Sondra anymore?” asked my mother, and the inexpressible answer stuck like a cramp in my chest.
Later in my childhood, the distance between blacks and whites was brought home to me even more starkly by the boys from the Lower Haight, who would come up every spring to Parnassus Heights to steal the plums.
When the plums came out, our street was a vision: Blossoms hung in clots like confectionary, showers of them cascaded down with the wind, and a few weeks later, hard, tart, carnelian-colored plums, with silver dust in the clefts, would appear among the boughs. Virtually inedible, to children they were irresistible.
The flocks of “boys from the Lower Haight” already we’d learned to use euphemisms were different from the boys I knew. They were louder; they shinnied up the trees and broke off branches; the splintered boughs littered the street. The first year that the black kids came, the white dads leaned out of windows to confront them. But the boys just looked up and put their hands on their hips and broke into laughter, letting out extravagant strings of mockery that took the listening white children’s breath away. The mighty dads looked utterly humbled as that laughter echoed down the street. The dads quickly withdrew and never scolded the boys again. (Years later, as an adult, 1 would see the scene in Dumbo where the black crows laugh just that laugh, and I would think, What white people must fear most is that conflagration of black people’s laughter.)
With the plum raids came petty break-ins and burglaries, and again and again a parent would see a child from outside the neighborhood dashing away from a smashed window. Our house was vandalized: Someone stole our piggy banks, someone defecated on the floor. Year after year this cycle recurred, and no one ever called the police. It was a liberal, middle-class street where you would lose your credibility as a decent person if you were to call the cops on black children.
The children became preadolescents, who became young men. Year by year the crimes grew more serious, and why not? The neighborhood, refusing to complain, was holding itself out like a plate. Finally an irascible old woman broke the code of silence. At the arraignment, the mother of one of the boys thanked her. She hadn’t known her son was running with a crowd like this.
The indifference I saw in Parnassus Heights was the parallel of Sondra’s mother refusing to scold me. From Sondra’s mother and from the white parents, I learned that racial difference meant the bad faith of grown-ups not treating the children of other races as if they were their own children, or even remotely like their own children.
Why did the white parents give up on the black children? Everyone knew that those children were doomed anyway, so they might as well be left to their stolen pennies, their inedible plums and their harsh, too-grown-up laughter.
These lessons are my racial autobiogra- phy which means that though I con- j sciously hate racism, it is in me. But the racism of well-meaning white persons who I call WMWPs is distinctive. It is not garden-variety, crude, explicit, gutter racism: We all know what that looks like, and white people of my demographic and ideological niche like to recognize it with a shudder because it feels, at least superficially, so far away from who we are. But we are deceiving ourselves.
We WMWPs have our codes. As an adult, I find that my racism and that of the ) white people I know doesn’t lie in what we j do; if actions were all, I’d like to believe I would be home free. Our racism has to do with how we see. It acts as a sort of shameful scrim, a dirty curtain woven of the fears J and inequities that, in a racist culture, sur- j round and envelop the fact of race.
My racism consists of the thin but persistent barrier that does not intervene between me and people whose backgrounds are similar to mine, but that can come be- j tween me and people of color. (This barrier does not impose itself between me and people of color in countries in which it is I who am considered the stranger, and its absence is an unspeakable relief.)
In white people’s experience, class bears an inverse discomfort ratio to race.
In other words, to the extent that people of color speak in an accent the WMWP shares, wear the kinds of clothes she wears and participate in much the same social frame of reference, the scrim is more transparent Oh, I can see you, and, of course, you can see me. I am not just that pale blur, j that comic rube, that ditto of oppression, a generic white person.
lice department, or the FBI, or political parties whose views are unpopular in those enlightened circles.
In these conversations, WMWPs tend to assume highly conventionalized facial expressions head shakings, brow furrow-ings, even a tsk-tsk or two. The body language is as stylized as the attitudes on a Greek urn, and meant to convey, “Isn’t it awful? We’re all in this together.” More loudly it conveys: “I am a good, concerned citizen.” And sometimes, usually only when there is a black person present, the WMWP will hear a kind of equally stylized “personal” (but actually quite impersonal) breast-beating: “I was so hurt and troubled when I began to understand that our black sisters feel marginalized in this organization.” What one doesn’t hear what I’ve never read despite the formal “we are all racists” mantra on the white left is an antiracist white person talking honestly about what her own racism looks like, sounds like, feels like.
Now, I’ve witnessed plenty of moments when black or brown people’s invocation of racial tension is as stylized as white people’s defensiveness about it. But a white person is writing this essay, and white people tend to leave the job of discussing white racism to black people, when in fact white people are experts on it too. So I’ll stick to examining the racism of white people. Not that I believe that white racism is the only kind or even always, simplistical-ly and uniquely, worse than other kinds, but it is my kind.
This is what the racism of well-meaning white people sounds like: WMWPs in conversation hear that someone of their background has been assaulted by a group of young men. The immediate next question is in code: “Was there a description of the attackers?”
This is the sort of anecdote that makes the WMWP rounds: “A clerk in a law firm was walking on a D.C. street and saw a group of young black men. He decided that the only reason to cross the street away from them was a racist one, and, not wanting to be racist, he did not cross the street. They called him white boy and beat him to a bloody pulp.” The look in WMWPs’ eyes at this: caught in the crossfire of their daily tensions, paralyzed between their beliefs and their fears.
When a WMWP has an African American doctor, lawyer or stockbroker, he or she will be sure to mention it, in a context of unctuous praise, to other WMWPs. If he or she employs an African American domestic worker, it won’t come up.
Sometimes WMWPs unconsciously imitate the rhythms of black speech when they are in conversation with black people. Ironically, it makes them feel less self-conscious. And one reason WMWPs obsess about black racism or black anti-Semitism is that it makes them feel less guilty about their own biases.
As WMWPs describe an African American’s having received a coveted job, promotion or fellowship, the merest flicker of a glance will pass among them, and everyone knows that the whole history of affirmative action is in that glance. When someone finally speaks, he will say, “Of course, Harvard [or the Fourth Circuit, or The New York Times op-ed page] should have an African American [man, woman].” The unspoken sentence is: Then we can get back to a real meritocracy that is to say, my career. In that glance the glance of tokenism satisfied black careers get derailed, horizons lowered and economic opportunities shut off. In this way WMWPs’ racism can actually be more destructive than the gutter kind, which is often practiced by people with little real power. The attitude captured in that cock-tail-party moment is harder to confront than any door marked Whites Only.
There it is: banal and vague and choking the racism of well-meaning white people. If one is dishonest and white, one pretends the scrim does not exist. But a white person in this country who claims to have no impediment of vision is not telling the whole truth. And when it comes to race relations, not telling the whole truth about the fog one inhabits slows down the work of groping forward.
I imagine that what bores and infuriates black people about the racism of well-meaning white people is watching them struggle with this scrim and entangle themselves in it and blow at it and touch it and ignore it and disown it to the point that they become more involved in their own drama of guilt and fear than in getting on with the real struggle at hand the struggle to see clearly across race.
Only connect, wrote E.M. Forster. “Only” what a glib, elusive hope, expressed in a country, and at a time, when race was something that happened on the other side of the globe, not to other people’s children at play on your doorstep, or to your own child, at play in the house of the familiar, perpetual stranger.