blacks now want reparations for slavery? They don’t say that their husbands/brothers/uncles have been laid off after 25 years, and they think it sucks that some black kid is still employed. They won’t say they lock their car doors when they’re stopped at an intersection and a black man is waiting to cross. And since those words are never said to anyone that doesn’t look like them, it doesn’t get talked about in a way that makes a difference. The fear and guilt become anger and resentment. We become “them,” a blur of darkness, not individuals.
The backlash against affirmative action and other programs designed to assuage guilt is the manifestation of the contempt that came from the guilt. “Them,” the dark blur, has failed to alleviate white guilt. Maybe because blacks don’t pat whites on the back and say, “It’s OK. I appreciate your apology and it’s all better now.” Maybe because we haven’t linked arms for a chorus of “Ebony and Ivory.” Maybe because blacks know that whites are looking for an easy out, and they ain’t having it.
White people are tired of feeling guilty because they’re not getting the results they want. I don’t know what Mr. Boots expected that day in the parking lot; maybe he sought what I sought that Halloween eight years before — acceptance. An apology or a sympathetic comment cannot erase years of pain. And since blacks can’t give whites what they want, whites are angry. When you’ve had a conflict with someone, and you decide to make the first move toward correcting it, and the recipient is less than welcoming, it’s frustrating.