The R Word: I'm a Liberal, How Can I Be a Racist?

[Ed note: A longer version of this story appeared in the Nashville Scene.]Yesterday, in an otherwise routine professional telephone conversation, the New York editor of a women's magazine called me a racist. Before I could even be sure I had properly heard the accusation, before it began to echo in my head like the call of some vicious bird--racist, racist, racist--I felt it in my body. My heart began to pound, my vision blurred, I broke into a sweat. For the first time in my life I sensed a little of what it must feel like to be slammed by an epithet-to be called "retard," "fag," "chink," "nigger.""Frankly, I found that essay racist and offensive," the editor said. I was shocked by her accusation because my intention had been exactly the opposite. After months of avoiding the first O.J. Simpson trial--feeling that America's interest in it had been strictly a prurient one, a collective keyhole--peeping into a celebrity couple's bedroom-like so many naive others I was startled when Johnnie Cochran played what was widely described as "the race card."With the rest of white America, it hit me then that blacks were viewing that trial in an entirely different way than I was. What was for me an individual, open-and-shut case about a crime of passion was for a huge number of people a national referendum on the state of race relations in America.This disparity in interpretation is something I've pondered ever since. Of course I knew that racism continues to exist in this country, but I assumed it existed in isolated pockets of individual prejudice. It seemed to me that most white people in this country accept the intellectual and spiritual equality of African Americans. I assumed that most black people feel they are accepted on those grounds. I believed the truly basic questions about race had been long since answered-by civil-rights legislation, by an entire generation (mine) of integrated schools, by affirmative-action, by the very example of O. J. Simpson's own celebrity and wealth.Obviously I was wrong. Why is it that white people so often entirely miss the racial implications of an event that for black people absolutely, critically concerns the issue of race? Fisk University recently announced the reemergence of its Race Relations Institute, defunct for 14 years, precisely because such questions have not been answered and in many places are simply not being asked any more.I had wanted, in the essay I sent to my New York editor, to comment on some of these questions, to reflect on the state of distrust between people--between men and women, between blacks and whites--even when everybody involved deeply wished, in fact needed, to be able to trust the others. I had certainly not intended to perpetuate racial stereotypes or sympathize with racist attitudes. When my editor suggested that I had done both, I found it hard, for a moment, even to breathe.An earlier version of the article had run in the Nashville Scene last January. In the essay, I described an encounter in the cold, deserted parking lot of the neighborhood Kroger. I had stopped to return a video in the drop box at the curb, and had been unnerved by the eerie emptiness of the place which, even at that hour, is normally still heavily populated by shoppers.Quickly climbing back into my car, I noticed in my rear-view mirror a well-dressed white man pushing a late-model Camry, the only other car in the parking lot, toward a space under a streetlight. It was evident he needed help, and I wanted to help him.I wanted to, but I was afraid. Even now I don't regard such fear as irrational because I know that, in this world, a woman alone in a car at night is wise to hesitate before offering help to anyone in a deserted parking lot. It didn't matter to me that the guy was white, well-dressed, and driving a car far nicer than my own; Ted Bundy probably gave the same impression to his own victims.On such a bitterly cold night, I couldn't help thinking of King Lear, of kind Cordelia's indictment of her villainous sisters after they cast out their desperate father into the storm: "Mine enemy's dog/ Though he had bit me, should have stood that night/ Against my fire." Cordelia would have given the man a ride somewhere--to a gas station, to his home--but out of fear I couldn't. But I couldn't simply drive away either. So, ignoring images still fresh in my mind from the ten o'clock news, I pulled up several parking spaces away, and asked the guy if he needed any help. I don't know what I actually thought I could do; all I know is that my desire to help was both heartfelt and quite unconscious, exactly as heartfelt and unpremeditated as my fear.It turns out the Camry's battery was dead and needed a jump. While I sat nervously in my car with the hood popped and windows rolled down for instructions from the grateful driver, another man walked up-an African-American man, too lightly dressed for the cold and clearly ill at ease on this side of town. His own car had died, he said, and he and his wife had only a Sears credit card between them. Obviously distressed, he explained that he needed to borrow enough money for bus fare home, and he was willing to leave the credit card or their wedding rings as collateral. It seemed very important to him that I understand he was asking for a loan and not a handout. "I'm not a bum," he kept repeating. "I've never done this before. I'm not a bum."As a college student in a very small Alabama town, I lived in an apartment building on top of a small rise at the furthest edge of the university, the edge closest to the railroad tracks across which lived many of the town's mostly-impoverished black residents. Many afternoons I read my homework assignments in a lounge chair on my front lawn, which overlooked a key intersection, and I began to notice that both the local police and the university security force tended to pull over battered old cars filled with black people--the car had failed to come to a complete stop at the four-way intersection, for example, or one of its taillights was burned out, or its license plate was splashed with mud and couldn't be easily read.Never mind that across the street from my apartment building, directly in front of that intersection, sat a fraternity house filled with drunken young men who habitually hopped into their cars and pulled through the intersection without pausing at all--that pretty white coeds zoomed by in their daddy's cars, far exceeding the posted speed limit. The local white cops wrote their quota of tickets against the local blacks, leaving the college students (virtually all white) mostly to themselves.I've seen up-close what can happen to poor blacks among affluent whites, so I should not have been surprised to find that a financially strapped African-American male in the suburbs was nervous at approaching two white people in a deserted parking lot at night, but neither could I help my own fear. Just as with the well-dressed white man in the Camry, I felt the conflict of two opposing desires: one part of me, the generous one, wanted simply to give the guy and his wife a ride home, but the fearful, CNN-watching side of me held back. Where, I wondered, was this wife? She wasn't standing by his side, and the car she might have been waiting in was not in view. How could I be sure there even was a wife?The only "witness" to this conversation was a total stranger still bent, at that moment, under the hood of his own car and oblivious to all but the sound of my own car's roaring engine. It didn't help that when he finally emerged, the white guy looked startled to see the black guy standing there. He had started toward my window to say something himself, but seeing a large black man standing beside my car, he kept his distance. Each man was afraid, and I was on my own. What struck me about the whole encounter was that I wasn't the only one who was afraid. It was a virtual fear-fest: I was afraid of the white man, who was afraid of the African American, who was afraid of the white people.Frankly, I found it racist and offensive," the New York editor said of my essay. "You seemed to get over your fear of the first guy but not your fear of the second." But that is not what happened. In fact, I was no more afraid of the black man than of the white one. What interested me about the encounter, what I had wanted to show in the essay--through image and metaphor rather than through bald statement--was the universality of human emotion, regardless of color, regardless of gender. How odd, I thought as I drove safely home, that I was not the only one leaping to conclusions, that I was not the only one making erroneous assumptions. None of us had harmed anyone; none of us had been harmed. But we had all been afraid of each other.Last night, after my conversation with the New York editor, I could not sleep. Whether from an outraged sense of justice or--could it be?--from vanity, I lay awake all night and imagined the speech I should have delivered in my own defense, what I should have said to explain. The next morning, though, I had to admit another possibility. Maybe my essay had simply not been clear. But at what point do you cease to be merely cautious--to be what virtually every issue of every women's magazine exhorts you to be-and become, instead, a racist? When does your fear cease to be paranoia and become wisdom? When, conversely, do you cease to be a humanitarian and become instead a fool?Looking back on that conversation with my editor, I recognize another great irony. Her interpretation of my essay had given me a tiny taste of what true victims of racism must feel, the sense of being hopelessly and wrongfully categorized and judged lacking. This is a lesson life does not readily offer a married, middle-class white woman living in the southern United States. It's not that I haven't on occasion suffered the insult of prejudice. I vividly recall, for example, the elderly college English professor who somehow never got around to calling on the women in class when they raised their hands to make a comment. And growing up Catholic in Alabama, as I did, brought occasional moments of discomfort.But these episodes certainly lacked the relentless repetition encountered by victims of racism. Because they were not the norm, because nothing in my life had ever given me a single reason to believe that I was unworthy of speaking or unworthy of salvation, such insults always seemed more a comment on those who spoke them than on me, and they left me untouched. Harder to bear, however, were the attitudes I encountered in my brief sojourn north of the Mason-Dixon line. On hearing me speak, people at my Ivy League graduate school generally regarded me with deep suspicion. When James Watt, secretary of the Department of Interior during Ronald Reagan's first administration, spoke on campus that year, I stepped up to the microphone to comment on his foolish notion that environmental regulations should be decided by individual states. "Sir," I began, "I'm from Alabama," and a thousand people in the audience burst into laughter before I could make my point.This was a disconcerting experience, and one of the reasons I left the northeast shortly thereafter never to return. As an educational tool, though, such an experience is valuable: It does offer someone like me, someone normally privileged to live in the mainstream, a hint of what prejudice can feel like.Words, of course, are half the trouble. Ours is not a culture that allows conversation about race. We cannot yet agree on our lexicon (black people? African Americans? people of color?); we have no trusted mediators who can represent all sides fairly. With the best of intentions we often say the most stupid things ("some of my best friends are, well, you know..."). If we (black or white) observe and celebrate ethnic difference, we risk a kind of unbridgeable separatism; if we ignore it, pretend it does not exist, we perpetuate an unspoken racism that refuses to acknowledge continued prejudice. And so we do not speak. We are all of us-if we are half awake-terrified of being misunderstood.It's this culture-wide inability even to talk about the gulf between the races that has led Fisk University to resurrect its Race Relations Institute, which will be held this summer for the first time since 1983. The once-annual forum was established 55 years ago to discuss ways to address segregation; what's needed now is a national conversation about ways to end racial distrust. "I find national dialogue on race today really terrible," said Race Relations Institute director and former Vanderbilt professor Ray Winbush in a recent article in The Tennessean.While it's true, for example, that impoverished whites and impoverished blacks may suffer from similar restrictions in opportunity, the O.J. trial last year clarified a reality a lot of liberal whites had ignored or simply failed to observe: For a great many blacks, it turns out, issues still exist that absolutely focus on race, regardless of educational level or relative economic success.Nearly 30 years after the murder of Martin Luther King and over a year past O.J. Simpson's acquittal on criminal charges of murder, I understand that racism continues to thrive in my country.It exists, but I hope with all my heart it does not operate in me. I would like to believe that if an editor reads what I have written and characterizes it as racist, then she is in fact guilty of another form of prejudice: knowing my birthplace and hearing my accent, she decides that anything honest I write on the subject of skin color is suspect.Still, when I say these things, I hear my own voice rising, strained, unconvincing. In moments of abject sorrow and honesty, I have to admit that the human heart is a place of shadows, a region of hidden nooks and alleyways where all sorts of malignancy can lurk unnoticed. If I am guilty -- as I sometimes am--of envy, of bitterness, of unwarranted despair, I know it is possible that I am also guilty of other kinds of ugliness, even of unconscious and unvoiced prejudice against people of another race. Could I have been more afraid of the black man in that parking lot than of the white man? I dread to face such a possibility; I grieve that I must. Still, this grief is perhaps my best hope of shedding light on those dark corners of distrust, of sweeping them clear. Yesterday someone called me a racist. Now I have to look at myself. Now I have to wonder.

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