I’ve tried to make my life my statement about race, even though we’ve known since W.E.B. DuBois said it in 1914 that scientifically “race” doesn’t exist. Race is not inscribed in our genes, any more than “class” is. But the perception of race exists. People have been enslaved, imprisoned, lynched, raped, tortured, and shot because of the perception of race. People hate each other, fear each other, and make assumptions about each other based on the perception of race. I am racist because I was born White in a system of power based on the perception of race. I’m part of that system. I can’t get out; my skin is what it is, and there is nowhere on this planet untainted by that system. Therefore I choose to work on myself, to be aware and vigilant for ways I embody or absorb racist ideology, and to put the whole weight of my life into the effort to educate myself out of it and to counteract racism in every small way I can. I will always have plenty of work to do, inside and outside. Plenty of people have written about race better than I will ever be able to. But I need to begin putting a few words together, if only to join a conversation with White people about race in our lives. Anybody else is welcome to listen in, chime in, or quit reading now. Very few people read this blog, so what I’m about to say will remain secret. Despite that, I have trepidation. My grandmother told me a version of something Jeremiah Wright’s grandmother told him: “If you keep your mouth shut, you won’t ever say anything to make people think you’re stupid.” He didn’t heed his grandmother’s warning, and neither have I. Whatever it is that I’m about to say will be flawed, imperfect, inadequate, and a work in progress. So here I go.
This is coming up for me right now because of the national discussion of Barack Obama/ Jeremiah Wright/ Father Pfleger, and because I’m reading a book called Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, by Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden. It’s a sometimes-joyful, sometimes-heartbreaking, sometimes-furious commentary and analysis of “The African American Women’s Voices Project”–a survey involving over 300 women talking to other Black women about their lives. Shifting is basically written to and for Black women, but it allows a White reader to put her or his story aside for a moment and LISTEN. As I have been listening, I’ve been wishing everybody would.
But listening to Black people’s experience of race is difficult for White people. The history of “race” in the lives of White people of conscience is mean and violent. Shame arises: some White people I love, White people who gave me life and saved my life, have said horrible, bigoted, ignorant and prejudicial things. I grew up hearing racial epithets (one of my students called them “racial epitaphs” and that’s also true). Some White teachers to whom I owe an enormous debt of gratitude encouraged me because of my skin color. I attended segregated schools all the way through high school. I’ve been educated, hired, paid, loved, and respected by people whose screening systems I passed because of my skin color. I’m complicit in the story of race in the USA and southern Africa and everywhere else I have ever been. I have to put the noise of that shame aside in order to hear these African American women’s voices. It certainly is worth it.
Here’s how Shifting gets rolling: “Black women in America today find they must spend significant time, thought, and emotional energy watching every step they take, managing an array of feelings, and altering their behavior in order to cope with it all” (60). Well, I couldn’t help thinking, so do I. So do all women in traditionally-male fields like medicine, law, engineering, and even academia. Even some white men “shift” now and then. But keep reading, put the “I” aside for a minute, and read the details, the particular stories of how that plays out in Black women’s lives, and there is a significant difference. As the authors of Shifting say, “Of course, all people, of all ethnicities, whether male or female, find that at times they must adapt their way of thinking or behaving to respond to particular situation and to fit in to specific environments…,” (63) but Black women do it more. “They must endlessly compromise themselves to put other people at ease, counteract the misperceptions and stereotypes, and deflect the impact of those hostilities on their lives and the lives of their mates and children” (63).
I think we all know about racial profiling and the dangers of “driving while Black”; we know that store detectives are more likely to follow Black people around than Whites; and we know it’s almost always easier for Whites than Blacks to find jobs and housing, to get their cars fixed, to cross international borders without much scrutiny, to get help on the highway, etc. But maybe we don’t realize the relentless daily details that are so exhausting, which are voiced in this book: like having very carefully to modulate tone and volume of voice to avoid being perceived as “loud” or “angry” or “hateful,” speaking carefully in order to have perfect grammar but being wary of “talking White,” being perceived as “acting White” or on the other end of the spectrum, ”being a [stereo]typical Black,” finding the line between “assertive” / and “aggressive,” the line between “trying too hard” / and “being slack or lazy,” the line between being “defensive” or even “hostile” / and being weak or failing to stand up for yourself. Some live in a state of constant vigilance; others practice denial as a survival skill and are in “sleep mode” (74). But nobody who interacts with White people ever gets a break. Every single White person, no matter how downtrodden, poor, or hard-working, no matter how “liberal” or how strong an “ally” of people of color, has benefited from being White and is a potential powder keg of prejudices and assumptions which may surface at any time.
Talking to White people is fraught, to say the least. So when Black women talk to Black women, a music happens in the language. Their voices, the words they use to describe their experiences, are vivid and powerful and very important to all of us who want to understand the world in which we live. Even those who aren’t interested in social justice or any of that activist stuff still want (don’t we all?) to know as much as possible about the people who share the planet with us right now. Especially if we might possibly do something constructive together sometime. Like make the world a better place.
White people haven’t listened to Black people as much as we could. Nor do we have the right to expect the Black people in our lives to educate us. It’s not their job. Most of us just don’t get it. That’s why Fox News has had such a heyday demonizing Rev. Jeremiah Wright by clipping his sermons to pieces and publishing the pieces of them which, taken out of context, play into the fears and prejudices of Whites. I have listened carefully to him, and I hear him talking about love, about reconciliation, and about ”liberating the captives and the captors.” I know what that means and want to talk more about it, and I certainly think what Wright is saying, and what Whites are hearing, has to do with the energy around this next US election, but I’ll save that for tomorrow, because I want to stick to Shifting right now: why I have read it, why I wish everybody would.
I am a White mother of Black children (politically opposed to interracial adoption, and there lies a whole story that needs another time to be told: in a crisis, a White parent is better than no parent at all), and there are some things I could just never get right. Like the whole issue of authority. “‘As Black people we don’t have the luxury of questioning authority, especially armed authority,’ Lynell says, ‘We’ll always come up short. And when that authority is packing a gun, you’re going to come up dead.’” (245). I am one of those “Question Authority” people. I was a hippy-dippy mom living in reaction to the physical and sexual abuse I was reared with. I was permissive. Non-directional. Not always consistent. Often with my head in a book, in therapy, or off chasing what I thought was love. So I was a piss-poor mother to my White sons and a horribly inadequate mother to my Black daughters. The girls needed the practical, no-nonsense, good-humored loving pushiness of Black mothers who are expert at “Shifting,” and each of the girls in her own way has found Black community now, for which I am deeply grateful to the universe. I was able to hold each girl together for the years she was with me, to love her extravagantly (as I still do, and as I love my sons), and to save her from the maw of death till she could get to Black community. But the chapter in Shifting that deals with parenting is particularly powerful and makes it clear to me that it is never possible for a White person to prepare a Black child to live in a White-dominated world. I knew that, but I got stuck; it was hard for me to find Black “Othermothers” for the girls. It is much harder to parent Black children than White children, no matter what additional factors may come into play, and most Black women have their hands full with their own lives and children–and no wonder.
But back to this conversation between me and other Whites. Why should White women (and men) read Shifting? Don’t we “get it” from our own Black friends? Didn’t we do Racism 101 already? Does it tell us something we didn’t know? No. Maybe. Yes.
Shifting is a conversation between and among Black women. They had this conversation without having to take care of our White asses while they were having it. So they could just tell it like it is. They didn’t have to worry about our feelings, or our White Guilt, our tears (I never knew it was so hard; I’ve always done the best I could), or our arguments (my oppression is bigger than your oppression; I never personally did anything to Black people; my people suffered too; why do you hate us; bla de bla de blah), or our tendency to break in and tell our stories (that reminds me of the time…). Shifting, and the study on which it’s based, is a terrific resource. I wish I could read all the transcripts of all the interviews, listen to all the tapes, and take in every word of it in all its “diversity” (pardon the word) and richness.
One of the ways racism has hurt me profoundly is that it has cut me off from wellsprings of wisdom, hilarity, and love that surge among Black people in the safety of their homes, families, and communities. I’ve read and taught the slave narratives (my students always thought they knew the story of slavery till they read Elaudah Equiano, Harriet Jacobs, and Frederick Douglass; then their eyes and minds were opened and they found out they hadn’t known dip about it). I’ve been privileged to hang out with Black friends and lovers and their families–although I always altered the atmosphere just by being there with my White face and White ears and White language. I’ve read everything I could lay my hands on. I’ve done workshops. I’ve marched and gone to Black churches and loved Black music and Black poetry and Black theatre. Black people in the USA and southern Africa have been generous and welcoming to me far more than I deserved. But there is still much about the people around me that I don’t know; that I haven’t heard; that I miss, because my experience is different; and that nobody will tell me. But a good piece of it is in this book. So in order to understand the world in which I live, I need to read this book. And so do you, White person reading this. I hope you can find a copy of it. And tomorrow or the next day I’ll say more about Rev. Wright and Barack Obama and Father Pfleger and all that.
I know it’s difficult to enter a conversation after a long harangue of a monolog like this just was, but hey, anybody brave enough to ignore their grandmother’s advice is welcome to wade in with a comment.
P.S. Something has gone nuts with my blog. I’m getting hundreds of spam messages on it, which I’m wasting time deleting every five minutes, and I may be missing some real messages. So if you write a comment to this and it doesn’t show up, please try again, or send me an email so I can dig through the thousands of spam emails in the spam folder to see if I can find it and liberate it.
Tags: Black people, Black women, Books and Movies, Charisse Jones, Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Politics, race, race relations, racism, Shifting, What does it mean?, White people