There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no
basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger.
From "My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation" by James Baldwin.
So the story that wouldn't die this weekend was one about which I blogged earlier, featuring Henry Gates's arrest by overzealous Cambridge Police Sgt. Crowley, and the honest and thoughtless response by President Obama; I say honest because I think initially the President probably responded honestly. He was black before he was President, and he probably knows as well as any other brother the itchy fingers of American law enforcement; thoughtless because, to quote beloved tv series The West Wing, he "shouldn't have accepted the premise of the question." Commenting on a story like this had the potential to serve as distraction from things that are his domain and responsibility, ie. economic recovery, health care, foreign policy. I remember being extremely disappointed when I read that Obama had backed off of his initial response, claiming that he didn't know all the facts. (It would seem to me the facts don't actually merit arresting a man once he's proven the home he's broken into is his own, but then again, I don't have a law degree, or 9mm strapped to my hip, so what do I know?) It felt as if Obama had thrown his Black Power fist in the air and given the middle finger, and then remembered that he was the first black man in the White House, and if he didn't want to be the last, he'd better straighten up and not scare too many of these white folks.
And now Gates, Crowley and Obama are meeting at the White House for a beer. Well, that's super. I don't know what's going to come of this meeting, hell, for all I know, it's already happened, and I frankly don't give a shit. It's really nice that Obama can soothe the rankled scales of the Professor and stroke the bruised ego of the white cop, but if he had to go around massaging the finer points of black men who were unjustly arrested by prejudicial white cops, he'd never get the job done to which he was elected. I have some interpersonal conflict in my own life that is as yet unresolved; if me and my nemeses could hoist a cold one with POTUS in the Rose Garden, I have a feeling that might put things in perspective really fast.
So Friday, when I discovered Obama politicking, after he discovered that his 'fro was showing, I was hurt, and my sweetheart let me vent about it until I felt I'd said my peace. I thought we were done talking about it, but the next day at brunch it came up again with one of his friends, who happens to be a brother and a Harvard Alum. Word through the Crimson grapevine is that Gates had to break into his house because after a lovers' quarrel, his missus changed the locks. None of this is substantiated, but if that's true that woman got a pretty righteous last laugh. I hope she's at least a little bit sorry.
But the time when this really got sticky for me was on Saturday night. The sweetheart and I went to a dinner party hosted by two friends that was mostly brilliant. Having dinner at friends' houses is always a bit tricky, due to my slew of dietary restrictions, but the hosts were amenable and familiar, and put out a really lovely spread for us.
The thing that took the shine off the evening was that about half an hour after we'd arrived, the subject of Gates's arrest and Obama's comments came up, and it launched us all into a conversation about race in America that took on both a personal and a socio-political nature.
My sweetheart and I have a running gag: we consider ourselves a hyper-racial couple. Interracial dating is for those amateurs wherein one partner is white and the other is non-white, but he and me, both oppressed minorities that we are, we're diversity heavyweights. If we had the high fashion and pouty, apathetic looks, we'd be a United Colors of Benetton ad.
But this might be the first time I can recall when both of us were on the spot to speak about our racial experience to white folks who seemed not to know the first thing about racial sensitivity. My sweetheart talked about his experience about being the first generation of his family born stateside, of immigrant parents, and of the intrinsic difference he knew he possessed that the white kids in school never let him forget about.
Our host mentioned that he grew up in Canada and attended a high school where there were 2-3 black students. One in particular was his friend. He said about her, "I never knew she was black! I swear, I never knew she was black!"
(I absolutely hate it when white people say this shit, even when they mean it with the best intentions.) "What do you mean, you didn't know she was black?" I asked, trying not to show my displeasure.
"I just didn't, it never seemed an issue!"
I answered back, "I guarantee you, she knew she was black."
Okay, so I can't get away with a retort like this, so I have to draw on my own personal experience of what it is to be the only black girl in a gang of white folks. You think everything's hunky-dory, and then something happens, you do something or they do something, and suddenly everybody remembers you're black and they're white. I cleverly disguised this in a hypothetical narrative, but it was so familiar I could have recited it in my sleep. I have lost count how many times I have been asked or heard a friend asked, by a white person, why, if we are black, we talk white. Growing up, my hair was the most versatile thing about me, and I hated, hated having to explain its changes and appearances and special care to white girls who could do whatever they wanted with their hair.
So to cut a (literally) three-hour conversation short, this Gates-Obama thing launched a dinner party into a conversation about race and race relations in America. I was stunned at the amount of ignorant and downright offensive things that were said. This should have been my idea of a good time, and indeed, part of me was saying, Jess, you oughta be thrilled, think of the opportunity you have. These aren't the bleeding-heart, arty-farty friends you normally talk with. These are regular people. He's a trader and she's an executive for fuck's sake. You're not preaching to the choir here, this is your audience! But I couldn't take it; I really struggled at times relating to these people through their wealth and privilege, and the staggering ignorance with which they view things like economics, hunger, employment, justice. I have an extremely hard time listening to a wealthy white man tell me that he knows the solution to "the race question" in America, a problem that has existed since this nation's inception, an injury from which our body social or politic has still not recovered. I had a hard time listening to this man, who cannot even admit that being white affords him privileges which are denied to other people. I did my best at the party. I was clear and truthful, and I spoke up honestly and cogently when I disagreed, which was often. But by the end of the night, I felt like I hadn't done enough. I was frustrated with them beyond any capacity for words, and I was mad at myself. I felt like I was at the party not as a guest, but as a foil by which these white people could exorcise their fear, frustration and confusion; I felt like I'd had their white guilt, confusion and anger dumped all over me, and because I let them do it, they could feel better, and I could go home and beat my fists against a wall. I was mad at them and mad at myself: I'd tried so hard to tell the truth, but I'd allowed my passion to be meted by a sense of social propriety. Perhaps if I'd gone angry black woman on their asses, I'd have succeeded better, but I highly doubt it; I'd just have been what they think we all are. By the end of the evening I was exhausted, frustrated and incredibly discouraged.
Then yesterday, I read this letter from James Baldwin to his nephew, his namesake, preparing him and encouraging him about stepping into a fallen, flawed world that has killed him before he's really gotten to live. I read this once before, in a collection of Baldwin's essays; at the time it sounded to me like a fiery, potent call to arms from the center of a seasoned soldier and writer to his young replacement. This time, the above paragraph in particular caught me by surprise with its compassion and its nuance. "Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear." He might as well have said my name at the end of the sentence. I was delighted and impressed, and frankly, a bit convicted, to find such care and compassion in Baldwin, an artist who I knew was capable of it, but who always seemed to me to be stoking my fires, not asking me to mitigate them with love. The whole thing sounded... well, quite like Christ, actually.
A pastor I used to know told me once that if racial reconciliation is to succeed in Christ's church, it will require a supernatural amount of humbling from white folks, who will have to acknowledge and cede their privilege. It would also take a supernatural amount of patience, teaching and compassion from folks of color who will be responsible for teaching the tender hearts of their white brothers and sisters. I weary of this responsibility: it is exhausting and deeply painful to continue having to be the bigger person, to want to have compassion for and teach people who, it seems time and again, don't give a shit for your compassion and couldn't care less about what you have to teach them. This kind of fatigue and discouragement is heart-hardening. I must continue to pray for hearts that are softer out there, but also softer in here; that kind of tenderizing has to come from without, because despite how much I want it, it will not come from within.
"And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it... We cannot be free until they are free."
--- see above