I am the oldest of five brothers, two of them half-brothers from my step-dad, but none of us use those terms or think of each other that way. Our professions range from 1) history professor 2) truck driver, 3) prison inmate, 4) warehouse worker, and 5) IT administrator. My dad likes to joke that we represent the full range of human accomplishment and misery. About three years ago my fourth brother’s wife was attending a conference in Minneapolis so they brought the entire family for a visit. This included their only child Evan, a bright boy who must have been 10 at the time. Because I live in the vibrant and progressive city of Minneapolis, most of my commuting is done by light rail or bus. Rather than always take a taxi with my tourist visitors, I invited my brother and his wife and son to do at least some of their sight-seeing by bus. Because they live in a gated community in the sprawl that San Antonio has become, riding the bus was completely foreign to them, in every sense of the word.
On one journey, we rode the infamous 21 bus—a line that also represents the full range of human accomplishment and misery. The front seats on the bus, the ones immediately behind the driver that face each other, were empty when we boarded. I sat with my brother and his wife on one side of the bus, looking across at Evan, who proudly occupied the long seat across from us. At the next stop, two Somali women got on the bus, both wearing their colorful hijab. I could see my young nephew stiffen up as they sat next to him. Poor Evan’s adventure on his first city bus ride was turning into an intercultural nightmare informed by the safe and sheltered life his parents had worked so hard to give him. He had never seen anyone resembling the women on the bus, except in movies with cartoonish portrayals of Muslim terrorists, or perhaps on Fox News, a channel that is always playing when he visits his maternal grandparents.
Young Evan quickly became so frightened that he came across the aisle and sat on his dad’s lap. I don’t speak Arabic or Somali, but I watched as the Somali women reacted to this 10-year-old being so frightened of them that he had to change seats. When we got off the bus, I turned to Evan.
“It seems like that was pretty scary for you,” I said.
“Yes,” he said with wide eyes.
“You know,” I said, “we have a lot of Somalis in Minneapolis. They fled a civil war in their country and lots of them came here. My neighbors on one side of my house are Somali. I have lots of Somali students. There are even five mosques in the Somali neighborhood around the college where I teach.”
“How do you know those people aren’t terrorists?” my brother intervened. “They’re Muslims. Don’t you think they’re dangerous? What about 9-11? Those people are just … I don’t think they should be here.”
“Listen,” I said. “That’s exactly what people thought about grandma and grandpa when they first came here. That they were dangerous. That they were Catholic! That they were different. That they didn’t belong here. Grandma and grandpa! That’s what people used to say about them.”
As with many such conversations on such sensitive topics, this one ended without resolution. We walked silently from the bus stop to our destination, and haven’t spoken about this incident since.
Here ends my positional preamble. It’s obviously much longer than anything I could offer in person, in a live discussion. Its length is its greatest disadvantage for oral discourse—who has the energy for any further discussion after all that? But it has the great advantage that you actually know something about me beyond “straight, white, cis-gender male.” After all there is just as much individual variation in that group as there is among the “lesbians of African descent” or the “LatinX non-binary” folks. In the end, these labels deceive us because we think they say a lot, but they actually say very little. I don’t deny the importance of these preambles, but only as a first step. To really get to know each other takes a lot more time, a lot more openness, and a lot more listening.
Some of you might be wondering if all this introductory stuff is intended to make me seem more sympathetic to the reader. Don’t forget how this chapter began: I’m the guy who said the N-word in his classroom, which caused his entire campus to explode! Am I trying to downplay my own whiteness by discussing my “not-quite-white” Italian ancestors? Did I tell the story of my nephew on the bus and my brother’s reaction to the Somali commuters just to show that I’m not the racist brother, I’m the woke brother? Don’t forget, there are students at Augsburg University who believe I hang out with white supremacists. Perhaps I’m just trying to pull a fast one.
But wait. The positional preamble isn’t over. Just as important as telling you who I am is telling you who I am not.