I had a dream. I had a dream so vivid and shocking it tore me from sleep and threw me so hard into reality I found myself breathless in my own bed. I had a dream so offensive I’m still not convinced I want to share it publicly.
But it bothered me. It bothered me deeply, and I need to share it with someone.
In my dream I was at some kind of conference. I’ve been to enough conferences I might need more than two hands to count them all, so at least thus far, the dream isn’t that unexpected. The conference goers are all diverse, and for bits of the dream, I think I remember spending more time walking to and from this conference than actually attending it: I’m on some kind of campus, I think, but it’s strange because I recall walking through a city and past fast food restaurants as much as I recall walking through open area, feeling lost in the wilderness.
But I digress. That’s not my point.
The conference comes to a close with some final remarks by a speaker I’m too far removed from to hear clearly (or it’s just a dream and that part wasn’t entirely imagined), and like at most events of this sort, the people present begin to act like molecules in motion, bouncing from one person to another in small quips of interactions and occasionally, when all factors present are perfectly aligned, clustering off into larger structures with added form and function.
As it happened, I ended up in one such cluster not far removed from the reception desk, joined by a woman and a few other men. We–by whom I mean the woman and I–were being asked to do a quick performance, and for the moment we were all dressed in antiquated, possibly Victorian clothing: This, no doubt, was a direct result of the late-night trashy movie I watched on Amazon Prime when I couldn’t sleep last night.
No matter, she sang a bit, and in response to some nuclear reaction I hadn’t paid attention to, this cluster cracked apart, some off to one side, and myself and an African American man to the other. Now this is where the story starts to degrade–not in content necessarily, but in quality. The film is stuck, that black tape of my youth bent and twisted out of its case (a metaphor I assume will soon be all too archaic to understand), and the haze of wakefulness corrodes my memory even as I move my fingers in attempt to type it.
At some point I had been reading a book published in the late eighties. I doubt it was a real book, and for some reason I doubt I could’ve imagined anything anachronistically factual inside it, but it was a book about the experiences of black people in the United States–which was also the topic of our continued conversation.
Mostly it was what might be expected, with words I’ve come to associate with any form of inequality: privilege, microaggressions, discrimination, but especially his own experience living as a minority. In my dream all his words were rich and I felt honored he should trust me so much to share such personal stories with me–but now that I’m awake, I can’t recall a single word he said. It’s as if my mind couldn’t capture the exact words he would say because it’s not in my database, but it knew the sensations and feelings that would be generated by such an encounter and so tricked me into thinking he was saying anything by feeding me the feelings I figured I’d feel.
I’m no psychologist, mind you. This is just speculation.
Regardless, I’m procrastinating, stretching out the moments until the revelation that left me so shaken, so stirred from sleep, that I can’t keep from telling it to someone.
Now there was another man in my dream, also African American, who I think was working at the conference; he was standing nearby. In earlier conversation he had mentioned having a son about my age, and I couldn’t say why, but his son was coming by. So while my friend and I are having our conversation, a slender guy about as pale as I am comes up to the reception desk, leans on it so he’s facing us, and asks for this other man. They exchange a few words I don’t remember, and he says something that I think was a comment about wanting to be able to choose or change our race–I couldn’t say precisely because the harder I try to remember, the more the dream slips away.
So I start to say something, and all I remember is the tail-end of my words: “He seems to pass easily enough for white.”
“But see what you did right there?” my friend says and I turn to look at him. “You just assumed it’s better to be white.”
The words weren’t reproachful, and biting mostly because I couldn’t believe I had actually said something so vile, and all I could do as the dream split apart and I found myself suspended in that slip of space between dreaming and wakefulness was just cry–literally cry–that I could have been so heartlessly demeaning of a friend.
I must have relived the same moment in my head three or four times–or more than that, I don’t know–but as it is with any night-time apparition, the more I put it under the review, the less is actually there to observe. But that feeling of shock at my words’ implication, that feeling of shame at having said it, at having even suggested it–even unconsciously–it all just puddles at the pit of my stomach and makes me feel awful.
Not that long ago I was talking with a friend about growing up in the south, in particular his coming from a very rural community. I know him through the local LGBT community, and he told me he still sometimes gets grossed out by gay people or thinks bad things about us–because that’s what he grew up hearing, and even though he’s a part of this community, there’s still that blind hatred, even fear somewhere inside him–remnants of the culture he was raised in.
I’ve only told a few people I still struggle sometimes to accept people across racial lines. When I was younger, though not necessarily anymore, parts of my extended family were incredibly racist–and even though I can’t point to things that were said or even things they did, just belonging to that climate influenced the way I thought growing up. I’ve now had my own experiences, my own chances to learn about people, and I don’t willingly hold onto any of that–but sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever to be able to fully expel even these unconscious ideas.
Not even that long ago another friend and I were getting our pictures taken for a school publication, and as a matter of convenience, we met the photographer in the African American Cultural Center. She said she’d be back near the library, and I thought to myself, there’s a library here? There is–I had never even heard about it before, but there’s an entire library right there, and even I–a lover of books–didn’t know about it.
We arrived first, so we began perusing the shelves quietly, commenting about titles that sounded interesting or funny, smiling over their larger-than-expected representation of the intersectionality between race and the queer community. I told him I want to learn more, understand more, but there’s so much there, I don’t know where to start–as if that’s a reasonable excuse, the same one I offer when I explain why I don’t watch Star Trek or Doctor Who–there’s so much, I don’t know where to start.
I’m almost at 1300 words, but I feel like I could keep on writing indefinitely. This seems to be the start of a brilliant conversation on what it means to be an ally and how one takes the journey to becoming one–but that seems like a different discussion. It seems to be a good chance to talk about marginalization and how different minorities can support each other by tackling the same systems of oppression–but that, too, feels like a different discussion. Or I could leave it as it is: a snapshot of thought, fragments of a dream and a scattering of supporting material, the revelation that even as I aim to be inclusive and welcoming to everybody, I still have space to grow.
Originally written 12/23/13