Life can be a learning experience ... that is, providing we’re paying attention. I know that from experience. I’m a septua- genarian closing in on nonagenarian faster than I’m comfortable driving. (Look those big words up. I don’t have time to explain everything. Life is short, and I had this deadline.)
Speaking of words ... uh..oh, now I remember.
I was at this meeting, surely invited as a senior citizen with acquired wisdom about the momentisity of human existence — but more likely someone the others hoped would be in rapt attention at the brilliance of youth — not to interrupt or snore. (I made up “momentisity” because I wasn’t able to find a good synonym in my dog-eared Roget’s Thesaurus).
A couple of the youth attending were, like, maybe in their late twenties. The other squirts were, like, under 60.
The meeting was about racial relations, like, people born with different- toned epidermes, you know. There was, like, a lot of, you know, passion about blacks and whites. Who did what to who, when and why. Who should feel guilty, who should be angry. Who should speak up, and who should shut up. You know, like, whew, this was getting really heavy. The noise woke me up.
“I never saw a black human in my life,” I said interuptorally to the dozen or so in attendance.
Nobody said, “Well, where the hell have you been?” but I could tell that’s what they were, like, thinking. (I often insert the word ‘like’ to make me feel younger and, like, fit in — you know what I’m sayin’?)
Well, before they could ignore me and go back to business, I added, “I never saw, like, a white person either.” (I forgot to say that the multi-toned discussants considered themselves to fit into one category or the other.) There was, like, this one female (should say apparent female, for reasons some readers will understand) who was wearing a very dark jacket, so I inquired of that person what color it was.
“It’s black,” she said. Everybody’s eyes were, like, focused my way, some with respectful pity, some somethingly like “Huh??” Then I showed off my
fashion-retrograde white socks. “Anybody here this color?”
“That’s, like, ain’t nobody here dead yet, Hooper,” one guy snorted. “But you’re getting closer.” Ha, ha, ha.
Now for the serious part: It would be nice if humans were a less emotional, more dependably rational species. That is, creatures who considered both the benefits and the liabilities of words. Sadly, that is seldom the case. To use the terms “black and white” may be convenient simplifications but it is also dangerous — never more so than in social relationships.
The terms have become metaphors. A metaphor is “a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.”
In color, no human being is black, none is white. There are no precise op- posites of color among humans. We each have a unique skin shade. That’s a start, but the problem is deeper.
The terms black and white suggest an either-or problem or issue, as in “it’s as plain as black and white.” White is commonly used to imply goodness or morality. Black suggests the opposite. White suggests light, black equates to darkness.
And there’s the team-uniform phenomenon triggered by color polarity. Fans declare allegiance to one uniform or the other, sit together in the stands, and cheer or boo accordingly.
From the word “fan” comes “fanatic” and as a former high school basketball coach, I’ve seen plenty of the latter.
A favorite remembrance is the remark of Bernard Allen, a former superinten- dent, who told me that sometime he’d like to give all the fans a whistle and let them call the game from the stands, leave the refs home. Emotion, he suggested, was not always a beneficial human attribute.
Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed that his children would “one day live in a na- tion where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Maybe.
Mark Twain may have been more realistic: “The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little.” I hope Twain was wrong. But a necessary beginning will be to reject the terms black and white to describe or characterize people — beginning with ourselves in team uniform.
Lenten season may be a perfect time to think it all over.
Bob Hooper is a fourth-generation western Kansan who writes from his home in Bogue. firstname.lastname@example.org