Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 98 (December 1999): 9-11.
The cardinal rule of writing about race is: don’t. There are several reasons why. First, it is impossible to say anything new. Second, it axiomatically follows that it is impossible to say anything interesting. Third, it is impossible to avoid offense; or, in laboring to avoid offense, whatever humble point that may have been trying to assert itself will be buried under piles of apologies, qualifications, and assurances of the goodwill of the author. Rather than submit oneself to such circuitous torture, the wise writer observes the rules and politely declines to write about race.
Anyone even marginally curious about the issue is forced to wonder how the American dialogue about race has ground to such a halt. Schools of thought on racial issues proliferate, yet they find no room for discussion, worse yet no point to discussion, among them. The unsurprising outcome of this refusal to discuss is that race is simply ignored, forgotten, and extracted from our collective American life altogether. Even the New York Times hardly ever mentions it except to demonize Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s police. Race relations no longer command public attention. In thirty short years we went from a national rally around a man with a dream to . . . nothing. In our eminently pragmatic America, lip service to equality in the dubious form of affirmative action has become the main focus of what little discussion remains.
By now I’ve already trespassed the cardinal rule against writing about race, so I have nothing to lose by writing a little more. Perhaps an examination of the social interactions between ordinary blacks and whites can shed some light on how we’ve reached this impasse. Acknowledging the impossibility of newness, I offer the following tale precisely for its sheer unremarkableness, the typical college experience common to nice young white Americans raised in monochrome neighborhoods.
I went to a small, private, liberal arts college in the South. The school’s location didn’t make it especially prone to racism, contrary to my expectations as a snooty Yankee. I can’t recall any racial incidents on campus during my four–year tenure there. The white folks I knew were like me, conscientiously trying to be color–blind and sensitive to minority concerns. A couple were very outspoken about the imperative of racial justice. These, strangely, were the only ones I ever heard indulge in racial slurs. I suppose they considered themselves safe on account of their highly public convictions, as if their truthful claim to know "a lot of blacks" somehow made it okay to slam them. But even that was rare. Civil rights babies all, we knew the right side of history and were sticking to it.
Funny thing is, my racial enlightenment, and that of all my white friends, didn’t make a smidgen of difference. Our school was segregated anyway. Not legally, but voluntarily, and enforced by social strictures more binding than anything government could impose. Take a look around the cafeteria, for instance. There’s a sea of pink and peach faces, maybe one or two truly white from hangovers, all gathered around the front tables by the salad bar. Look farther back and at the other end of the room, by the cereal and the back door, all the brown and black faces together. It’s embarrassing, like Rosa Parks on the bus, except the other way around: we don’t care to sit in the front with you, thanks, we’ll retreat to the back on our own. The rare breaches of the invisible wall between us happened only after baseball or football practices, when the players all sat together, an integration based on camaraderie and, I guess, sweat.
For ordinary whites, though, the wall remained insurmountable. I would imagine trying to strike up a conversation as, in my mind’s eye, I meander towards the black students. I try to look completely natural. Instead, I look silly. My motivation to chat with these people, who to my eyes have only their color in common, can only be some peculiar manifestation of my white conscience. Maybe I am curious about "black culture," or maybe I feel it is my postmodern prerogative to engage the other purely on account of the other’s otherness, or maybe I feel guilty that I always sit in the front and they always sit in the back. Silly. I also look scared. Who am I to presume on their territory? What do I have to say that could possibly interest them, when I don’t even know what about them constitutes "them"? I am at a total loss as to what attitude won’t be viewed with immediate suspicion. But that’s just it. In fact, there is no correct attitude, because the situation itself is unnatural to the point of impossibility. Our segregation means that I am always a person of one color approaching a person of another color, with the absolute arbitrariness of color defining the whole interaction. It doesn’t get any more unnatural than that. So I give in, my better (are they better?) intentions defeated, and I sit back down at my seat, up in the front.
It wasn’t always, if I may say it, as black and white as that. I did know a few black students at college—a very few. The key thing was to find some common ground. Despite the language barrier, it was reasonably easy to meet the deaf black students within the large deaf community at my alma mater because their primary label was deaf, not black. Likewise in the theater we were thespians first, so the stage became neutral territory. I think of an astonishingly gifted young black man who starred in a number of our shows. He was widely adored for his talent, his humor, his style, his affectionate nature coupled with a breathtaking intensity, and, yes, his skin. I doubt he ever knew what a sheer relief it was for us to be with him, some living contact with a slice of enigmatically familiar America, the genuine article, of which we were normally deprived. He was like a little window through which we peeked at a hidden segment of our nation, normally revealed to us only by TV, and there superficially. At the same time and in a perverse way, our friendship with him was a safety net. He was our excuse to chime in with the ubiquitous "I can’t be a racist—I have black friends." I wonder how many times white Americans have hauled out that phrase against the accusations coming not only from others, but from within themselves as well.
Another neutral territory encounter took place in the Writing Center, where I worked under the gentle title of "peer consultant." One afternoon a black freshman in English 131 came in for some advice on the documentation of his research paper. His explanation of the topic, black fraternities, distracted me entirely from the matter at hand. Honestly, I was horrified. He told me with evident satisfaction about the brutal initiation rites and absolute allegiance to the group required to become a brother. One practice involved blindfolding the pledges, driving them to and depositing them in a small town several hundred miles away, stripping them of jackets, money, and phone cards, and then expecting them to make it home safely. "It’s to teach us," he said, "about not being allowed to travel in public, about having to hide out from the Klan. It teaches us strength, endurance, self–reliance." "It’s not like that anymore," I commented. "It’s our heritage," he replied. "We are brothers. We must be linked together by a common bond." The common bond, I realized with a chill, is a history of abuse from people of my color.
Then he added that, as far as he knew, most black fraternities were in legal trouble for hazing, which he took to be a sign of further white oppression of the black brotherhood. Who needs white oppression, I thought, when you so effectively oppress your own? Perhaps this young man also thought it oppression that most of the white students on campus were opposed to the introduction of black fraternities. The reason was simple: the group pressure would prevent any black student from ever again joining a "white" fraternity and the inevitable segregation would deepen, institutionalized all over again.
What all this means is that we—by which I mean America’s newest grown–ups of European descent—were raised by a system that did and didn’t work. It did work because the very idea of judging someone on the basis of skin color is, I would assert, anathema to the vast majority of white twenty–and thirty–somethings in this country. It didn’t work because, despite our equitable attitude towards blacks, our convictions have languished in the abstract. We have simply remained apart. Albeit nonviolently (an important qualification), color still divides us.
Or is it really color? I wonder. I’ve detected little hints that it isn’t color at all. There’s a girl I knew, for instance, who became black. I thought it was a stretch for this blonde–haired, blue–eyed young woman, but she pulled it off with what seemed remarkable ease. The first sign of her transformation was that she started to date only black men, strongly encouraging me to do the same. (I thought it made no more sense to date a man solely because he was black than it did to refuse to date a man solely because he was black.) Then it was her music—suddenly all she listened to was rap, hip–hop, R&B, and sometimes a little soul. Her slang vocabulary evolved, followed by a subtly altered accent, and soon she had become our local expert on all things African American. She, the white–skinned, accepted them, the black–skinned, and they accepted her too without any apparent trouble, and along the way she also accepted a new identity—a black one, despite her skin color. I thought it odd—not objectionable, just odd—but then again, I guess she never had much of an identity at all as one among many of the great whitewashed masses. Now she does.
Another little hint is the racial assortment of the church I attended for a while. Some of the members had black skin. Almost none of those, however, were African Americans, but rather Africans who have become Americans recently. In other words, immigrants, not the descendants of slaves. It’s not that the latter wouldn’t have been welcome in our church—quite the contrary—but they rarely came. The immigrants, though, are just like any other immigrants melting into American society, and their color was not a point of much interest.
No, I think it’s culture. Color’s role now is to demarcate conveniently the change in culture, and it happens to make the cultural segregation all the more obvious. Think about it: no one is terribly concerned about whether or not the Koreans or the Peruvians are mingling adequately with whites. Of course they are, because that’s the culture they’re joining, that of the immigrants who believed that new and better opportunities awaited them. My forebears, for instance, came here in freedom, or at least some kind of it. Whether they were plagued by poverty or persecution, war or imminent war, they set sail for America in full confidence that freedom awaited them on the other side of the Atlantic, in exotic–sounding places like . . . Nebraska. And once here, they could shed their pasts, their accents, and their cooking in one swift generation’s time, blending into the free American masses with only a surname, at most, to betray their roots.
Not so with our black brethren who were brought to these shores in chains. America was not a courageous choice. Beautiful freedom was not a guarantee. It was something withheld, bequeathed, squelched, earned, desired, demanded, but never just plain assumed. To this day, regardless of fair treatment or mistreatment, the heavy history of enslavement hangs over black Americans, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved who haunts the barely free Sethe. They can’t help but collectively embody a reproach to the American dream, whether they want to or not. The cultural identity created by that status can’t be shrugged off lightly, like my great–grandmother’s recipe for sauerkraut. For those bearing the black color, participation in broad, i.e., "white," American culture must remain an ambiguous option. And white Americans in turn can’t help but recall that the origin of a different black culture is past injustice by whites. Maybe not by any one of us particularly or by our forebears either, but regardless of what we think about those past perpetrators of injustice, we still share their skin color.
Black America and white America are different cultures, and these cultures still distrust one another. Moving across color lines means also moving across culture lines. It’s easy enough to learn to be color–blind. Is it possible to become culture–blind? Maybe there’s an answer to be found, but I think I’d better quit now, since I’m not supposed to be writing about race in the first place.
Sarah E. Hinlicky, a former Editorial Assistant at First Things, is a student at Princeton Theological Seminary.