Posted by: facetothewind | July 27, 2007

Learning to Love the White People: making peace with being American

Let’s rewind life back to January 2007. While ice storms sweep through Texas, I’m in Thailand at the Radical Faeries’ heart circle. A group of about 30 men from Thailand, America, England, Malaysia, Estonia, Holland, Germany sit in a circle with knees touching under the shade of a thatched-roof hut on the sandy beach of Koh Yao Yai, a mostly Muslim island off the coast of Phuket. Here in the middle of the sparkling blue Andaman Sea, the sun is painfully hot and the tropical breezes barely sufficient to keep us cool. I sit slightly bothered by the heat waiting for the talisman.

The designated talisman today is a string of oxblood red beads I took from around my neck and placed in the center of the circle. The talisman serves as a reminder to all in the circle that the holder is the speaker and there is to be no crosstalk. The “heart circle” as it is known worldwide among the Faeries is a daily occurrence—a meeting of the minds, a community convergence for the participants of the Radical Faeries gathering. There are sometimes moments of silence and even huge outpourings of emotions as folks reveal a little bit of their lives, their struggles, hopes realized, and dashed.

My red beads came around to me and it was my time to talk. “Hi I’m Beanpole,” I said with a little upswing at the end to say that more will follow. Another morsel about the Faeries: we take on nicknames like “Beanpole.” I’ve heard everything from Leo Starfucker Sunshine to Mrs. Clear Plastic to Candy Dish. (By the way, if you look up “Radical Faeries” on Wikipedia, you’ll see a picture of Portland resident Mrs. Clear Plastic.) The Faerie names are often cute, revealing a little bit (sometimes too much) about the person’s personality. Sometimes they reclaim an old epithet, as is the case with my Faerie name, Beanpole. It was a name first given to me as a child, a 5’10”, 120-pound weakling, in a pejorative way by my bigger-boned classmates in high school. But now I had the beads and I had a lot to say.

Being a guest in someone else’s country, stripped of my American entitlements, I felt the need to apologize to the world vis-à-vis this very international gathering of men. My little reparations went something like this: “I want to start out this gathering saying that I am from America but I don’t want to be identified as an American. It is something I wouldn’t have imagined I would have to say, but I’m sorry that I’m an American. I know that some of you have seen some of the damage that we have inflicted upon your country and although I didn’t personally vote into office the idiots who have done some horrible things, I do want to say that I’m sorry.”

It was what some would call white guilt: guilt for an embarrassment of riches laid at my feet because I am from the wealthiest country in the world, male, and white. None of which I had any hand in finessing, but still it led me to the grand apology. Viking Diva, a large-boned, bright-eyed man from Estonia held my hand.

I went on clutching my beads in one hand and Viking Diva’s hand in the other and made eye contact with the Thai men, “And what have we Americans done with our wealth? We’ve closed our borders so that you Thai men can never come to visit us.” I faced the European men and continued, “We’ve denied the legitimacy of your relationships so you cannot come to America to be with your partners. And we’ve bullied your countries so that we may reap maximum profits. I’m just so embarrassed and I hope during this gathering that we can meet on a level playing field, that you won’t see me as American first, but as human first.” A round of hissing followed my little speech. Hissing in the Faeries is a sign of support—you can’t clap, after all, when you’re holding hands.

I gave up the beads and passed them on to Viking Diva and he passed them on to the person next to him. Eventually they made their way to a blue-eyed, gray-haired German man named Feirifis. He held the beads and looked at me with a big forgiving smile and said in perfect English with only a moderate German accent, “Beanpole, you don’t need to be embarrassed to be American. Sure your country has lost its way, but America has always been the country of great possibility. Your country has been very imaginative and bold and has done some great things. You don’t need to apologize to us for being American.”

Tears began streaming down the sides of my face. I clenched Viking Diva’s hand again and quietly sobbed. I can’t say that I’ve ever felt terribly patriotic, but after being in Thailand and seeing people with so little material wealth living so well and with such generosity, my love of America and white privilege had sunk to an all-time low. And now, ironically, a representative from a country responsible for the worst atrocities in human history was telling me that I need not be ashamed and that of course I’m welcome as a human being, and as an American.

In spite of my disillusionment with my homeland, in spite of my fascination for Asia and Latin-America, there is no denying that I am one of those willowy white folks holding the world’s trump card: an American passport. Slathered with sun block, hiding in the shade of trees while the petite, smooth, brown-skinned Thai people cavorted in the tropical sun, I had to find something lovable about my lumbering parentage. I had my work handed to me like a plate of Swedish meatballs: Must Make Peace with Being White American.

You see, all that is not me fascinates me: dark, smooth skin, black hair, brown eyes, short, and elfish. The objects of my interest are not the hulking descendants of the Vikings, the Romans, The British Empire. The people of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Costa Rica—the countries that intrigue me the most—have in their collective histories been much better behaved, lacking aspirations to take over the world. Alas, apart from my interest in the people of these countries, there is one significant obstacle I have faced: I have almost nothing culturally in common with them. After weeks of gleeful encounters with people on the bustling streets, earnestly trying to spit out a few Thai words, I always ended up at the same place conversationally—parting with a cursory view of some Thai person’s life that lacks and always will lack a deep understanding. This was the tragedy of Thailand for me—an insurmountable cultural and language barrier.

After nearly a month of broken conversations with beautiful people, I left the colorful world of bows and smiles at dawn bound for America. It was a hard farewell for me, having been so welcomed and celebrated simply for being a couple shades lighter, and a couple heads taller.

On the day of my departure, the hotel in Bangkok rang my room at 5 am. “Mister David, your taxi is here.” I rushed down to the street dragging my suitcases behind me in the still tropical morning air. I got into the car and closed the door and then I heard tapping on the glass, “Wait…Goodbye, David!” It was Andrew and Rob, the two Americans I had met a couple days prior during the group breakfasts at the hotel. They are an adorable gay couple from Portland, Oregon. Andrew is actually from Vietnam originally but is more American at this point than I am with his Mini Cooper, split-level ranch house and corporate job as a technical designer at Nike.

“Khar tord, kap,” I told the taxi driver in Thai asking him to excuse me for a moment. I jumped out of the car and gave Rob and Andrew a big hug and thanks for coming down to say goodbye. Up early with jetlag, they had called the lobby to see if I had left and were told that I was on the way and so they rushed to the street to meet me.

It was a memorably sweet gesture and parting glance from Asia. But it was more than just a friendly goodbye. It was a welcome back to America from the people who knew how to say it: Americans. I got back in the taxi and headed down the dark, littered alley to the freeway. My driver raced the entire 30-minute drive to the freeway. We were racing at about 90 MPH, whizzing past giant billboards with Samsung ads, a picture of the King and Queen of Thailand in yellow silk robes welcoming me to Thailand, seen through the rear window as we sped past. I was not looking forward to returning to the land of the giants, of excess and privilege, the homeland security crap, the demanding people, and the anti-depressants.

I filmed myself on the upper deck of the Japan Airlines 747 with my face wet from tears—as if I were being banished to a concentration camp where everyone is privileged and miserable. Somewhere over the ocean on the way to Tokyo, I downed a Xanax and deadened the pain.

Many hours later, after a flight transfer in Japan, I finally arrived in Dallas. I got off the flight from Tokyo to see the all-too familiar sights of America: the Dallas Cowboys Store, the morbidly obese white people with stringy white hair, cowboy hats, and pinched faces. Gone were the petite, smiling faces. Gone were the gracious bows of the Buddhists, the soft brown eyes, the yellow silk monarchs, the smell of fresh foods in the open market. I was back in America where it smelled like off-gassing carpet, Windex, and McDonald’s French fries. Freedom Fries, excuse me.

Looking out through the crush of white flesh, I thought about how Thai guys were so eager to meet Americans. What on earth do the Asians (and Latinos) see about this that is attractive—this pinched face of privilege? I’m staring my high school football team that never grew up straight in the face and I am failing now to see the beauty of this. Well, it is Dallas, after all, I told myself. In my immediate circles no one wears fringy boots or sweatshirts emblazoned with football helmets.

Finding something beautiful about this was going to be really difficult work. To quell my desire to go right back to the counter and purchase a one-way ticket back to Thailand, I worked through my finances in my head. The news was not good. It would be many months until the next time I could afford to escape America.

Fast forward to July 2007. I’m now in Portland, Oregon, escaping the Arizona summer. The charms of Thailand have long since faded out like a dream loosens its grip on you after your first cup of coffee. Portland is the kind of place that if you were able to bring someone over from Thailand to America, you’d want to bring him here first. Unlike most American cities with their blights of strip malls, big box stores, and unbridled growth, there’s just so very little to apologize for here in this well-planned city. Even the cool and the gray would seem enchanting to someone who has never known anything but the beastly heat of the tropics.

In the afternoons, after I’ve done my day’s work, I take a bike ride around the neighborhoods and then cross the Willamette River and bike through downtown Portland. The streets are lined with giant trees that meet each other to form continuous shady canopies. The houses are mostly all stately 100-year old Edwardian beauties, not as fanciful as San Francisco’s earlier Victorians. The gardens are lush and green with many varieties of roses mixed in with light blue and pale magenta hydrangeas blossoming in the dappled light beneath the trees.

Portland is a city of neighborhoods that function as independent satellites of the main downtown commercial district. The east-west streets of Belmont, Hawthorne, Alberta and the like are dotted with shops, neighborhood bookstores, groceries, restaurants and cafes. They are mostly devoid of chains and certainly no big box stores like Home Depot. Portland’s smart urban planning has inoculated this city in a nation plagued by the spreading disease of corporate America. It is a city of abundance. Abundantly green and wet—fresh water constantly flows from the water fountains. Abundantly intelligent and charming. What it lacks most obviously is racial diversity.

The faces one sees prancing beneath shade trees in Portland’s verdant neighborhoods are by and large the faces of northern Europe. Less than 3 percent of Portland’s population is black. Less than 1 percent is Latino. The only minority of significance here is its Asian community of around 4 percent, if that is what you would call significant.

Oregon is the whitest state in the America—as white and glowing as the giant loaf of Franz white bread that spins atop a rotary sign over their bakery in the northeast section of Portland. In fact, Portland is so white bread, the neighborhood that is the center of its black community is oddly named Albina after the street that runs through it—a malaprop if I’ve ever heard one.

Racial politics aside for the moment, I figure that Portland is the perfect place to reacquaint myself with the beauties of white people. It makes you want to cringe, doesn’t it—a white guy celebrating his whiteness. I’ll just say it: I’m on a quest for “white American pride” which should not be confused with white supremacy. If you’ve not been following along, this is my big opportunity to cease being embarrassed for being an American of European extraction. It is not a personal quest at the cost of anyone else’s liberation, only the chance to attain my own.

Tonight I’m in the Alberta (not to be confused with Albina) neighborhood of Portland, a playful little stretch of streets in the northeast quarter of town. Like most of Portland, the Alberta neighborhood is as white as the iceberg roses that climb over the picket fences. The Alberta neighborhood used to be a black neighborhood, but with the influx of young, white singles and couples, many black people have been priced out.

On the last Thursday of each month, the neighbors converge on Alberta Street for a big sidewalk festival with craft vendors, artists, and street musicians. The occasion produces an interesting blend of all the shades of liberal white America. Last Thursday is a little bit Oregon Country Fair and a little bit Burning Man. People walk by on stilts with painted faces, a Klesmer band at the corner belts out a bouncy little sad tune with the clarinet taking the melody. The Alberta Street Clown House has a stage in its side yard with two women with dread locks playing the accordion and singing “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away.”

I walk through the crowded sidewalks spilling out into the streets with my friends. Tonight I’m marveling at all that is white: the delicate faces, rosy cheeks kissed by the summer sun; the little button noses and cupid’s bow mouths; the unshaved men with moppy waves of silky hair; the light eyes sparkling from behind fashionable German eyewear. It’s basically the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog on parade with a few broad strokes of scruff painted on for grit.

It struck me that while walking this street with all these gorgeous young white folk, making peace with white America was not really all that hard to do. Doing so from the aisles of Costco or from the street fairs of Tucson is something entirely more challenging. See my short film “A Tribute to Bad Taste” on YouTube:

But tonight, here in Alberta, it is easy to be an American.

My friends and I stumble into the Concordia Coffee House, an establishment with the usual slightly grungy Portland café look—dirty floor, battered sofas and furniture, transom windows with one letter of the word “COFFEE” painted on each one. There is a band playing in the front window. It is an ensemble of 6 young men and one middle-aged lesbian playing fast-tempo classic American bebop and swing tunes on the guitar, cello, violin, mandolin, and saxophone. We walked in as they were playing Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” There is a certain poignancy witnessing white folks playing a black man’s song in a once-black neighborhood.

During a faster number, a young couple jumped up from the sofa and pushed aside a few chairs and tables. The boy was clad in a gray striped shirt, brown leather wingtip shoes and a little 40’s style cap. The girl was wearing a polka-dotted sundress dress with heels. They launched into a well-rehearsed dance routine that was a fusion of Lindy Hop, Charleston, Balboa, and Swing styles. He excitedly jumped and danced around her as he spun her and lifted her. He would jump up and land hard, spin her and dip her, do a little kick out to the audience and smile at us and then return his gaze to her.

A stilt walker left the teeming streets and entered the café with his head ducked under the doorframe. Towering over the band in his long, striped silk pants, he cast a fake look of indifference at all of us who were laughing at the spectacle of a 10-foot tall man indoors. One of my friends went over and asked him to dance. They did an awkward little jig at the doorway—a 5-foot something and a 10-foot something.

Soon after, my boyfriend walked in the door and I greeted him with a big hug and kiss. We tried dancing a little bit to “All of Me” but he’s not a dancer and nor am I, so we just held hands and listened to the band. Behind us were a group of frat boys drinking coffee and more interested in the band than our same-sex coupling. The espresso machine was screaming over the band, belching out steam as the hipsters stood in line ordering their double organic, unsweetened, low-fat, decaf, soy latte with extra foam. It seemed that the band was accelerating into a frenzied version of something that sounded familiar. It quickened my own pace and made me smile. I couldn’t help noticing that the frat boys weren’t hazing us for being gay.

I watched the sweaty faces of all the boys and the one lesbian playing in the band. I watched them smile at each other as they looked up from their instruments. They seemed so earnest and intent on playing, and so content to be playing with each other. Their music case probably netted them no more than 25 dollars, so it clearly was not for love of money that they came to perform.

None of the band members were beauties on their own. As individuals, to my taste, each of them was a little dorky-looking. Their hair was unkempt, and messy, even the lesbian had a big mound of sweeping gray hair and no makeup. The boys were dressed from thrift stores—tattered gingham plaids, old suit pants with holes and unpolished shoes. But the aggregate of the boys were what I would consider attractive: solid European stock, probably some Irish, English, German, and Italian. The cellist looked decidedly Eastern European with his thin nose and delicate jaw structure. A small dusting of brown fuzz ran up the nape of his neck. The guy playing the fiddle looked to be Jewish with his dark curly hair and brown eyes. He wore little round glasses ala Sigmund Freud. It was the melting pot of America minus a few ingredients from the east and the south—the sum total comprising a gangly group of creative white folk—scruffy, unselfconscious, creative, and community-minded.

The words of Feirifis rang in my head: “Your country has been very imaginative and bold and has done some great things. You don’t need to apologize to us for being American.” Here in the café with this band, surrounded by these pasty-skinned people, the frat boys, the artists, the queers, for better or for worse, I came to realize that these are my people. For the first time in years and in spite of the war in Iraq, in spite of our excesses, in spite of an idiot president who has equated the very name America with hostility, tonight, I myself did something imaginative and bold: I held a sense of hope for America. Perhaps my people will right themselves and America will grow up. Perhaps the world will see us as an inspiration again, instead of a global pariah. Maybe someday we’ll learn to share and we’ll get along. Maybe we’ll stop screwing up the planet, and like we did tonight, we’ll walk to our neighborhood café and make our own music and dance.

I know it’s a bit of a simplistic, idealistic view, but from what I can see in Portland, things are looking good.


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