Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Black and white in America

Note: philosophical background to this post can be found here, the only problem being that it's a long post.

I spent (as I mentioned several posts back) most of my childhood playing basketball and baseball with black friends; but teenaged boys are not exactly prone to sitting around talking about their relationships, and southeastern Oklahoma high-school sports teams were not hotbeds of political and philosophical discussion. So it was a very educational experience for me to join the Princeton University Gospel Ensemble and spend a year building relationships with a host of intelligent, articulate young black people from all over the political spectrum.

When I think back on my Ensemble experience, two things stick in my mind that I learned.

(1) I learned to sing, and I started to expand my piano skills into the jazz arena of improvising rather than playing from sheet music.

(2) I slowly came to understand what still seems to me to be the thing that separates the experience of American blacks from that of other Americans, especially white Americans. Which is what I want to talk about in this post. ...continue reading...

Now, granted, it may seem obnoxious for a white guy to talk about the black experience...but then numerous black people freely talk about what white people think and feel, and indeed are happy to explain to us that they know how we feel better than we do ourselves. I don't pretend to be speaking for all black people...just passing on what I've observed. I don't even pretend to be speaking for all white people, just for a whole bunch of us.

If you're white in America, and to a large extent if you are non-white in America, you can go for weeks at a time without ever being consciously aware of your own race. If you are black in America, nobody -- least of all other black people -- ever lets you forget it. White people don't understand that black people are forced to be more or less continuously aware of their race. Black people don't generally understand that white people, Asians, etc. think about their own race only occasionally, and then generally because an unusual context has forced them to become aware of it. But -- because our experience with black people has taught us that this is a necessity -- the mere fact that a black person whom we do not know well has entered the room or the conversation, creates a context in which we are forced to be aware of race.

There are all kinds of consequences to this dynamic. I'll just list a few, in no particular order.

1. Most well-meaning non-blacks think that the opposite of "racist" is "color-blind." We are whole-heartedly behind MLK's dream that men will be judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin. White people of my generation by and large don't see anything wrong with intermarriage (opponents of white/black marriages are overwhelming black, these days); indeed, about the only reason I didn't try to get Tina Smith (a wonderful young lady from the Ensemble) to go out with me back in the day was that I was sure that anybody that beautiful, intelligent and talented was out of my league. (Well, that, and also I had decided not to date until I got out of college, for other reasons.)

But because we can't help but notice that most black people see race everywhere they turn -- since most black people are most definitely not color-blind, whatever other good qualities they may have -- most white people have learned by experience that the most "racist" (i.e., non-color-blind) group of people in America, is the African-American community. We have learned that when you're around Asians, for example, they won't take a perfectly innocent comment and astonish you by reading racist intent into it; you can tell an Asian-American that he's articulate, for example, without having any fear that he will take offense. But around black people, you never know when you're going to accidentally say something they'll take the wrong way. Furthermore, we don't know many Asians who hate white people on principle, or who assume that white people hate them on principle; but we all know black people like Oliver Willis. So we carefully censor our speech whenever we're in the presence of a black person, until we get to know that person well enough to know whether he's reasonable or not. (And if the black person in question is Oliver, we never stop censoring our speech, because he insists precisely that we censor our speech in his presence in order to cater to his idiosyncratic sensitivities. News flash to Oliver: it's no fun to hang out with somebody who lies in wait to trap us in our words and inform us that we're evil, no matter what color he is. Decent people try to think the best of their friends rather than the worst of them. So the fact that we avoid conversation with you, well, that's not because you're black. It's because you're a jerk. There are plenty of black people who are willing to think the best of their friends rather than the worst; and they are welcome in our circle of friends, even if they disagree with us about every subject under the sun.)

In other words, most of us white Americans behave differently around black people (until we get to know them well) than around anybody else. We start with the assumption that people we have just met are generally reasonable...unless they're black, in which case we assume that they are ready to put a vicious interpretation on our most innocent comments. So, black people think that we treat them differently than we treat other people -- and they're quite right. It's a vicious circle.

2. If two white people are disagreeing on politics, they may call each other stupid, evil, callous, enslaved to corporate interests, fascists, commie-lovers, and all kinds of other abusive terms. But if in the middle of it all one of them looks at the other one and says, "No true white person would believe that -- you're not really white, you're just a black man with white skin"...well, then the conversation would end, right there, because the other person would realize, "My God, I'm dealing with an insane person." There are no beliefs that are off-limits to white people because of their skin color, and nobody ever tries to tell a white person that he isn't "really" white. Except for the kook fringe, there aren't even any white people left who will tell another white person, "You're a traitor to your race." White people in America have complete intellectual freedom.

But black people, especially black conservatives, know all too well that there certain opinions that you adopt only on pain of being declared an "Oreo," an "Uncle Tom," and other equally vicious racial epithets -- by other black people intent on stifling specific points of view within the black community. The intellectual freedom white people take for granted, is something available only to black people who freely conform to those views that are acceptable for black people.

3. There's a scene in the tedious movie Waiting to Exhale, fairly early on, where Angela Bassett's husband, a successful businessman, announces he's walking out on her, leaving her and their kids for his secretary. Your sympathies are, of course, entirely with Angela. Then they begin arguing. Now, it probably won't register on the white viewer's consciousness, but Angela's husband is carefully played as a white sellout -- his speaking accent is carefully white, his dress is white, he is succeeding in "The Man's" business world...and we soon find out, thanks to Angela's bitter recrimination, that he's "leaving me for a white woman!" The words are spat out in hatred and contempt.

"Would it make a difference if she were black?" asks Angela's husband angrily.

And with utter hatred and bitterness and contempt, Angela fires back, "It would make a difference if you were black."

And at that point, most of the black audience feels that Angela has just nailed him with a great comeback. But most white people watching...instantly lose sympathy for Angela and start to think, "Well, he's got no business breaking his marriage vows and I'm not excusing that, but I can sure understand why he'd want to get away from this racist bitch."

4. There is of course an immense divide in American opinion concerning the guilt or innocence of O.J. Simpson. The divide is between black people, who in large numbers think O.J. was innocent, and everybody else, who overwhelmingly thinks that only a complete fool could doubt O.J.'s guilt. This divide is primarily due to the fact that O.J. could be innocent only if an unrealistically large number of white people had spontaneously decided to join in an anti-O.J. conspiracy, with other white people they didn't even know, just to nail the black dude. White people know that's absurd, because we know that even if you were a white guy who wanted to frame O.J., the chances that the other white guys would go along with you are too slim. The white community doesn't think in terms of white-against-black. But a lot of people in the black community found such a conspiracy theory perfectly credible; precisely because a lot of people in the black community do still think in terms of black-versus-white, and refuse to accept that The Man doesn't still hate them. The white community has left Jim Crow behind; many in the black community have not. For white people, especially those in my generation, simply don't think of themselves as self-consciously white the way Jim Crow bigots did; but most people in the black community are still perpetually conscious of themselves as black people.

I'm just rambling here, but I hope you see my basic point: race dominates the experience of black people in America, to an extent the rest of us can't imagine; and a great many black people assume that race dominates our own self-awareness to the same extent it does theirs -- but for many of us race is simply not an aspect of ourselves that we consider significant, any more than we consider the color of our eyes to be significant. My skin is white; well, my eyes are blue. So what? But Oliver could live for five hundred years and never reach the point where he cared as little about the color of people's skin as he cares about the color of their eyes. And as long as black people like Oliver insist on being always thought of as black people rather than just as people ("you can't call him articulate because he's black and that makes it an insult"), the rest of us will, perforce and to our disgust, be forced to continue to pay attention to skin color, as long as that skin is black.

9 Comments:

At 9:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are so right

 
At 11:10 AM, Anonymous Hillary said...

I'm 90 percent with you Kenny.

 
At 11:23 AM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...

Hillary,

So, I'd be very interested in the other 10%... ;-)

Kenny

 
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At 4:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely believe you when you say that as a white person you do not have to consciously think about your race. But I do assure you that as a black person in the USA, even if I want to forget that I am black, some white person reminds about it consciously or subconsciously everyday. Sometimes I am walking by just like any other person and a white person suddenly remembers to shut their door, to beep their car horn to make sure the car is locked, to gather their kid(s) who may be playing or wandering about nearby. Moreover, I dress properly (no drooping pants or anything like that), I am not noisy or noisy or boisterous and I actually speak standard English . I am actually a doctoral engineering student. I am originally from Africa and I used to assume the best of all people when I first got to the USA. It was after some strange experiences with white people that a middle-aged white gentleman told me I was being naive. I have since changed the model I use in my interactions with white people. Until my experience with a white person proves me wrong, I always assume that she/he is prejudiced against blacks. It is a defense mechanism that saves from disappointments.

 
At 5:38 PM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...

Anonymous,

Yes, you've grasped my point exactly, I think. You do NOT have to assure me that "even if I want to forget that I am black, some white person reminds about it consciously or subconsciously everyday" -- that's exactly what I'm saying.

The only thing I would object to is your phrasing, "...is prejudiced against blacks," and I object to it only because the term "prejudiced" is unfairly pejorative. The white people you're talking about are "prejudiced" against whites in exactly the same way in which you are "prejudiced" against American whites -- that is, experience has made it clear that it is irrational for you to expect any white person you've just met to treat you the way he would treat a black person, just as it is irrational for a white person to expect you to treat him the same way you would treat a black person. It's obvious that you, in your "prejudice" (or, to put it much more fairly, as a result of your experience) note the fact that the person's skin is white and alter your initial expectations of his behavior accordingly. Your behavior is perfectly rational and absolutely defensible -- and so is the behavior of white people who suddenly remember to check to make sure their car is locked when you walk by.

And that is precisely the tragedy: there are plenty of negative generalizations based on race that are perfectly valid generalizations, and you won't solve the problem of "racism" by telling people they have to pretend to be too stupid (or, to use your middle-aged gentleman's term, too naive) to be aware of the validity of those generalizations. Until the rate of violent crime among young black men drops to the same level that it is among young Asian women, most white people who see you walk by will be reminded that crime is a possibility even though that possibility wouldn't occur to them if they saw my Filipina friend Aileen coming towards them; until it ceases to be common for white people to suffer absurd allegations of having made "racist" comments by paranoid black people -- and to find that those allegations are taken seriously by persons in power -- most white people will suddenly start speaking slowly and carefully when you walk up as they try to make sure they keep their verbal ass is covered at all times.

And that is not because they are racist. It is because they are sane.

But as long as white people who are just meeting you continue to think, "Did I lock my car?" and "For God's sake, I have to watch what I say here to make sure I don't talk about 'dark humor' or 'niggardly medical benefits' until I get to know this guy," then you will have to expect different treatment from them than my friend Aileen would get -- not because you in your turn are racist, but because you in your turn are sane.

Which sucks for all of us, frankly, except for the professional grievance-mongerers who make a nice living off of the whole ungodly mess, and who would be devastated to wake up and find that Dr. King's dream had come true.

Thanks very much for your comment, by the way.

 
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