Not too long ago, in what was otherwise a routine professional telephone conversation, the New York editor of a women’s magazine called me a racist. Before I could even be sure I had properly heard the accusation, before it began to echo in my head like the call of some vicious birdracist, racist, racistI felt it in my body. My heart began to pound, my vision blurred, every pore in my skin instantly broke into sweat. For the first time in my life, I sensed the real power of language; I discovered just a little of what it must feel like to be slammed by an epithet, to be called retard, fag, chink, nigger.
“Frankly, I found that essay racist and offensive,” the editor said. I was shocked by her accusation because my intention had been exactly the opposite. After months of avoiding the first O.J. Simpson trialfeeling that America’s interest in it had been strictly a prurient one, a collective keyhole-peeping into a celebrity couple’s bedroomlike so many naive others, I had been startled when Johnnnie Cochran played what was widely described as “the race card.” With the rest of white America, it hit me then that blacks were viewing the Simpson trial in a way that was entirely different from the way I was viewing it. What was for me an individual, open-and-shut case about a crime of passion was for a huge number of people a national referendum on the state of race relations in America.
This disparity in interpretation is something I’ve pondered ever since. Of course I knew that racism continues to exist in this country, but I assumed it existed in isolated pockets of individual prejudice. It seemed to me that most white people in this country accept the intellectual and spiritual equality of African-Americans. I assumed that most black people feel they are accepted on those grounds. I believed the truly basic questions about race had been long since answeredby civil rights legislation, by an entire generation (mine) of integrated schools, by affirmative action, by the very example of O. J. Simpson’s own celebrity and wealth.
Obviously I was wrong. Why is it that white people so often entirely miss the racial implications of an event that, for black people, critically concerns the issue of race? Fisk University recently announced the reemergence of its Race Relations Institute, defunct for 14 years, precisely because such questions have not been answered and because, in many places, the questions simply are not being asked anymore.
In the essay I sent to my New York editor, I had wanted to comment on some of these questions, to reflect on the state of distrust between peoplebetween men and women, between blacks and whiteseven when everybody involved deeply wished, in fact needed, to be able to trust the others. I had certainly not intended to perpetuate racial stereotypes or sympathize with racist attitudes. When my editor suggested that I had done both, I found it hard, for a moment, even to breathe.
An earlier version of the story had run in the Scene this past January. In the essay, I described an encounter in the deserted parking lot of the Green Hills Kroger; I had stopped there on an extremely cold night to return a video in the curbside drop box and had been unnerved by the eerie emptiness of the place, which, even at that hour, is usually still busy with shoppers. Quickly climbing back into my car, I noticed in my rear-view mirror a well-dressed white man pushing a late-model Camry, the only other car in the parking lot, toward a space under a streetlight. It was evident he needed help, and I wanted to help him. On a crowded planet so often fraught with dangers, we have to look out for one another.
I wanted to help him, but I was afraid. Even now I don’t regard such fear as irrational, because I know that, on this crowded planet, a great number of the dangers are the human beings themselves. Such a truth is incontrovertible, though never easy to explain. Just the other day, my little boy asked me, “Mom, there are no giants in real life, right?”
“Right,” I said.
“And no dragons that breathe fire, right, Mom?”
“And there aren’t any bad guys, eitherright, Mom?”
Only a very young child would ask such a question, and only an adult would dodge it. In this world a woman alone in a car at night is wise to hesitate before offering help to anyone in a deserted parking lot. It didn’t matter to me that the guy was white, well-dressed, and driving a car far nicer than my own; Ted Bundy probably gave the same impression to his own victims.
On such a bitterly cold night, I couldn’t help thinking of King Lear, of kind Cordelia’s indictment of her villainous sisters after they cast out their desperate father into the storm:
Mine enemy’s dog,
Though he had bit me, should have stood that night
Against my fire.
Cordelia would have given the man a ride somewhereto a gas station, to his homebut out of fear I couldn’t, though I couldn’t simply drive away either. So, ignoring images still fresh from the 10 o’clock news, I pulled up several parking spaces away, rolled down my window, and called out to ask if the guy needed any help. I don’t know what I actually thought I could do; all I know is that my desire to help was both heartfelt and quite unconscious, exactly as heartfelt and unpremeditated as my fear. The need to belong to other people and the need to keep safe from the danger other people pose are, it seems to me, equally compelling needs.
It turned out that the Camry had a dead battery and needed a jump. While I sat nervously in my car with the hood popped and windows rolled down for instructions from the grateful driver, another man walked upan African-American man, too lightly dressed for the cold and clearly ill-at-ease on my side of town. His own car had died, he said, and he and his wife only had a Sears credit card. He explained that he needed to borrow enough money for bus fare home, and he was willing to leave the credit card or their wedding rings as collateral. It seemed important to him that I understand he was asking for a loan, not a handout. “I’m not a bum,” he kept repeating. “I’ve never done this before. I’m not a bum.”
As a college student in a very small Alabama town, I lived in an apartment building at the farthest edge of the university, the edge closest to the railroad tracks, on the other side of which lived many of the town’s, mostly impoverished, black residents. Many afternoons I read my homework assignments in a lounge chair on my front lawn, which overlooked a key intersection, and I began to notice that both the local police and the university security force frequently stopped old, battered cars filled with black peoplethe reason could be that the car had failed to come to a complete stop at the four-way intersection, or one of its taillights was burned out, or its license plate was splashed with mud and couldn’t be easily read.
Never mind that, across the street from my apartment building, directly in front of that intersection, there was a fraternity house filled with drunk young men who habitually hopped into their cars and pulled through the intersection without even slowing down, much less coming to a complete halt. Never mind that pretty white coeds zoomed up and down the street, driving their daddies’ cars at speeds that far exceeded the posted speed limit. Never mind that pedestrians took their lives in their hands whenever they tried to cross to the other side of that street. The local white cops wrote their quota of tickets against the local blacks, leaving the college students (virtually all of whom were white) mostly to themselves.
I’ve seen up close what can happen to poor blacks among affluent whites, so I should not have been surprised to find that a financially strapped African-American male in Green Hills was nervous at approaching two white people in a deserted parking lot at night, but neither could I deny my own fear. Just as I had felt with the well-dressed white man in the Camry, I felt the conflict of two opposing desires: One part of me, the generous one, simply wanted to give the guy and his wife a ride home, but the fearful, CNN-watching side of me held back. Where, I wondered, was this wife? She wasn’t standing by his side, and the car she might have been waiting in was nowhere to be seen. How could I be sure there even was a wife?
The only “witness” to this conversation was a total stranger who at that moment was still bending under the hood of his Camry, oblivious to all but the sound of my car’s roaring engine. It didn’t help that when he finally emerged, the white guy looked startled to see the black guy standing there. He had started toward my window to say something, but seeing a large black man standing beside my car, he kept his distance. If either of these men was one of the “bad guys” my son had hoped were just fairy-tale myths, there would be no giant-killers around to save me. Each of the men was afraid, and I was on my own.
What struck me as ironic about the whole encounter was that I wasn’t the only one who was frightened. It was a virtual fear-fest: I was afraid of the white man, who was afraid of the African-American, who was afraid of the white people. We are human beings; as a naked, fang-less species we are driven to cooperation with each other. And yet, aware that sometimes a person will throw a rock instead of holding out a hand, we distrust anyone we don’t know, particularly anyone we meet at night, alone, far from familiar surroundings.
Last fall, I took my children to the Birmingham Zoo, a place I visted frequently during my own childhood. I was immensely relieved to find that the old primate house had been replaced by a modern-zoo educational exhibit. Walking into the building and turning the corner, a visitor now encounters a wall-sized mirror beneath a large sign that reads, “Social Animals.” It’s a little disconcerting to find oneself the initial exhibit in a zoo, but this understanding of ourselves is important if we’re ever to get anywhere in our dialogue about race, about gender, about every kind of marginalized group in our splintered culture. Social animals, visitors learn, are creatures who cooperate in procuring food, who carry their young in their arms, and who sleep cuddled up to each other. Social animals deprived of the accepting companionship of their own kind exhibit aberrant behavior. Social animals can die of a broken heart.
Evolutionary psychologists argue that many of the ills in our society are the result of innate biological demands that have not evolved fast enough for the changing pace of our own social circumstances. “Aberrant” behaviorviolence, depression, paranoiathe argument goes, is actually natural behavior given the totally unnatural environment most of us are living in. Biologically speaking, how natural is it to encounter total strangers in a parking lot at night? Is it “unnatural,” then, for people in such circumstances to find themselves afraid? It’s possible, of course, to extend the argument, to use the behavior of the animals in the zoo to explain much more problematic aspects of human behavior as well. How natural, for example, are ghettos? How natural is television, with its promulgation of both illusory violence and illusory wealth, as though each is, or should be, the birthright of all?
But the argument from biology has its limitations. What is perhaps most frightening about the way we treat each other, about the way we fear each other, is what we find in our own, separate hearts. Like the other social animals, we need each other, and in some part of our hearts we feel drawn to protect the weakest among us, the children, the elderly, anyone in need. And yet, aware of our own hidden tendencies, our own individual propensities for deceit, rage, and unjustifiable desires, we understand that cooperation among our own kind can’t always be counted on. We stand near each other in abandoned parking lots at night, needing each other and wanting to help but unable to reach out a steady, confident hand, unable to escape from our own humiliating fear.
“Frankly, I found it racist and offensive,” the New York editor said, critiquing my essay. “You seemed to get over your fear of the first guy but not your fear of the second.” But that is not what happened. In fact, I was no more afraid of the black man than of the white one. What interested me about the encounter, what I had wanted to show in the essaythrough image and metaphor rather than through bald statementwas the universality of human emotion, regardless of color, regardless of gender.
How odd, I had thought as I drove safely home from the Kroger, that I was not the only one leaping to conclusions, that I was not the only one making erroneous assumptions. None of us had harmed anyone; none of us had been harmed. But we had all been afraid of each other. We had all seemed like bad guys. How very, very odd.
The other night, after my conversation with the New York editor, I could not sleep. Whether from an outraged sense of justice orcould it be?from vanity, I lay awake all night and imagined the speech I should have delivered in my own defense, what I should have said to explain. The next morning, though, I had to admit another possibility. Maybe my essay had simply not been clear. Maybe other people had read it and thought it racist too. I checked with several people I could trust to be honest.
My old friend Marknow a graduate student in Chicago and one of the only people I know whose liberal idealism does not diminish as he agesargued that the ending was too poetic: “With identity politics you can’t take a chance on any kind of misunderstanding,” he said.
When I called my brother, the phone was silent for a moment. “I don’t think it was racist; I think it was regional,” he said carefully. “A New York editor probably wouldn’t get it.”
My friend Jan was more direct. On first reading the essay she too had assumed that I was more afraid of the black man than of the white man; thus, she did see how the essay could be read as racist. But she hastened to exonerate me nonetheless: “It was a kind of statistical racism, not a personal one. Statistically you are more likely to be harmed by a poorly dressed black man on foot than by a well-dressed white man in an expensive car. Of course you were afraid. But that makes you a realist, not a racist.”
Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that I had not been more afraid of the black man than of the white one, that I am by nature distrustful of statistics, and that my fears habitually fix on the utter randomness of so much tragedy in the news, the issue of “statistical” racism, particularly for women, is a troubling one. At what point do you cease to be merely cautiousto be what virtually every issue of every women’s magazine exhorts you to beand become, instead, a racist? When does your fear cease to be paranoia and become wisdom? When, conversely, do you cease to be a humanitarian and become instead a fool?
Looking back on that conversation with my editor, I recognize another great irony: Her interpretation of my essay had given me a tiny taste of what true victims of racism must feel, the sense of being hopelessly and wrongfully categorized and judged lacking. This is a lesson life does not readily offer a married, middle-class, white woman living in the Southern United States. All my life I have lived in the luxury of the mainstream. Doors have never closed in my face because of my color or my nationality or my sexual orientation. I am a teacher. Perhaps because my profession is not part of the male-dominated corporate culture, I have not even, to my knowledge, bumped my head against a glass ceiling.
It’s not that I haven’t suffered the insult of prejudice. I vividly recall the elderly college English professor who somehow never got around to calling on the women in class when they raised their hands to make a comment. And growing up Catholic in Alabama, as I did, I knew my occasional moments of discomfort. The little Church of Christ children across the street from Our Lady of Sorrows, where I went to grade school, would often shout across to us the news that we cross-back kids were doomed to the eternal flames of hell.
But being damned to hell by evangelical schoolchildren and going unacknowledged in an old man’s poetry class were not, for me, particularly disturbing events. They certainly lacked the relentless repetition encountered by victims of racism. Because they were rare incidents and not the norm, because nothing in my life had ever given me a single reason to believe that I was unworthy of speaking or unworthy of salvation, such insults left me untouched. They always seemed to say more about the people who uttered them than they said about me. Harder to bear, however, were the attitudes I encountered in my brief sojourn north of the Mason-Dixon line.
On hearing me speak, people at my Ivy League graduate school generally regarded me with deep suspicion. Though we had never met, they felt they had seen me before. In conversation I found myself going to great pains to prove that I was notas everyone assumed I was, as statistical evidence might have suggested I wasstupid, that I was not a political conservative, that I was not a racist. People would hear my accent and assume I was Gomer Pyle’s little sister, Ellie Mae Clampett’s best friend. When James Watt, secretary of the Department of Interior during Ronald Reagan’s first administration, spoke on campus that year, I stepped up to the microphone to comment on his foolish notion that environmental regulations should be decided by individual states. “Sir,” I began, “I’m from Alabama,” and 1,000 people in the audience broke into laughter before I could make my point.
This was a disconcerting experience, one of the reasons I left the Northeast shortly thereafter, never to return. As an educational tool, though, such an experience is valuable: It does offer someone like me, someone normally privileged to live in the mainstream, a hint of what prejudice can feel like.
Like all other liberal white southerners, I have spent my entire life feeling the collective guilt of my race and my region’s history. In 1985 I was one of three white people to walk in the 20th-anniversary commemorative march from Selma to Montgomery. To be honest, I never really meant to participate in the march itself.
With a couple of friends, I had driven to Montgomery to join in the rally, to hear the speeches when the march was all over. But far outside town, just past Prattville and the hand-lettered sign warning, “GO TO CHURCH OR THE DEVIL WILL GET YOU,” the opposite side of the interstate had been closed to automobiles, and our side had been turned into a two-lane thru-way. We pulled over and parked, just as a crowd of black people marched by on the other side of the road singing hymns and heading into Montgomery.
They were exuberant, singing and laughing, walking hand-in-hand or with their arms around each other’s necks. A few of them looked across the median blooming with crimson clover and saw us leaning against our car. We waved. They waved back. Suddenly, a handful of them were beckoning, and without even pausing to look at each other, my friends and I were dodging the slow-moving cars on our side of I-65 and heading across the median. Seeing us coming, our lily-white cheeks blushing with self-consciousness, the entire group set up a cheer; several of themthose closest to the spot where we joined the linehugged us, draping their arms across our shoulders and singing at the top of their lungs the words to a song I’d never heard before. No matter how joyful, how hopeful, I suddenly feltno matter how desperately I wanted toI couldn’t add my voice to theirs. It was a song I didn’t recognize. I could not sing along.
Such moments of perfect, symbolic clarity are rare. When they do occur, they are also largely wordless experiences. I can still, 12 years later, exactly recall the smile on one older woman’s face as she reached out her hand to grab my sleeve and pull me into the throng of marchers. I can still smell the damp clover of the median. I can still feel my burning cheeks and my thumping heart. But even now, even though I’ve had years to process the event, to shape it into the relatively coherent form of a single memory, I find it hard to give words to what happened to me that afternoon in March in 1985.
Words, of course, are half the trouble. Ours is not a culture that allows conversation about race. We cannot yet agree on our lexicon (black people? African-Americans? people of color?); we have no trusted mediators who can represent all sides fairly. With the best of intentions we often say the most stupid things (“Some of my best friends are,” “Well, you know...”). We open our mouths to speak, to offer reassurances, and we shut them again before we can make a single utterance. If we (black or white) observe and celebrate ethnic difference, we risk a kind of unbridgeable separatism; if we ignore it, pretend it does not exist, we perpetuate an unspoken racism that refuses to acknowledge the undeniable facts of continued prejudice. And so we do not speak. We are all of usif we are half awaketerrified of being misunderstood.
It’s this culture-wide inability even to talk about the gulf between the races that has led Fisk University to resurrect its Race Relations Institute, which will be held this summer for the first time since 1983. The forum, which used to be an annual event, was established 55 years ago to discuss ways to address segregation; what’s needed now is a national conversation about ways to end racial distrust. “I find national dialogue on race today really terrible,” Race Relations Institute director and former Vanderbilt professor Ray Winbush recently told The Tennessean.
In truth, there is no reason for racism to exist. Children of all colors fail to observe differences of skin color and have to be taught to recognize them. When we were in college, my brother lived for one year in an integrated apartment building; he was the integrating factor. Because he was an art major and had all sorts of neat paints and crayons to play with, the children downstairs liked to visit him on warm spring afternoons when everyone kept their doors open to the breeze. One of the little girls developed a crush on the cosmopolitan college man my brother must have seemed to be.
She flirted with him in the silly way all 6-year-old girls flirt with grown-ups, and he teased her in kind. One day, while Billy was painting, her sister came in and reported, “Tomeeka likes you.”
Moments later Tomeeka herself showed up, leaning halfway in the door and batting her eyelashes. “Hi, hon,” she giggled.
“Tomeeka,” Billy said, “I’m afraid I’m way too old for youyou’re going to have to find a sweetheart your own age.”
“Yeah, Tomeeka,” her worldly older sister reiterated. “He’s too old for you. Besides, you can’t go with a white boy.”
Tomeeka’s smile vanished. She looked at Billy quizzically. “You’re a white boy?”
Nobody likes to face the fact that, despite the inability of children to observe differences in skin color, their parents see such differences with acute vision. And there is no question that this is specifically a distinction of race, rather than of class, as so many liberal whites would like to suppose.
While it’s true, for example, that impoverished whites and impoverished blacks may suffer from similar restrictions in opportunity, the O.J. trial last year clarified a reality a lot of liberal whites had ignored or simply failed to observe: For a great many blacks, issues still exist that absolutely focus on race, regardless of educational level or relative economic success. My friend Wendy teaches in the English Department at Northwestern University, an expensive, predominantly white private school just north of Chicago. She walked from her office to the student-union building there to hear the verdict announced in the O.J. trial. The lobby was crowded with close to 100 students, she said, only a handful of them black. When the verdict was announced, the African-American students spontaneously leapt to their feet to cheer; the white students sat silent on the floor.
Nearly 30 years after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. and a year past O.J. Simpson’s acquittal on criminal charges of murder, I understand that racism continues to thrive in my country. The statistical evidence is disheartening enough. But statistical evidence does nothing to convey the kind of pain felt by an individual encountering prejudice for the first time, or the long-term effects of a single racist slur, or the cumulative effect on the individual, fragile human heart of repeated snide remarks, skeptical glances, outright denials of opportunity. No amount of empathy could lead me to understand what it truly feels like to have so much of a culture imply that you can best participate in it by cleaning toilets, by selling Icees at the Jim Dandy, by asking over and over again, day after day, “Would you like fries with that?”
Racism exists, but I hope with all my heart it does not operate in me. I would like to believe that, if an editor reads what I have written and characterizes it as racist, then she is in fact guilty of another form of prejudice: Knowing my birthplace and hearing my accent, she decides that anything honest I write on the subject of skin color is suspect.
I have to admit, though, that from the outside I look very much like a racist. I live in a Green Hills neighborhood that is populated entirely by white people. My son attends a preschool in which he has not a single African-American classmate. I am not intimate enough with even one African-American to ask, “Did you think that essay I wrote sounded racist?”
Each of these conditions is an accidental one. I did not choose my neighborhood or my son’s school because they were lily-white; I dearly wish the opposite were the case. We bought our house from friends who gave us a deal we couldn’t pass up, and we chose a preschool on the basis of its proximity to our house. These are demographic accidents, I insist, and in time my circumstances will change. Next fall my child will start kindergarten in a public school where he will have classmates of many colors; someday we’ll move, I hope, to a bigger house in perhaps an integrated neighborhood.
Genuine friendships are not easily come by, even among people of identical backgrounds. It takes time and patience and a good deal of trust to make a true friend, and time is a rare and precious commodity when there are young children in the house. But it’s possible that changing circumstances will bring me new friends. Maybe some of them will be African-American.
Still, when I say these things, I hear my own voice rising, strained, unconvincing. In moments of abject sorrow and honesty, I have to admit that the human heart is a place of shadows, a region of hidden nooks and alleyways where all sorts of malignancy can lurk unnoticed. If I am guiltyas I sometimes amof envy, of bitterness, of unwarranted despair, I know it is possible that I am also guilty of other kinds of ugliness, even of unconscious and unvoiced prejudice against people of another race. Could I have been more afraid of the black man in that parking lot than of the white man? I dread to face such a possibility; I grieve that I must. Still, this grief is perhaps my best hope for shedding light on those dark corners of distrust, of sweeping them clear.
Not too long ago, someone called me a racist. Now I have to look at myself. Now I have to wonder.
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