Jim has raised the possibility that perhaps my wife is consumed by issues of race. If you got to know her, you might see her that way. She is very sensitive to issues of race. I will explore one example here in order to unpack the multiple factors involved in determining if someone is too focused on racial issues and sees everything through the lens of race.
At times, on observing a person, my wife will give a start and point to some feature of that person’s body, usually hair, the shape of the nose or lips, and, of course, color. What she points out is that some people who are not categorized as African-American have features that characterize African-Americans. Now what do I mean, “characterize African-Americans”? The features we know stand out in differentiating African-Americans and Whites are skin color, hair texture, and shape of the nose and lips. There are other features, but those four are typically referred to when ascertaining that someone is of one race or the other.
Who needs to do this? Anyone needing to give a good description of someone, e.g. a missing person reported to the police; a medical person needing to take racial characteristics into account in prescribing treatment; and so forth. Any quick glance will disabuse one of the notion that these characteristics are determinative and we know that these features are distributed throughout the population of the U.S. (two recent articles on Blacks in Cuba gave 10% and over 50% as the number of Blacks, the discrepancy coming from the fact that the Cuban writer was using the word Black to refer to people with Black skin whereas the other used it in the U.S. manner to refer to anyone who is of even partial African heritage) So why does my wife react so sharply to, for instance, a White person with tightly coiled hair that is wiry. Why is that person not Black? she might ask. Or a Caucasian with full and everted lips might provoke comment from her. Why is this? Simple. When she was growing up, these features were presented as peculiar to Black people and evidence of their differentness, which in turn justified discrimination. “They are not like us” was a familiar refrain during the years Blacks struggled to be admitted to all areas of civic life. While many other elements were used against Blacks in this way, the prominent one was appearance: immediately and clearly perceptible. In a moment I will give an example of just how isolated Black people felt. The use of hair straighteners, bleaching creams and the value placed on “good” hair, i.e hair conforming to Caucasian types, attest to the efforts of Blacks to approximate those features deemed desirable by the larger society – the larger society in the U.S.
In the Magnum Opus or at least in the exchanges among us, I mentioned Whoopi Goldberg’s early performance piece on how she put a towel around her head so she could flounce her hair like the White girls did. Just Tuesday night at a gathering of Black people for a graduation celebration, an older person referred to good hair and my wife called her on it; it rolled right off her, so normal is it among Black people to talk like that. Abundant stories are told of favoritism among the children of the family shown toward the lighter-skinned or “bright” child. This is a deep pain, not a scar. It is still very active in the psyche of Black people. And that is why my wife will say, essentially, “Hey, wait a minute. That person has a broad nose, why are they considered White?” Without an understanding of the daily insults to their status suffered by African-Americans – and I think conservatives simply deny these acts – it is not possible to appreciate the power of this classification system, a classification system that within living memory restricted access to jobs, education, housing, medical care, services, purchasing, and religion. This pain remains, not yet scarred over, not even scabbed over.
How is it that African-Americans were led to believe that they were the only persons in the world who possessed these marks of a dubious distinction? I refer you again to the Life magazine issues from the fifties and ask you to find a picture of a Black person there. So many Blacks did not even know that there were Black people in the Caribbean and Latin-America. To my story: at a party, the host and I were chatting with another guest. The host was Haitian and spoke with an accent. The guest was a Black man from Texas, educated, but from Texas. At one point, he asked the host, Serge, how it felt to be treated as if he were Black. Serge responded with astonishment: “What do you mean, “as if” I were Black?! I am Black!” Haitians had been educated to be proud of their African heritage and he was astounded that someone, especially another Black person, would not know that he was Black, too. The man from Texas, an engineer, was puzzled. I stepped in and asked if he recalled how American Blacks were brought from Africa as slaves. Sure, he replied. Well, some of them were dropped off in Haiti. Oh! he exclaimed, and it was entirely clear to him. He just wasn’t used to a Black person being anything but a Southern American Black.
In a similar vein, I was watching an awards show for African-Americans, and one of the recipients was an African from a French-speaking region and gave his acceptance speech in French. The audience went wild, way out of proportion to the award or him or his speech. I apperceived that the audience was made up of African-Americans who had been raised in the Southern tradition that French was the language of culture and they were therefore applauding his French, not him! Of course, that was just my understanding of the event but I think I’m right.
Given that background, it should be understandable that at least some African-Americans would be sensitive. How long ago was it that Black women were being fired from jobs fro wearing their hair “natural”? Not long. But if you were living in a White bubble, you were unaware of it or perhaps just saw it as a reasonable dress code issue. Why not make Black women try to look White as best they could and fire them if they don’t conform? Isn’t that an employer’s right? Conservative views are quite straight forward.
On the other side you have the friend of my wife who was quite the opposite. I told this in one of the exchanges: she told my wife how well accepted she was at her school in her job as a teacher, the only Black teacher there and installed for 30 years. Some discussion ensued and my wife asked her, if she wanted to find out what people really thought of her, to do two things: don’t bring her lunch and go to the faculty lounge at lunch time as the other teachers asked each other to go out to lunch; then to get to a faculty meeting early and grab a seat and wait. Sure enough, no one asked her to lunch and no one sat next to her at the meeting until there were no seats left. Many Black people live in that bubble because it’s too painful to be aware.
Addendum 6/8/16 Trump’s reference to the judge’s ethnicity is a perfect example of racial profiling: “Let me see your ethnicity, and then I will decide on that basis if you are doing your job.”
BTW, Chapter Five of Obama’s Dreams of My Father treats very subtly the issues Black Americans face.