I once chatted with a man who made wonderful art.
Even the way he described his creative process was pure plainspoken poetry.
But as I left, I noticed something on his studio wall that was brutally at odds with the fine conversation and craftsmanship.
It was a postcard-sized internet image of a simian President Obama with a family of gorillas.
This week, as the agony over race in America continues, I’m reminded of my eye-opening interlude in the artist’s studio.
That he could desecrate with a cheap piece of bigoted claptrap the very place where he created so much beauty rocked my world. It still does.
One Obama-hating artist does not mean all white male artists are racists.
Nor do police-involved shootings of black men mean that everyone involved in law enforcement is a racist; the five Dallas officers gunned down while protecting the rights of Black Lives Matter protesters come to mind.
But my art studio moment does suggest that even we who consider ourselves enlightened ought to consider the possibility that disdain for people of color is as deeply embedded in our culture as the Black Lives Matter people keep insisting.
So when those angry, challenging voices speak, the least I can do is listen. I am not required to agree, and often don’t, but I do need to pay attention.
Particularly when I start feeling defensive.
Because what I don’t want to hear may be what I need to hear. How will I know unless I’m listening?
I also ought to remember that until the 1970s gay people rarely if ever got a chance to speak for ourselves in the media, where hostile authorities and fatuous “experts” shaped a consensus that cruelly circumscribed many of our lives.
When we finally did begin to be heard, if not listened to exactly, many of our voices were fierce, flamboyant, in-your-face.
And after AIDS killed thousands – while the Great Communicator’s mighty White House stood mute – the abrasive, eloquent fury of Larry Kramer and ACT-UP put America on notice that we weren’t going to keep dying without a fight.
But while the LGBT movement was inspired by the black civil rights struggle, gay white people like me don’t have special insight into the African-American experience.
Particularly, the experience of a young black male being stopped by a cop.
And while I remember what it was like to be derided and dehumanized by mainstream culture and media, when I get in my car I’m another white guy.
Like that day I left the artist’s studio, which I’ve been replaying in my mind lately.
I was incredulous, appalled, outraged. There were all sorts of things I wanted to say.
So many things needed to be said. But I left without saying any of them.
I left without saying a word.