On Becoming a Stranger in a Strange Land

            To listen to my father tell it, he crossed the border from Windsor, Ontario into Detroit, Michigan, as a teenager in the late 1930s. He was accompanied by his father. Both were illegal immigrants looking for opportunity. They came from Sfakia, Crete.

         I was born in 1955, after my father fled from Detroit to Chicago with a much younger woman he was dating -- she became my mother. He had shot a man. He needed to go somewhere safe. He claims he tried to put aside a life of crime and earn an honest living in the Windy City. He tried until he couldn’t take the grind any longer, and disappeared one day, when I was seven. It was the same year John F. Kennedy was assassinated,

         I didn’t see him again for 40 years.

         My America, the place in which I grew up, was raw. I went to school. I tried to stay out of trouble. When my mother couldn’t care for me, neighbors and family did. I was an habitue of Boys Clubs, a participant in the Big Brothers program, a child much in need attending church youth groups.

         Along the way, I became a reader, and texts like the Declaration of Independence, the Bible, Thoreau’s Walden Pond sustained me. I recall being required to memorize the Preamble to the United States Constitution. “We the People” spoke to me; I was one of those people.

         My father came here for opportunity. No one told him he enjoyed white male privilege. I did my homework and fell in love with the texts I was assigned and later “discovered,” putting them to my own use in idiosyncratic ways that defined me. There are years I mark by devotion to Saint Paul, to Dostoevsky, to Augustine, to David Hume, to Henry Miller, and decades to the Bill of Rights.

         It never occurred to me in school to wonder what my relation was to the Pilgrims, or those who came to this country centuries, generations and decades before my father did, or before I was born. “We” were all part, somehow, of “the People” of whom the Constitution’s Preamble speaks. We were free, we were equal, we were in this together.

         My America, at least the country I imagined I was living in, was one in which individuals earned a place in the world by their wits, with grit, such intelligence as they could muster, and dumb luck. I might have been unlucky as a child, but I believed that all of us were equal in God’s eyes, and in the eyes of the law. No one owed me anything; I owed no one anything. I am guessing my father felt the same way when he sneaked into the country.

         I’m old now. My father is dead. I think he died in the country he imagined he had entered. I will die, I suspect, in a country I no longer recognize.

         A few years ago, I was at a meal with a large group of folks. I heard, for the first time, a discussion of “white male privilege.” I don’t recall the ethnic/libidinal makeup of the group I was with, but, for the first time, I was placed on notice: My identity was an issue. Yes, I could contribute to any discussion, but my perspective was to be discounted because of who I was. We were no longer a people, it seemed, but a collection of identities with differing claims to recognition, validation, and, apparently, discounting depending on …

         Depending on what exactly?

         It took me a few years to grasp the sea change. As a white male, I am now a slave holder, the bearer of misogynistic claws, a libidinal dwarf. Equality and now meant my place was to yield, to recognize the claims of those who are “different” from me, to achieve social justice by assenting to changing social norms, roles and practices.

         I wonder if my father would have taken the trouble to come here if he had known that he was to be labeled a slaveholder without slaves, the keeper of a harem he never met, an oppressor to all unlike him? I read entries in The New York Times 1619 Project, a grand re-write of American history designed to reveal the hypocrisy of a slaveholding nation proclaiming that all men are equal, and I begin to ask myself if all I have been taught is a fraud, if my father was seduced by the hypocrite’s siren song, at what price do I remain a citizen?

         The dues of citizenship today seem to differ depending on your identity. To people of color is owed a historic debt. What, I wonder, am I expected to pay? There are no slaves in my past, and our struggles felt far from privileged.

         I’m just not buying the identitarian project. Call me privileged and the first through that comes to mind is: what do you want? What tax shall I pay in the name of your view of distributive justice? I suffer from White Male Fatigue Syndrome – every news story that I see that says “First ‘Identity’ to …” goes unread. Don’t tell me who you are, show me what you can do. We’ve become a nation of poseurs.

         I watch this week’s looting and rioting and wonder what’s become of the America I was taught to regard as home. Yes, a man was killed by the police; it appears senseless. It may well be based on race. But burning property, beating strangers, strutting the streets chanting “no justice, no peace,” seems less a plea for social justice than it does a self-indulgent form of special pleading.

         More than a thousand people are killed each year by the police. Most are white. Most suffer mental illness. Living together is hard work, and we often fail to do so peacefully. But I am not viewing the death that spawned this week’s events as a sign of an epidemic of racial violence. What I know of the country’s history tells me that we are doing better than ever on race. There are no slaves, Jim Crow is dead, state and federal legislation has provided education, employment and housing opportunity’s as never before to all folks, whether here lawfully, or, like my father was, unlawfully.

         Cities burn, people rage, politics roils on without a vision of the common good. I am a stranger in a strange land.

         I find myself wondering whether Crete would take me back. My father came here under false pretenses. He believed in equality and opportunity. As we disintegrate into tribes, I’d prefer someplace a little smaller, someplace where I am not suspect simply because of the accident of my birth.

Comments: (10)

  • Stranger in a Strange Land
    Norm, thanks for sharing your history and thoughts. My family was also far from privileged as well. Single mom raising three kids in the 60's. We lived in a one bedroom and were on welfare for a few years until my mom was able to get training and then a job. Unfortunately, much of this is due to the breakdown of the family and a lack of discipline, in addition to the new age education system. I enjoy reading your posts. Thank you!
    Posted on June 1, 2020 at 8:25 am by Ginger
  • It’s all relative
    “More than a thousand people are killed each year by the police. Most are white. If you divide the number of whites killed by police divided by white males in the population and the blacks killed by police divided by black males in the population who had greatest percentage? Just saying.
    Posted on June 3, 2020 at 7:03 am by Pamala Favreau
  • fundamentally missing the point
    Hi. Your post reminds me a lot of what my father (also born in the 1950s) used to say regarding his Polish father. Like my father, you're missing a few fundamental things here. No one is accusing you of owning slaves or of having lineage that owned slaves. Lots of people don't have that lineage, because many Americans were too poor. The point isn't to blame you for slavery, or even to blame you for your white privilege. It's to explain to you that you *do* benefit from a system that tends to benefit white, cis, hetero, able-bodied men. You can add wealth to that list too. There are many forms of privilege--but whiteness and maleness are a combination of privileges that you didn't do anything to achieve, but which you have undoubtedly benefited from. I say that as a white person, who has also benefited from it. I didn't personally cause that to happen, but I do benefit from it. See the difference?
    As far as people being killed by the police... Your comparison in numbers is akin to someone saying "lots more people die in China every year than in Norway so there must be something wrong with China!" The NY Times reports that black Americans are *seven times more likely* than white Americans to die at the hands of police. Do you really not see a problem there?
    I'm honestly shocked that anyone could think George Floyd wasn't about race. Or Breonna. Or Ahmaud. Please do some actual research on this issue. As a lawyer, you should have the critical thinking skills to really examine what white privilege is, the relationship between black Americans and the police, and the long history of post-slavery sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, disenfranchisement, legal segregation, "integration" that still--to this day--segregates black children from white children. Here's one essay on white privilege: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2018/what-is-white-privilege-really. You can Google to find tons of others on all of these issues.
    With regard to other people's voices being heard, have you considered it's because, for so long, white men have dominated the conversation? Men have told me, as a woman, that sexism is over, or that I'm imagining it. So yeah, when it comes to issues of gender, I think my voice should come before yours. My experience as a woman is more important to gender discussions than your voice. And *your* voice regarding mens' issues should come before mine! Please, please do some reading. Take a cultural studies class at your local community college. Do *something* to educate yourself and examine your beliefs before you post something like this. Or maybe just try actually talking to a black person, if you can find one willing to engage with you after this post.
    Posted on June 3, 2020 at 8:24 pm by Jen K.
  • Pattis’ court and spark hissing on summer lawns
    One of my 1,024 9th great-grandfathers (presuming they are all distinct individuals)was part of the Great Migration from England from whence they fled religious and economic oppression. So far I haven’t found any slaveholders in that line but there is another branch from KY and NC that I may have to worry about. My niece’s father is descended from Moslems in Africa so my niece is more likely to have slave-owning ancestors on her father’s than her mother’s side. Of course there were even black slave owners in the USA tho they were definitely a minority. That said, even though my niece doesn’t descend from American slaves or slaveholders, she has experienced a lot of discrimination in the modern USA. Her nursery teacher in a nice white neighborhood routinely ignored her out of pique than she at three had taught herself to read before any of the other children could say their ABC’s. But often her black peer groups would also discriminate against her over her half-white privilege. Both groups have a lot of work to do to see each other as individuals. We all can only hold so much history. It gets really crowded the farther you go back. Still systemic racism in the USA as documented in Ava Duverney’s film “13th” shows much more racial remediation is needed. Black and Hispanic Minorities lost much more of their wealth than whites did in the 2008 bust. Likely this will repeat in the covid crisis, as their lives are being sacrificed disproportionately because they are disproportionately carrying the burden as front line workers. Floyd’s racially motivated murder was a spark on well-dried kindling.
    Posted on June 4, 2020 at 4:40 pm by Nadia
  • White privilege
    Attorney Pattis, “Wow” that is all I can say when I read your blog. Honestly, I’m a bit disappointed that someone in your position missed the whole point. My issue is really the fact that you use the phrase white male fatigue along with white privilege.
    I ask you this, when you leave your house in the morning how often are concerned with been stopped by the police for not unexplained reason. How often do you consider being shot while in an encounter with the police solely on the basis of your skin color. How often are you looked upon negatively and judge for no other reason than the color of you skin. I dare to say the answer to any and all of the questions posed to you above is never. That is “white privilege.”
    As an officer of the court, you’re suppose to be bridging the gap and represent all people justly regardless of race. And most importantly not to take it so personal. Use you voice to help bridge the gap, not create another issue to be felt with.
    You speak of citizen, as you may already know, the law dictionary say that people of color are not recognized as Citizens, only whites are Citizens. Let’s start by getting that ratified. You speak of your father who came to this country illegally in search of a better life. Keep in mind he came willingly, the African American (black) were hunted and captured and brought here against their will and enslaved. Try to understand where a person of color may be coming from as oppose to discounting the one fight as if the issues does not exist.
    I’m sure deep down you know that there exist a systematic problem where people of color have and are continuously treated disparagingly different then whites.
    After reading your blog and hearing of the exchange between you and Attorney Goldsbie, I cant help wonder if you’re thinking of making America great again. Keep in mind that America became great on the backs of slaves and has never really been great for any race other than the white race. Ask the native amereican Indians, ask the blacks, ask the Japanese ask any and all.
    Posted on June 5, 2020 at 9:16 pm by Concerned citizen
  • I guess we suffer from the same ailment
    I also suffer from white male fatigue syndrome. I'm fatigued from constantly hearing from white males. Over and over again, they speak believing that they have something relevant to say. You don't.
    Posted on June 6, 2020 at 4:43 pm by DeAnna Horne
  • So you get it
    “A few years ago, I was at a meal with a large group of folks. I heard, for the first time, a discussion of “white male privilege.” I don’t recall the ethnic/libidinal makeup of the group I was with, but, for the first time, I was placed on notice: My identity was an issue. Yes, I could contribute to any discussion, but my perspective was to be discounted because of who I was.”

    So you do get. Why are you pretending you don’t? Your identity became an issue for the first time. THAT’S THE PRIVILEGE. You were in your 50’s or 60’s before your identity became “an issue.” That’s not the case for black folks from this country, from birth.
    Posted on June 7, 2020 at 8:52 am by Olia
  • Absolutely Agree with Mr. Pattis
    Thank God there are some normal people still left in this terribly distorted society.
    Actually, a lot of people feel and think the same way, but they are simply too bitten down by the fear of being fired by their employers if they speak their “racist” minds openly. Shame, shame, shame. I am listening right now to Al Sharpton, who is getting on his favorite horse of “plantations and slaves” during the funeral #3 for Mr. Floyd and I am feeling as clear as never before that there NEVER will be enough. Even if all Whites will get on their knees, just like self-humiliated Democrats did the other day, and will stay on those knees their whole life - even that will not be enough.
    I actually think that short of moving out of this country (for all Whites) nothing will ever be enough.
    Posted on June 9, 2020 at 4:08 pm by Not Affraid
  • Slave Owners
    C’mon, 80% of southern slaves were owned by Jews. The slave trade was run by Jews. The prize was cotton, not vegetables. In 1776 importation of slaves was limited to Savannah and Charleston. After the War of Northern Aggression and the 13th Amendment, American Jews were permitted to continue to trade in slaves from Africa, owning ships and making profits, from their offices in Philadelphia, New York and Newport. Cotton was still King and US remained world leader in exports until 1937. 75% of the federal budget in 1860 came from cotton taxes. South Carolina first declared session in 1852, but hung on at request of fellow southern states. Congress gagged any discussion of ant-slavery petitions from 1836 to 1844. The south was perfect for growing cotton but lacked the labor to make serious money on export market, the Jews brought in Africans and made a ton of money from 1790 to 1860...cotton production soared. New York City was built on cotton. What does any of that have to do with a lower middle class white guy today. The reality is that Biden needs the black vote to enter the Oval Office. This is American political power grab. Police are not going to stop killing anyone. American police are the Jewish muscle, designed specifically to keep all the peasants in line, interfering with the pursuit of life liberty and all who threaten it. Connecticut is just a cesspool of twisted ideology of the Jews disguised as left wing politics. It is a power grab, don’t play along.
    Posted on June 18, 2020 at 5:47 pm by John Owens
  • predjudice
    So you were unfairly judged by being thrown into a class of people, instead of as an individual, which is the definition of bigotry. Which is what you are doing now; history repeats itself...
    Posted on July 21, 2020 at 8:01 pm by John Eaton

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