In the days since the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, I’ve been mostly silent, watching my mouth, and my mind, while others speak. I’ve felt the need to speak, because I certainly have feelings about what happened: rage and despair about the virulence of racism in this country. But I’ve had to think hard about what I could say that might not be primarily about my need to be heard.
I am a white person living in the South. I was born and raised in the South. Until I was 10 it was a Jim Crow South. My parents, products of the culture in which they’d been raised, held racists views. They taught me, by example, to believe I was part of a defeated nation, the Confederacy. Segregated bathrooms and water fountains puzzled my small-child self–what could skin color possibly have to do with cleanliness?–but because I had no contact with people of color, my bewilderment was in the abstract.
In public school and on family vacation visits to antebellum mansions, I learned about slavery and became less and less able to identify with my mother’s romanticized notions of the Old South. When the schools integrated as I entered 6th grade, I had for the first time African-American classmates and, luckily, an African-American science teacher, kind and funny and very, very smart. I suddenly had direct experience of the absurdity of the segregationist principle of assigning a set negative traits to anyone possessing a single outer attribute such as skin color
In an admirably honest and articulate op ed in the New York Daily News, Tim Parrish, author of the memoir, Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, described the subtlety and pervasiveness of racism everywhere in white America this way: “we have been so thoroughly indoctrinated by the mythology of blacks bringing violence and crime to our white neighborhoods, that the impulse to distrust arrives before any conscious thought.”
White privilege has meant we do not have to be conscious of that mythology and its consequences unless we want to. We white people are free to be unconscious until we are made to be conscious.
Of course it is not only in the South that people will themselves to be unconscious of the evils of racism. This New York Times Sunday Review op ed by Isabel Wilkerson (author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration) offers an excellent and succinct discussion of the rise of racism in the North and West in response to successive waves of blacks immigrant from the South.
I will never be an apologist for the South but I did have direct experience of Northerners scapegoating the South to shore up their ability to deny their own racism. In the mid-80s I was a very junior investment banker and the only woman at a business dinner in an opulent Manhattan restaurant; my accent had invited someone at the table to go off on intransigent segregation in the South. “Look around this room,” I said. “Do you see anyone of color here?” Nowadays that dining room would probably not be de facto whites-only, but everyone with enough money to dine there might be equally vested in maintaining the public lie that America is “post-racial” now.
In the 1990s I lived for a time as an expatriate in Bermuda, a country where the majority of the population is black, racial tension has often been high, and racism is viewed, as least by those with money, as a problem other countries have. I walked into a bakery to buy bread, and on the basis of my color, I was not served–at first. For several minutes my presence, the lone white person among black Bermudians enjoying coffee and rolls, was pointedly not noticed. When I pressed the woman behind the counter, politely, for a loaf of bread, she replied coldly, “On the island we say ‘good morning’ before we ask for what we want.”
I’d been focused on getting fresh bread. She was focused on my recognizing her humanity before requiring service from her. This encounter gave me direct experience of being hated and humbled on sight, for nothing more than my obvious membership in a skin-color group. I was angered, hurt, offended, and yet I was not unconscious. I did comprehend the legacy of violence, oppression, and arrogance my skin color represented to her.
That moment slapped awake in me a curiosity incubating perhaps since Mr. Saunders made me laugh and want to learn science in 6th grade. How did the world–and I–appear to people on the other side of the color line, people never privileged to remain unconscious of their place in the race and values hierarchy? I am a writer, so I pursued the curiosity as writers do: I read, I observed, I asked direct questions of black Americans and black Bermudians who befriended me, and eventually I imagined the outer and inner lives of fictional black characters in a novel about the collision of black and white world views.
Reading and observing taught me much. The questioning was awkward but instructive. I understood that asking black people who were trying to trust me to tell me about their painful, baffling, and humiliating personal experiences of racism was impolite, inappropriate, invasive. Why did I want to know? What use would I make of what I was told? Would white people never stop trying to co-opt anything black people held precious?
I agonized over that book. I wanted, by writing it, to understand the subtleties of racism and to honor the people killed, exploited, and demeaned by it. I worried a lot about co-optation. I wanted to get it right, that experience that is not and never will be mine, and I figured it was probably impossible to do so. White readers’ responses ran the gamut from “It’s a very grown-up book” to “it’s depressing” to “I’d never go to that place, it sounds awful.” Timidly, I asked a black reader who told me she’d enjoyed the book, “Did I get it right?” With eye contact she told me very warmly, “At least you tried.”
Eulogizing the Emanuel Nine, President Barack Obama said many moving things but one remark that stayed with me is that justice arises from recognition. To me this means two things. First, that denying the way things are–refusing to become conscious –is a primary source of injustice and inhumanity. Second, that we are able to behave toward one another in ways that are just and humane only to the extent we recognize another person’s humanity and individuality.
The massacre at Emanuel AME Church has given some Americans a direct shock of recognition. Others it has not touched, obviously. In the South and in the North and all over this country, racism is endemic. It is part of our history. Part of our collective karma. I join Parrish in his plea that we each “work to illuminate [our] own darkness and walk back from [our] own ingrained racist beliefs.” We can at least try. That effort, I believe, requires us to study, to listen, and to imagine, as much as it requires us to speak.