I didn’t notice white privilege*until I was in the back of a police car.

I

I sold high end audio and home theater equipment for my first job out of college. I loved music and was a true gear head, the equipment itself was fascinating to me. By 1998 I had moved up to Northern Virginia and was working selling camera gear. Again, I loved photography and the gear so it was a good fit for me. I still loved audio equipment though.

I spent a lot of time at a high end audio store in McLean, a super posh suburb of DC in northern Virginia. The equipment they sold was on a level I could only dream of owning. Sublime sound, gorgeous equipment, and stratospheric prices were the hallmarks of the store. Vu, the owner, let me hang around and listen to my heart’s content. We got along really well and he wanted me to work there. I was tempted but I liked the job I had. I did take advantage of his courting though and spent a lot of time at his shop when I could.

The store had two levels. The basement had the really good stuff and that’s usually where I would hang out. One particular Sunday I went to the store. Vu was busy with a customer. He acknowledged me as I came in but I didn’t want to disturb him so I went downstairs. That night I was listening to an especially wonderful system. It was in the neighborhood of 40k worth of equipment. I had been listening for a long time by myself and realized he was bound to be closing soon. I went upstairs and found all the lights off and nobody home.

I had stayed late at my first audio job a few times to help with inventory and whatnot. What we would do is lock up the store without setting the alarm and walk across the street to eat dinner. After that we would come back, do what we needed to do, and then set the alarm when we left. When I found myself locked in the store in 98 I tried to remember the ins and outs of the alarm system. I realized that I hadn’t set off the alarm as I was walking around so I figured he hadn’t armed it. He must be coming right back, I’ll just let myself out and give him a hard time about it later on. As soon as I touched the doorknob the alarm went off.

Now my mind was racing. I could just leave but if anyone saw me it would look really bad. The phone rang. I knew it was the alarm company calling to see if the alarm had been set off by accident. Vu would have a code word to assure them things were fine. I decided to tell them what was happening. “He locked me in!” I said, “Hang on, we’ll send someone right over,” they responded. I had hoped that meant Vu but I knew better.

The police show up and I greet them through the main window at the front. I tell them that I was locked in and they motion for me to come out. Both officers were white. I only remember the one that stayed with me, he was young, maybe younger than my 27 years. As I explained the situation (downstairs, the owner knows me, etc.) my officer tells me he is now going to cuff me. “You’re going to cuff me?” He responded, “Well, we could do them behind your back if you want instead.” I nodded that I understood my situation. He patted me down and then put his cuffs on my wrists. Once I was in the back of the Crown Vic (there isn’t any leg room at all in those things!) his partner went in and looked around.

As I sat in the back of the cruiser a series of thoughts raced through my head. I knew things would eventually be OK but it wasn’t looking good in the meantime. I thought to myself, “Man, I’m glad I’m in McLean and not DC. I’m glad I don’t have a record.”

“I’m glad I’m not black.”

II

If you had asked me about Harvey Weinstein 5 years ago I would have said, “Who?” If you had instead told me that a super powerful Hollywood producer was systematically assaulting and possibly raping women that wanted to work for him I would have said, “Duh.” Everyone knew about the casting couch. It was widely understood that was how Hollywood worked. It was also understood that being able to do that sort of thing was a big reason why those men wanted that position. It was a perk of the job.

So in 1998 when I thought to myself, “I’m glad I’m not black.” I wasn’t filled with a seething anger about systematic racism or the disproportionate rate of violence and arrests that black people were subjected to by the police. No, it was a plain statement of fact. Everyone knew the police didn’t like black people. Everyone knew that black folks got carted off to jail for any reason at all. And so I was happy I wasn’t black. That was as far as my thought process went at the time.

The officer’s buddy came out of the shop. They had been in contact with the alarm company and had the alarm shut off but they couldn’t get a hold of Vu. He also said it doesn’t look like anything was amiss. I have no idea how he could know that, the place wasn’t exactly neat and there was, unbeknownst to him, a lot of small, crazy expensive stuff laying around. In any case, they decided to let me go. I don’t even think they checked my car. At the time I figured that they thought I was either telling the truth or I was the world’s worst burglar.

Fast forward about 15 years and I have had several black housemates, one of which had done time for selling drugs. Talking with them I got a better feel of what their experiences with law enforcement were like. A very troubling series of alternative scenarios came to me as I thought about what happened on that night in 98.

III

Normally you consider how you talk to be normal and other people have accents. I remember the first time I ever noticed an American accent. Jean Luc Goddard’s film “Breathless” is a classic French New Wave film. Unsurprisingly the entire cast is French. The lone exception played an American expat. Hearing Jean Seberg yelling, “New York Herald Tribune!” grated on the ears after hearing nothing but French native speakers. Is that what I sound like? Yikes.

As I thought about that night in 1998 I realized my whiteness was yelling “New York Herald Tribune!” How? We’ll start with the fact that the police let me go. I was a little surprised even when it happened. It was a ridiculous situation and I had nothing to offer the police as way of proof of what I said. If I were black I’m pretty sure I would have been booked.

But going a little deeper I realized that my reactions would have been completely different if I were black. When I answered the phone and talked to the alarm company I did so under the belief that since it was all a silly mistake everything would work out in the end. There isn’t any way I would have thought that if I were black. At best I would expect to be face down on the ground being read my rights and then spending a night in jail. At worst? Well…. No, if I were black and the alarm went off I would have gotten the hell out of there as quickly as I could. Of course if someone saw me leave I’m sure the police would have tracked down my car and greeted me with guns drawn when they found me.

IV

So I had a glimmer of what white privilege was in 1998 but it was a shallow and entitled view. It took 15 years and living with people that had experienced being black while dealing with police for me to really comprehend how privileged I was. It isn’t enough to know that you have it better with the police because you are white. You need to understand that you have options when it comes to actions to take and the assumptions you make when it comes to the police that black folks do not. And with just a little bit more thought (just a little) you’ll start to comprehend that goes well beyond just dealing with the police. If you are black there is another level of stuff that you will have to deal with all the time that whites can’t understand because it doesn’t exist for us. That stuff complicates everything, no matter who or what you are dealing with. It is a reactive force thrust upon you and impacts every thought you have and therefore every action you take. White privilege is living without that extra layer of history and personal experiences complicating everything including what you think of yourself and what a lot of people expect out of you just because of The color of your skin. I can point to a singular moment in 1998 when I undoubtedly benefitted because of my race. What I can’t point to is the vague complexity of all of the things in my life that would have been different if I were black. Most white people don’t have the former but all have the latter and are oblivious.

I’m thankful to have had not only that moment in 1998 but also the exposure to black experiences needed to put it into perspective. While I don’t think it’s a good idea for everyone to be suspected of robbery I think that being exposed to the black experience is something we should all be expected to do. Sit down and talk with black folks, it’s literally the least you can do.

*While I am completely on board with the concept, I find the term white privilege can be counterproductive at times. I think it works in this context but I hope to write more about that in the future.

The only pertinent facts in the impeachment trial

Imagine you are a Republican senator and you believe that Trump should be removed from office. If you had any integrity you’d vote to do that right? After all, remove Trump and you get Pence as President. He’s as red blooded a conservative as you can find these days. The problem facing thoughtful Republican senators (I know, I know, just go with me here) is this isn’t about maintaining a conservative president, it’s about the senators staying in office.

Trump’s popularity really is a cult of personality. Neither Trump nor his supporters have shown any loyalty to Republican rank and file members. In fact, Trump has managed to convince all Republicans that their continued support from his base is vital to their continuing political lives. His supporters would be very upset if he were replaced by Pence. The problem facing Republican senators is that supporting, let alone voting for, Trump’s removal would most likely mean they would be summarily kicked out of office next election. Politicians’ lives revolve around staying in office so they can accomplish whatever it is that they think is important. After all, you won’t get anything done if you’re not in office so everything you do has to support that goal first.

Voting your conscience is a luxury afforded only to politicians that don’t care if they get re-elected. This is why Trump will not be removed from office through this impeachment trial. The result of this trial will be determined by the beliefs of the senators’ constituents not the facts in the trial. Politics, and political life in general, is no place for idealists.

What Northam should have said

“I am here to apologize for appearing in blackface during my collage days. Not realizing how offensive it was at the time was part and parcel of the racist culture that I grew up in and was a part of. It has taken me decades (decades!) to appreciate just how offensive that activity is.

Social justice is one of the primary reasons I joined the Democratic Party. Looking back on my past pains and embarrasses me but it is a necessary step in righting wrongs. Reckoning with our past sins is part of growing and becoming a better person. With education and exposure to different viewpoints people can change. And if people can change, societies can change. As your governor, as a member of the Democratic Party, I strive to be part of that change. Thank you.”

That took me all of A few minutes to type up and I’m incredibly rusty at writing. Keep in mind that even if he doesn’t believe this (and he clearly does not) he should have said it anyway. I’m only sort of joking when I ask if you can’t even count on your politician to lie, what kind of politician are they?

There are times that a political figure will have to, if not lie outright, say things they don’t completely agree with in order to advance party priorities. In this case, he should have said something along the lines I spelled out just to keep the morale and political capital of his party up. As it stands this incident is not only a personal setback but it has done a lot of damage to his party. A lot of that could have been mitigated by being contrite, asking for forgiveness, and then using it as a rallying point to motive forward. Would that have really been so hard?

Favorite Albums pt. 10 of 10

Let’s be real for a second, I love far more than 10 albums but this has been a fun exercise. I really struggled to name my last album but ultimately shrugged and decided to just pick another one I love.

It took me quite a while to warm up to Marquee Moon. I first heard it in college and dismissed it as a band that wanted to sound like the Cars but was trying too hard. Over time I grew to appreciate the sound and its place in history. And I don’t necessarily mean musical history. There is a kind of weariness to it and in my mind that fits in well with the times. I can’t help but hear Vietnam and Watergate fatigue in the sound.

That weariness is also why I’ve never really considered it a punk album. It doesn’t have the attitude and snarl I expect out of punk. Marquee Moon strikes me as a mood album. The guitars are more atmospheric than driving in my opinion. But what a mood! I love the feel and sound of this album, they more than justify its perpetual placement on critics’ best albums lists. It’s another one that too few people have heard.

Favorite Albums pt. 9 of 10

Punk Rock!

Take a prototypical American punk album, lo-fi, grating, low on talent but high on attitude, and mix it with third wave feminism and you get this album. Bikini Kill was at the forefront of the so-called Riot Girrrl movement, female punk rockers carving out their own space in punk music. Here is a quick primer on the movement as a whole. I think Bikini Kill was easily the most “punk” of all of them.

This album starts with the lead singer Kathleen Hannah yelling, “WE’RE BIKINI KILL AND WE WANT REVOLUTION!!” That sets the stage for the onslaught of guitars, screaming, and general badassery to come. Punk rock has always specialized in confrontational, deliberately antagonizing songs and trying to shock people that they see as antagonists. There are some doozies on this album that fit into that punk archetype like Carnival, Suck my Left One, and White Boy. Also on here is what most people think is their signature song Rebel Girl.

Listening to this in 92 was a revelation. It also reminded me of the music scene I had fallen into at college. Today I think it is bracing, like splashing cold water on your face. I will still listen to this when I need to get my blood pumping and my senses sharpened.

My Favorite Albums Pt. 8 of 10

This may be my favorite important album that most people have never heard of or the artist.

Double Nickels on the Dime is an American punk classic. The only song from it most people recognize is Corona because it was used as the theme to the movie Jackass. As an aside, Corona is a brilliant song and it pains me that people’s only connection to it involves the Jackass franchise. Sigh.

Released in 1984, DNOTD features sparse, witty songs with the Minutemen’s signature brevity. “We are time Nazis…” is one of D. Boone’s self descriptive lyrics. Some of my favorite songs on the album include the aforementioned Corona, The Big Foist, Jesus and Tequila, Little Man with a Gun in his Hand, and their taking-the-piss versions of Steely Dan’s Dr. Wu and Van Halen’s Ain’t talking ’bout Love. I think anyone that loves honest, blue collar rock with punk leanings needs to hear this album. I’ll always love it.

My Favorite Albums pt. 7 of 10

Today’s album is probably my favorite jazz album of all time.

I originally bought this album based on recognizing the name Sarah Vaughn and loving the cover. Having recently “getting” Jazz for the first time via Cookin’ by the Miles Davis Quintet I was hot to get another cool cool jazz record. Much like my very first album I ever bought I got lucky with my second jazz album completely by chance.

I had listened to Ella Fitzgerald and enjoyed her stuff well enough but found her scat soloing tiring after a while. Sarah Vaughn’s singing relies much more on color and tone rather than Ella’s riffs and runs. Vaughn’s perfect phrasing created what I consider canonical versions of several jazz standards like Lullaby of Birdland, September Song, and Jim.

The other musicians are in fine form as well. In particular Herbie Mann’s flute, Paul Quinichette’s sax, and Clifford Brown all put in understated, classy performances. The sound is warm and lush and in my mind epitomizes everything good about mid-50s jazz.

My Favorite Albums pt. 6 of 10

Here is day 6 of my favorite albums in no particular order. You can start at the beginning of the list here.

Today’s album is the last one ever made by this artist.

Glenn Gould caused a sensation when he recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1955. Gould re-recorded the piece in 1981 and I believe it is far superior to his first try. That, in turn, means that the 1981 version is the best one you will ever hear.

Casals’s renditions of Bach’s Cello Suites were what opened my ears and brain to Bach but it is Gould’s 1981 Goldberg variations that opened my heart. Five notes into the initial “Aria” and I was captivated. The rest of the 30 variations spill out effortlessly and captivate me every time I play them.

This album gives you two geniuses at once, Bach and Gould. Both shine through and I believe this recording will be held up as authoritative as long as people listen to Bach. It is brainfood of the highest order, it refuses to stay background music. It demands to be listened to and will command your attention. If you only ever listen to one classical album this should be it.

Favorite albums 5 of 10

This is the fifth installment of my list of my 10 favorite albums. You can see the beginning of it here.

Today’s album still haunts me after all these years.

Pretty on the Inside is not fun to listen to, nor is it filled with songs that you’ll find yourself humming. Harrowing is the best word I can find to describe it. The album seems to chronicle a woman’s descent into heroin and prostitution. Abusive relationships, the threat of overdoses, and the constant fear of herself round out the fun times. The songs hold together really well and the lyrics are both well crafted and delivered expertly.

I don’t usually like concept albums, or even albums with a narrative thread. Most of them never transcend the didacticism of their story telling. I always imagine the artist presenting their very important work to me and I’m supposed to be the grateful receiver of their message. Pretty on the Inside manages to transcend this problem by simultaneously painting an excruciatingly stark painting of this woman’s life and not caring if you “get something” out of it or not. The lyrics and performance feel too honest to be just stories. Knowing what we know about Courtney Love’s life makes me sure she has first hand knowledge of what happens to the protagonist on this album.

I love this album because it is an honest, complete piece of performance art. Love has managed to make a towering monument to self-loathing and bad decisions. I think it is important to experience art like this from time to time in order to empathize with people in these sorts of situations. Sometimes you have to stand in the dark in order to see the light. This album gives you a taste of what living in a spiritual and emotional darkness must be like.

Most Important Albums to me 4 of 10

This is the 4th in a series talking about my top 10 most important albums. You can see the beginning of the series here.

Today I’m sharing one of my favorite rock albums of all time.

This is the first album by the White Stripes. Plenty has been written about them, both good and bad. What people tend to hate about the group is what is seen as artificiality. I don’t agree with that assessment at all. The look is calculated but so were Bowie’s. I have no problem with bands managing their look and presence, especially when they have the musical chops to back it up.

This album is rock and roll stripped down to its most basic. Most of the songs are just a guitar and drums. Meg White’s drum playing has been widely criticized but I think that criticism is off base. Jack White has said that she played drums like a cave man but that wasn’t criticism. Her simple beats are the perfect foil to his huge blues riffs. Criticizing her because she isn’t Neil Piert or Buddy Rich just shows how little you understand the band.

In my opinion this may be the best sounding rock album of all time. The live experience of feeling the drums and having the guitar envelop you typifies the rock concert experience and solidifies the feel of the music. This album was recorded in such a way that you can feel like you are at a live show. Yes, the music is simple and not very deep but it feels incredible. I turn to this album whenever I want to feel alive and have a rock and roll experience.