I vividly recall the autumn of 2008. I had just moved from the US to Canada to start my Master’s degree in Toronto. Eager to vote in my second US presidential election, I ordered my absentee ballot well in advance and set to work informing myself about the candidates and their stances on issues that mattered.
It was not an easy decision. Nevertheless, I remember the thrill that pulsed through me on that chilly November evening as the election results came in and state after state turned up blue. This was no ordinary election. This was history in the making. Forty-three years after the end of Jim Crow, we were electing our first black president. For the first time in a long time, I was filled with pride for my country. We were finally fulfilling Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. We had overcome.
Today, I look back on that initial euphoria with a sigh. How naive could a young, white American graduate student be?
The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray have all forced me to renounce my premature optimism. Meanwhile, last week’s murder of nine innocent people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC has made me ask myself what century I am living in. Have I inadvertently stepped into a time machine? Are we back in 1963, when the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL was bombed by KKK members?
It would be easy to dismiss this killing as an aberration. As Steven W. Thrasher has written in The Guardian, “The collective denial of ongoing racism allows us to ignore differentials in infant mortality and overall life expectancy, and to classify the deaths of nine people killed in church as the alleged victims of a mentally ill individual rather than a racist terrorist.” As Thrasher is eager to point out, this heinous act is not an isolated incident. Rather, it is a logical consequence of the society we live in.
Faced with this harsh reality, I cannot simply shake my head in self-righteous indignation or naively ask myself how on earth Dylan Roof could have committed this horrible crime. When I read the statistics about poverty and incarceration in the US; when I see the white faces that dominate business, media, academia and government; when I drive through the impoverished predominantly black neighbourhoods of Buffalo, NY – my hometown and one of the most segregated cities in the US – I am reminded again and again that we Americans have a serious problem. And while you or I as individuals may not consider ourselves racist (though we probably are), we live in a society whose very structure is marked by racial inequality. As active participants in this society, we must each take our share of the responsibility for its flaws.
The question that follows, then, is what are we to do about this? Wallowing in guilt will not ameliorate the situation. Neither will dismissing the issues as too complex for any one person to make a difference. The first step is to take a deep breath, acknowledge the reality of present-day racism in the US, and then to listen to some of the people who have been affected by this problem.
I immediately find myself turning to literature for guidance. It hardly seems coincidental that during the past two years, two great literary texts dealing with the theme of US racism have received much critical acclaim in the US. Published in 2013, Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie’s Americanah tells the story of a young Nigerian woman who migrates to the US and struggles to come to terms with what it means to be black in America. Published at the end of 2014, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is an unusual hybrid text combining poetry, essays, images, and links to Internet videos. Interestingly, both Rankine and Adichie were born outside the US – Adichie is Nigerian (but, like her protagonist, she has spent many years living in the US) and Rankine, though having lived most of her life in the US, is originally from Jamaica. This gives both authors the opportunity to look at the US from a dual perspective as insiders and outsiders, participants and observers.
Assuming a documentary style, a large portion of Rankine’s book features brief, second-person essays narrating incidents of everyday racism experienced by Rankine herself along with a group of people whom she interviewed. The use of “you” draws the reader into the situation and forces us to taste the pain, anger and downright confusion that racism causes. Delivered in succession and without commentary, these texts make a powerful statement about racism’s power to simultaneously render people invisible while also exposing them to complete humiliation. Consider these three fragments from the text:
The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked. At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard? It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? She spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry. I am so sorry, so, so sorry (14)
The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you. As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her to say something—both as witness and as a friend. She is not you; her silence says so. Because you are watching all this take place even as you participate in it, you say nothing as well. Come over here with me, your eyes say. Why on earth would she? The man behind the register returns your card and places the sandwich and Pellegrino in a bag, which you take from the counter. What is wrong with you? The question gets stuck in your dreams (46).
In line at the drugstore it’s finally your turn, and then it’s not as he walks in front of you and puts his things on the counter. The cashier says, Sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised.
Oh my god, I didn’t see you.
You must be in a hurry, you offer.
No, no, no, I really didn’t see you. (66)
In the last of these examples, we see that racism has the power to render someone absolutely invisible – the main in the drugstore does not even notice the speaker. In the first one, racism renders the speaker all-too visible. It is shocking that a mental health professional – a trauma counselor, nonetheless – would react in anger and fear to unexpectedly receiving a black patient. But, this is a true story. The example in the middle is, for me, the most interesting. The speaker experiences a moment of shame and humiliation when the cashier expresses the assumption that the debit card will not work. Turning to a friend for support – some kind of intervention, some comment, some expression of solidarity – the speaker is left alone.
Reading this text, I can’t help but cast myself in the role of that white bystander, that supposed friend who passively stands aside as these events take place. While Rankine never explicitly speaks to white people and tells us what we should do, this passage offers a clue. White people cannot dismiss racism as someone else’s problem. Acknowledging that we are bound up with it is one of the first step toward overcoming it.
The other important first step is listening. Ifemelu, the protagonist of Adichie’s novel, is a young Nigerian woman who, shocked by the treatment she gets as a black woman in the US, starts an anonymous blog about it. In a post entitled “Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking About Blackness,” she states,
Dear American Non-Black, if an American Black person is telling you about an experience about being black, please do not eagerly bring up examples from your own life. Don’t say “It’s just like when I…” You have suffered. Everyone in the world has suffered. But you have not suffered precisely because you are an American Black […] Don’t bring up your Irish great-grandparents’ suffering. Of course they got a lot of shit from established America. So did the Italians. So did the Eastern Europeans. But there was a hierarchy. A hundred years ago, the white ethnics hated being hated, but it was sort of tolerable because at least black people were below them on the ladder. Don’t say your grandfather was a serf in Russia when slavery happened because hat matters is you are American now and being American means taking on the whole shebang, America’s assets and America’s debts, and Jim Crow is a big-ass debt […] Don’t put on a Let’s Be Fair tone and say “But black people are racist too.” Because of course we’re all prejudiced (I can’t even stand some of my blood relatives, grasping, selfish folks), but racism is about the power of a group and in America it’s white folks who have that power. How? Well, white folks don’t get treated like shit in upper-class African-American communities and white folks don’t get denied bank loans or mortgages precisely because they are white and black juries don’t give white criminals worse sentences than black criminals for the same crime and black police officers don’t stop white folk for driving while white and black companies don’t choose not to hire somebody because their name sounds white and black teachers don’t tell white kids that they’re not smart enough to be doctors and black politicians don’t try some tricks to reduce the voting power of white folks through gerrymandering and advertising agencies don’t say they can’t use white models to advertise glamorous products because they are not considered “aspirational” by the “mainstream” (404-407).
After going through this list of “don’ts,” Ifemelu offers one “do”:
Hear what is being said. And remember that it’s not about you. American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame. They are just telling you what is. If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding (406).
Another theme that appears in both texts is the phenomenon of black anger over racism – and white fear or dismissal of that anger. In Citizen, Rankine includes a fairly long essay on tennis virtuoso Serena Williams, who at an earlier stage in her career was known for getting angry over the injustices she faced in a white-dominated sport. Adichie’s heroine, meanwhile, has a blog post directed toward her fellow black non-Americans instructing them that they must never show anger to non-black Americans:
If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism. Otherwise you get no sympathy. This applies only for white liberals, by the way. Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservatives will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion (275).
This taboo on black anger in a white-dominated society might offer another inroad when thinking about what it is that we have to do. In Citizen, Rankine suggests that the ability to curb one’s emotions is generally a requisite for membership in any society – a requisite for citizenship, if you will. Perhaps this attitude toward emotion is something all of us, regardless of our race, should bear in mind when thinking about how to go about building a non-racist society. What is the most productive way of dealing with the anger, fear, shame, guilt, that racism causes? Looking at the contemporary US with these literary texts in mind, I will argue that the bloody overt violence that took place in Charleston last week is a reflection of countless smaller acts of aggression that white people commit against black people every day – usually without realizing it, often with the best of intentions. In the wake of this attack, I believe we need to change our society from the inside out. We must seriously examine our own implicit prejudices and open ourselves to the possibility of new ways of seeing our country and all people who call it home.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngoza. Americanah. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.