I have known white men. I have loved white men. This often surprises people. They read my writing about race and gender and make assumptions. They think that a passionate desire for equality rises from a place of hatred rather than from an abiding sense of fairness. They misunderstand equality as the destruction of one group instead of the salvation of another.
There was the first boy I ever loved – golden-haired, blue-eyed – and then he and several other boys who were just like him did something terrible to me. It would have been easy, I suppose, to imagine that all white men were like that: brute, taking what they wanted as if it were owed to them. Perhaps I do think that of white men. Some days, I cannot be sure.
I am a child of the suburbs and forgotten rural places. For most of my life, I have lived in areas where I am the exception rather than the rule. I have known white men. I have watched them mow their lawns and play softball on Thursday nights and drink beer and go to work each morning in their sensible suits and sensible shoes. I have studied the confidence with which they walk, the shape of their squared shoulders, the almost unbearable firmness of their handshake. I have seen how they survey a room they enter, knowing they have an inalienable right to fill that space as they see fit, no matter the circumstance. I have hated such confidence. I have envied such confidence.
I have seen white men presiding over trials, presiding over corporations, presiding over many countries in the western world. I have watched as they have made choices that serve, mostly, their own best interests. I have watched as such self-interest has gone unchecked and even been encouraged.
I have seen white men kill men and women with skin like mine because their fear of difference overcame grace and humanity. It pains me to realise this but I will continue to bear witness to such disgrace. I will continue to be powerless in the face of it.
When I see a white man ambling towards me on the street at night, or when I am in an elevator with him, or when I see him in the car next to mine on the interstate, I often think I should be afraid. I know what white men are capable of. Bullets are impervious to righteousness. I and many others will be forced to mourn Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, John Crawford and, and, and . . .
I have written about white men and how prominently they figure in our culture. I have written about the ease with which they move through the world. I have written about how far too many white men are unwilling to acknowledge that ease, that privilege. They hate that word, privilege. They hear it as an accusation rather than a statement of fact. They see it as an attack on their character or an attack on their way of life. They feel threatened and, perhaps, they should. They know how good they have it. They know what their lives would be like if they lost that privilege. No one would willingly relinquish such power.
White men have written to me to tell me I am wrong. White men have written to me to tell me their sad stories, as if their suffering, great or small, were the bridge across which we could find common ground. They are not interested in my sad stories. When these white men write to me, they are trying to say, “I am more than my skin.” They are trying to say, “I bleed, too.” I want to write back and say, “I never said otherwise.”
There is the most recent man I loved – the rugged sort, a logger and a hunter. He was persistent. He took me into the woods and showed me hidden waterfalls. He took me deer hunting in the cold, early morning. He taught me the various parts of a crossbow and how to hold it properly, braced against the shoulder. He taught me how to exhale as I pressed the trigger. He loved the natural world and understood it better than people.
He couldn’t stand heat and humidity. He kept a beard even though I often urged him to shave so I could see the smooth of his face.
He drove a truck and he had a cabin on a lake and he loved to fish. I would sit on the dock at his cabin reading while he held his fishing pole, staring at the water like he knew the mysteries lurking beneath the surface. I stared at him over the pages of my book like I knew the mysteries lurking beneath his surface.
He was conservative and I was decidedly not. When I tried to lure him to my liberal way of thinking, he smiled at me like I still had so much to learn. I loved to argue with him. I loved to make him question his place in the world the way he made me question mine. I made him happy. He made me happy. We never knew if that was enough.
He was a drinker, beer and bourbon mostly. On weekends, we would go out to a bar or the bowling alley, anything to get out of the house, hear a little music, dance together. We lived in a really small town. We were never going to be able to hide in plain sight. We drew attention as an unlikely couple: my brown skin, his skin somewhat paler, me the quiet graduate student, he the outdoorsman with thickly calloused hands and a calm demeanour until the drink got in him real good.
Small town, middle of nowhere, far from everything – people couldn’t keep their opinions to themselves and he couldn’t keep his fists to himself. He was a drinker and he was a brawler. He could not understand why anyone would question his choices, the things that made him happy. He said he was defending my honour but really he was defending his.
At night, in bed, he would say, “I love your skin,” and then he would show me how he loved my skin, how he loved me as more than my skin. He showed me how to love him as more than his skin.
I have known white men.
Roxane Gay is a professor of English at Purdue University, Indiana. Her collection of essays “Bad Feminist” is published by Corsair (£12.99)