The Whisperer

His whispering caught me off guard.   The Whisperer was tall, with shaved head and face, white, late 40s to 50-ish.  We were both in a week-long leadership training course and I was trying to pay attention to the instructor.  “The new African-American Museum is important.  I should see it,” he tells me, in a golf announcer’s whisper.  “Except,” he added, “I have to catch a flight home.”  He chose to talk about race to me, the only Black person in the class, at a moment when I could not  engage with him straight-on.  I glanced at him, gave a little shrug, and focused on the instructor.

The Whisperer had more.  “My grandfather came to this country in 1910.  He was Irish, and when he got here he was told …” — I turned to him and finished his sentence — “… Irish need not apply.”  (Yeah, yeah, yeah….)  Undeterred by irony, The Whisperer continued, “My grandfather knew that as hard as it was for him to find work, he could still get jobs Blacks couldn’t get.”  I’d already pivoted toward the instructor at that point, trying to follow him.


But, The Whisperer wasn’t finished.  He said, “My father was  better about Blacks than my grandfather was.  I hope I’m better than my father was.  And I hope my kids will be better than me.”  For the second time since his whispering began, I turned to him and whispered, “So, my family was here 150 years before yours and we still have to wait for the 4th generation of your Irish-American family to do “better about Blacks”?  (I’ve been told I have a very “verbal face,” and it probably expressed incredulity.)   When the instructor stopped for a break, The Whisperer quick-stepped out the room.

Oh, if that were only the end of it.

After the next break he stood next to me and said, with genuine puzzlement, that he didn’t know what “White Privilege” means.  He used his hands to scan his long body down to his pockets where he opened them in a gesture showing emptiness — like, where is the White Privilege?  In his mind, privilege is about personal wealth.  He didn’t realize he’d illustrated White Privilege in his whispered tale about his family patriarch.  So I told him.

Sigh ….


Let me know your thoughts.



10 thoughts on “The Whisperer

  1. Your willingness to engage has to be a personal choice. If white people are to be allies, we need to do more listening than talking, but that doesn’t mean the exchanges won’t be awkward. I started reading your post and all I could think was that I would have shut the person right down, because it’s irritating when you’re trying to listen and be respectful of a speaker and someone is trying to have a side conversation. I have a bias against “whisperers”!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I must say, I admire your patience…While I was a working journalist, I covered Bill Clinton’s year-long symposium on race. Nothing concrete came from it, including the book the former president was supposed to write. The same president whom many blacks misguidedly anointed the first black president! The same president who felt his wife was more qualified to run the country in 2008 than Barack Obama!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Larry, as Robert F. Kennedy estimated, it indeed took 40 more years before a Barack Obama could be elected President. There were some highly regrettable actions President Clinton took while in office and being the centrist. Still, he appointed many qualified Blacks to his Cabinet and in high positions in the Executive Branch. Usually, Blacks only got the HHS Cabinet position (or HEW, as it used to be called). Like I said, I don’t know about a “national dialogue” because it becomes a dog and pony show. and even the phrase is rhetoric. But, at a very local and personal level, if someone is fearless enough to respectfully broach a conversation about race, then I’ll engage with them.


  3. Trace

    Sounds as though, despite the awkward timing ( and maybe even because of it), he ” needed ” to unload guilt. Betcha five bucks he’d sized you up as “safe”, before unloading. Pre-meditated by prefacing he was rushing,…Also betting, later that day, he told his significants of his effort to break the family curse, by what he shared with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Trace, you won’t win any money from me because I completely agree. The Whisperer’s conversation came out of nowhere (from my point of view). But, it’s not white guilt that is needed, any more than I need to carry shame because Blacks were enslaved here. People’s acknowledgment and honest conversation could help. As for The Whisperer, if he flew back here to go to the AAMHC that would be a good starting point for him. That is as safe a space as he could find to learn what happened here before 1910. And then he can follow it up with a little time in the Contemplation Room.


  4. Even from abroad, and as someone who has never actually lived in the U.S. (though I do have relatives in Chicago, Houston, and San Diego), I really do get the sense that White Privilege pervades American society. I went to college in England and it isn’t much better there – a recent study showed that job applicants with “ethnic-sounding” names were far less likely to be chosen for interviews than those with white-sounding names, even if their qualifications were one and the same.

    I felt indignant reading The Whisperer’s tale from 1910 – and not just because it was insensitive and not very tactful. My great-grandfather emigrated from China to Brooklyn in 1899 to join his own father who ran a laundry business; but of course those were the days of the Chinese Exclusion Act so he likely went illegally as a “paper son”. He learned to speak fluent English with a Brooklyn accent (my late grandfather remembered being taught “first, second, thoyd” as a child), received something of an education, and even went on to study textile engineering at a college in Philadelphia. However I don’t think my great-grandfather had an actual path to citizenship so he ended up returning to China, where he became an accomplished engineer and inventor. So with that experience in my family history, I’ve always wanted to see the end of institutionalized racism against Blacks and other minorities in the U.S.

    Liked by 1 person

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