When I was back in college, I knew this brother who loved to smoke weed and get drunk, all the time. I mean, this brother stayed high, and of course, he chased girls, too.
Years later, I bumped into him in the grocery store. We started exchanging stories about our lives and he told me he had received the “call to the ministry.” And he was now enrolled in a doctoral program in divinity school. I guess he saw the look on my face, because he gave me one of those kind, preacher smiles.
“I don’t care how much you love Jesus,” I said. “You know you still gone smoke you some weed!” He took it pretty well, I must say. He just laughed with me and then, he picked up his bag of groceries and went on.
There are things in all of our pasts that we wish we could erase, whether it’s all the reefer we smoked, or in the case of many Americans of European (white) descent, that they live in a country that was founded on pushing colored people around. But we do live in that country, and it most certainly is not post-racial. And I just don’t understand why we have to keep having this conversation.
I’m not trying to beat up on white folks who don’t want to read their classic slave narratives, or do the research to find out that many of our modern institutions that still exist were literally built upon slavery (like the shipping and insurance industries) or built by slaves (like the White House). And that’s just with African Americans. You don’t even want me to get started on the Native Americans. It’s a scandal.
To mix my metaphors, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him use his library card. But even if somebody doesn’t like to read, there’s such a thing as keeping it real with yourself. And some things should be obvious.
I’m not saying that white folks who voted for Obama didn’t act in a profound way to move this country forward. But that does not erase white privilege, and white privilege is one of the main things keeping this country from being post-racial.
So let’s talk about what that privilege means. Part of white privilege involves white folks asking black folks to translate what it means to be black in this country, in the name of racial dialogue.
For me, this problem has been going on a long time, ever since I entered my first majority white space, St. Thomas More Catholic School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I was the only black person in the sixth grade class, but not the only “minority.” There was a Chinese brother, Charlie Wong, and then there was Edgar Fineberg, who was Jewish. The two of them were my road dogs. I still remember when we got tore-up on Mogen David at the Passover celebration. Did you know Mad Dog tastes just like grape Koolaid?
I remember one day being tormented by a group of white kids on the playground at that same school. They crowded around me, refusing to let me pass, and then this one little redheaded [insert expletive noun] asked me, “How do you even comb those naps?”
Remember my post on black hair, when I told you my hair was “good”? Well, good hair is in the eye of the beholder.
Anyway, the issue wasn’t that redheaded boy’s racism; I don’t know if he was racist or not. He might have just been an equal-opportunity bully. But he did have white privilege: I was the only black girl in sixth grade, and all those kids were white. They figured they could terrorize me and get away with it, and they did. Not one of them was reprimanded, let alone suspended for that incident, not even the redheaded boy.
Edgar Fineberg and his mother sat with me in class after that incident. Mrs. Fineberg stroked the hair on the back of my neck as I cried so hard I thought I was going to throw up, and while my teacher Sister Grace explained to two Jews and one African American why our earthly suffering was nothing compared to what Jesus went through up on The Cross.
Since that time, what I’ve experienced in all-white environments is typical, especially—I suppose—for a middle-class black person.
You may be the object of white praise: “You’re nothing like the rest of them.”
You may be the object of white confusion, if you don’t say being black is horrible and you’ve always secretly wanted to change your color.
You may be the object of white scorn and told that you are exaggerating your black pain if you talk about how hard it is, mentally, to live in a “mainstream” environment.
Or you may be the object of white pity, if you talk about your pain. This is really a variation of ridicule, because who wants somebody—even somebody nice—feeling sorry for you all the time? Especially if all you wanted to do is to complain for five minutes.
Most importantly, regardless of which of the above scenarios occurs, you will always be the black informant, the cultural snitch who explains the curious ways of black folks.
This occurs every time some black person is asked to sit on some panel on “race” at a professional conference that’s broadcasted on C-Span. Or they are asked to write an Op-Ed piece for a national newspaper or magazine, like yesterday when Orlando Patterson and Colson Whitehead commented on Obama and race in America for The New York Times.
These two pieces were examples of what happens when white folks need somebody colored to tell them what’s going on with the color line in America. Now, Orlando Patterson is a brilliant man, but he teaches at Harvard University. Colson Whitehead is a stunningly talented novelist, but most of his books aren’t read in black households, and by the way, he went to school at Harvard, too. These ain’t brothers hanging on the corner, taking the daily pulse of the community.
If the folk at the New York Times had really wanted to know about Obama and this so-called post-race society we’re supposedly living in, they would have sent a black reporter into a barbershop or a beauty shop and asked some regular black folks. It would have been a keeping-it-real party up in there. But I suspect that the folks at the New York Times, as well meaning as they are, really don’t want to know what regular black folks are really thinking about race, unless it’s flattering or uncritical of actual white folks.
Whatever editor approached Orlando Patterson knew he was going to give the highly intellectual, history-based explanation for what is going on with race in this country. Professor Paterson is honest and extremely human, but if you haven’t gone to the library and done your research, you might be able to understand most of what he’s saying, but you won’t know the history behind it.
Colson Whitehead is going to do what he always does when talking about race, too—which is to make fun of it, and imply that black folks with some real sense understand that race relations aren’t as bad as all that. Wink-wink. Nod-nod. I admire Colson Whitehead, too, but if he’s so tired of being the special Harvard-educated Negro who’s asked to explain the less-special Negroes to white folks, I wish he would just not say anything. I’m really kind of over the cute, tongue-in-cheek thing he likes to do, I guess because he’s talking about people who look like me when he does it.
But who am I kidding? I’m not about to get up in any white folks’ face either, and tell them exactly what I think.
For example, I’m not going to tell my white friends that I’m tired of being the only sister at their dinners, cocktail parties, or sundry fill-in-the blank after-five entertainment. Can’t they like, rent, one or two more black friends?
I’m not going to tell my white colleagues in my English department that if I’ve read five hundred years of white British and American literature starting with Shakespeare, a couple of my colleagues could pick up the one book of poetry Phillis Wheatley published.
I’m not even going to tell a random white guy that if I won’t date a black crack addict named Pookie, I damned sure wouldn’t cross the racial line to date a white one named Skeeter or Bubba.
I certainly won’t say to the strange white ladies in my integrated hair salon, “Hell no, and have you lost your [insert expletive adjective] mind,” when they ask, “Ooh, can I touch your hair?”
Some of my politeness as a middle-class black person—and let’s face it, sometimes my fear—is a response to white privilege. I’ve got to be careful all of the time, and constantly aware of who’s in charge. Dubois talked about this, a long time ago. I have to be aware of my blackness all the time, but white folks don’t have to be aware of being white, ever. That’s the privilege part.
I’m not saying that black folks don’t have problems in the black community, problems that we need to take full responsibility for. We black people need to stop going all the way back to Kunta Kinte and them to talk about every single issue in our community. Slavery is over, Kunta is dead, and even if he were alive, he would not make you sell crack to Pookie—or even to Skeeter or Bubba.
But those problems don’t keep white privilege going. If white people really want to make this a post-race society, they need to stop dumping the race problem in black folks’ laps. And they need to stop thinking that simply being nice white people is going to fix notions about race that run deeper than anyone knows, especially if that anyone hasn’t used his or her library card to read about race, instead of asking a black friend.
White people need to stop asking black folks and other racial minorities questions about what it means to be black and “other,” and instead, start asking themselves questions about what it means to be white in this country. Once white folks can talk about the benefits whiteness still gives, and talk about those benefits without getting angry, guilty, or developing a sudden case of historical amnesia, then we can finally get this post-race thing going.