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Good is Good: Why I DO Want to Talk About Race

Thursday, January 05, 2012

 

Tom Matlack is the former CFO of the Providence Journal and is the founder of The Good Men Project, a non-profit charitable corporation based in Rhode Island and dedicated to helping organizations that provide educational, social, financial, and legal support to men and boys at risk.

Steven Locke has been a mentor and friend to me now for fifteen years. When we first met I was shattered. He watched me cry and gave me a shoulder to cry on. More than anything, he showed me that whatever my problems were, there was a way through them, a way to a better life. He spoke with eloquence, passion, and grace. All things I wanted desperately but had lost all sight of in my travels.

At some point after we met, I think about a decade ago, I purchased two paintings from Steven. At the time he was getting a masters degree from Mass Art (where he is now a professor). One was a portrait on a one foot square piece of canvas of an African American man with his eyes closed, done in deep green and browns. That canvas sat on my desk at work directly behind my phone while I ran a venture capital firm. I stared at it year after year while doing deals, firing CEOs, selling companies, and taking them public.

The other painting is massive—five feet across. In the foreground is a well-dressed African American man with a pensive look in his eyes. Behind him is a white guy in a green shirt with his head turned. The two are not looking at each other, yet what struck me about the picture is about their interaction.

I hung the large painting in my apartment so that first thing every morning I’d walk out my bedroom and walk right into it. And there it stayed for the six years it took me to finally get remarried and move out of my bachelor pad.

One time a child visiting my apartment looked at the painting (you also couldn’t go to the bathroom without noticing it) and asked, “Is that man angry?”

Her comment was innocent enough, but it showed something that was hard for me to look at. “No, sweetie,” I said, “I think he’s just sad.”

♦◊♦

For fourteen years, I don’t think Steven and I once talked about race. There were more important things to discuss: my family, his art, how we each were doing. And then I asked him to write something for GMP about race and he replied with his now well-known letter back to me that he allowed us to turn into a post, “Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race.”

I love Steven for what he has taught me in life, not about race. I love his art. And I take him at his word when he said:

“Tom, I have never, not once, thought of you as white. I think of you as a father, a husband, a brilliant businessman, a feminist, a Quaker, and most of all as a friend. You have never treated me as whiteness demands that you treat me. I don’t want to talk about race because if I do, I stop being an artist, an educator, a godfather, a gay man, and most of all, human.”

At the same time, as a man struggling with issues of goodness and fairness and meaning, I find Steven’s art hauntingly beautiful in part because the paintings portray race in a way that I find true and troubling. And if I am being completely honest I will say that while I never judged what Steven told me in my moments of despair as anything more than the unconditional love of one man for another, I did listen particularly carefully when he told me his story for the very reason that I thought that a gay and African American artist would surely have something unique to tell a divorced venture capitalist that might enlighten and inspire me. At the very least it would allow me to see a larger world than the tiny one in my own head.

♦◊♦

One of the major disconnects in the conversation we have been having on GMP about race and gender is what it means to be an “ally” of the traditionally disenfranchised. I am all for looking at the data on sexual abuse, on race, on education, and on incarceration to try to understand the larger picture and what can be done to level the playing field and insure justice and safety for everybody.

But on a personal level I don’t ascribe to this idea that to be an ally I have to judge my friends based on relative privilege.  It feels too much to me like I am going into some refuge camp in horn of Africa.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not color or gender or sexual preference or ethnically blind. I actively seek out difference for a selfish reason. I just don’t call myself an ally. I call myself their equal and their friend, often for reasons that are far more human than they are to do with categories, as Steven so eloquently pointed out.

♦◊♦
Still, I am fascinated by the experience of what it is like to be black in America, which is why I go out of my way to try to understand it, to make friends with black people, to listen to their stories. Not because they are black per se but because it just adds another layer of complexity, of nuance, of meaning that gets me out of my own head and into someone else’s for a few minutes or a few hours.

I also have a thing for Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Africans, and Chinese people. I also really like Jews, Little People, and drag queens.

Most recently I have surrounded myself with Russians. Don’t ask me why. But a bunch of my friends came to this country from the former Soviet Union with literally nothing.

One day at the gym, I was telling one of my buddies that I had been reading a historical novel about World War One about how millions were sent to the front lines with no clothes to fight a war they didn’t believe in only to be frozen to death.

“Dude, the Russians really got fucked in that war.” I commented to him between sets.

“Us Russians always get fucked,” was his response. We both laughed our asses off.

I also feel the same way about men whose sexual orientation differs from my own, about men who have fought in war, men who have endured prison, who have lost a child, have played in a rock and roll band, or are working on the cure to cancer.

Goodness, to me, involves reaching across all those boundaries to find the interior truth of someone who might look completely different but has overcome challenges that I didn’t even know existed. Until I asked.

♦◊♦

Among the most difficult online conversations arising out of my piece about dudes being good was the charge that I had been racially insensitive at worst and a downright racist at best. Coming, as it did, on top of charges by feminists that I had my head places somewhere near by small intestines, I didn’t have it in me to respond in full. But now I have had time to think about it more fully and talk to a number of friends of a variety of races.

To recap the debate: Hugo wrote a piece supporting the idea that it’s okay for women to assume all men are rapists until proven otherwise (“Would you allow your daughter to get in a car with a strange man?” he asked). Ultimately, I reverted to attempting to prove how wrong his point was by asking if we should then assume all black people are criminals too; Sarah Jackson took offense and things spiraled on yet another front.
I am not going to recant what I have said (as has been requested) but I am going to try to explain it.

To my mind this idea of asserting collective guilt is a very slippery slope. On the topic of rape I have to point no further than the Duke Lacrosse hoax to see that someone with “privilege” who has clearly done some pretty stupid things does not mean that person is guilty of rape. In fact, in my work with GMP I have been approached by countless men who have been victims of rape or domestic violence. A close friend, after reading Hugo’s piece, told me that his mother shot and killed his dad. What am I to make of that in a world where all men are presumed guilty?

What particularly upset me was this question of who I might let my daughter get in the car with because the chain of logic led me directly to the idea that not only should my daughter not get into a car with a man but make damn sure that she not get in a car with a black man. I was thinking of GMP partner Jackie Summer’s, “Slow Motion: Skylarks, Prison and Social Progress”.

Racial profiling is something we can all agree is wrong.  So how can it possibly be the case that gender profiling is okay? That was my point. Not that racism is okay, just that sexism is NOT okay.

For the record I advise my daughter not to get into a car with any stranger—no matter their gender, sexual preference, religion or race. I don’t care if the person at the wheel is a friendly-looking Martian.

And when she chooses her friends, I advise her to do the opposite. Make sure she finds people who are different, who can broaden your horizons, who inspire and enlighten her, even if they happen to be Martians.

For more of Tom's works, as well as other pieces on related topics, go to The Good Men Project Magazine online, here.

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