© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Since You Never Asked: 'Nothing to Complain About'


From time to time, Lake Effect essayist Jonathan West likes to weigh in on what's going on in the world. Often, it's pontificating on some of the simpler things in life, like the over-availability of breakfast foods or the etiquette of re-gifting. But a recent trip to a local school left him thinking about some bigger issues:

Since you never asked...

... I am middle aged. I am a man. I am white. I say these three things not to surprise--I assume you assume I am all these things as you listen to me read the words I’ve written. But, if there was ever any doubt about who I am, let me assure you once and for all that I’m an older than younger white guy.

I actually don’t usually go in for putting people in these kinds of boxes, but there’s no denying that race, age and class are part of our national dialogue these days, so maybe it’s time for me to own a label or two. From the moment I first screamed my bald head off as a wailing baby up to this morning when I scratched my still bald noggin over the state of the world, I have been who I am because some chemistry between my parents produced a little new biology. So I’ll say it again in stark terms--I’m a white American man. I feel compelled to share my label with you because a recent run in with the youth of America woke me up to that fact that being a white guy actually does matter.

This all started when a colleague asked if I might take part in a project she was leading with a group of local high school students to assemble a series of interviews with adults into a documentary style sort of play. My role in this process was clear—listen to the kids’ questions and answer honestly.

I thought, “This is going to be cute—a real nice and easy day.”

I arrived at the classroom I was told to go to and was introduced to my interview panel. A group of slightly nervous but kind and polite kids offered me a chair and took their places in a semi-circle facing me to tally details about my life.

We started with the basics--name, where I lived, marital status, and number of children I have. I was impressed with how the kids had done a really fine job of prepping for this chat. They coolly traded lead interviewer duties back and forth like old pros. Little did I know they were soon going to throw me the verbal equivalent of a sucker punch.

As the interview continued, I was called to offer some personal opinions.

“How do you feel about where our city is going?”

“What do you think is a big challenge for us all right now?”

I had been wrong about this whole affair just being a cute walk in the park. These kids were serious. The questions got deeper and more complex and I felt myself doing constant moral center check-ins so I could offer straight, clear and highly personal responses. As we headed into what I felt was the final moment of the interview, one of the kids leaned back in his chair and with a wide open look on his face asked his last question.

“How has race affected your life?”

If that kid had raised his hand and slapped me across the face right then and there, it would have had the same effect. Pow. For the first time that day, I took a good hard look at the faces of the kids asking me these questions. There were no white faces staring back at me waiting for my answer. A mix of girls and boys with black and brown faces from one of the most segregated cities in America were leaning in and looking to me, the one white guy in the room, for an honest and frank response about how my race had influenced my life.

In that moment I realized how little time I had ever really spent considering how my race was an important part of my life. I was a bit shocked to make that discovery, at the same time recognizing that my privileged past had never thrown me into a situation where I was forced to think about it. I paused for a second, breathed in, and then laid out the dirty truth about my life.

“Kids, I gotta be perfectly honest with you,” I said. “I’m a white, middle aged man. I got nothing to complain about.”

I knew from that moment on that race had better start mattering to me, because it sure as hell mattered to these kids.

I’m almost embarrassed to say that it took this group of high school kids to make me think about race and racism as a part of my daily life. Hating racism isn’t something new for me, but acknowledging that I’m one of the lucky ones and need to be active rather than passive about my convictions is something I’m approaching with fresh eyes. I thought about this as I recently finally said the words, “Black lives matter,” for the first time out loud rather than in my head. I thought of this when the only thing I could think to do during the riots in Sherman Park was to call black friends who lived in that hurting neighborhood and offer an open door of safety in my home if they needed it. I thought about this as I drove away from the softball team that I was coaching this summer, worrying a little for my pitcher, short stop, left fielder, first baseman and their families as they drove off into the night and another week of dealing with the real life local challenges of being black and Latino.

So, yes, I am a white guy with a pretty good life, and that sure does matter to me. I say this not to pump my chest with white pride but because I want that label to rub me a little bit everyday as a reminder that if I want to live in a world where race doesn’t matter, I need to start actually living in a world where race does.

Jonathan West is a writer, actor, director, and he brings us a series he calls “Since You Never Asked.”