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Speaking of Race
Patricia Williams suggests that when it comes to the trauma of racism Americans have not yet learned how to speak

May 14, 1998

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Patricia Williams

For the past fifty years the British Broadcasting Corporation has invited some of the world's most prominent thinkers to deliver its annual Reith lectures. Previous American Reith lecturers have included such figures as John Kenneth Galbraith and Robert Oppenheimer. In 1997 the BBC invited Patricia Williams, an American legal scholar and outspoken left-wing columnist. Williams, the first black woman to receive the honor, addressed her audience in the same year that the European Union had resolved to dedicate itself to the eradication of racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism -- a resolution that Great Britain had not yet ratified at the time the lectures were announced. Against this backdrop, unsurprisingly, the BBC's choice of Williams sparked controversy in some quarters. Before her lectures hit the airwaves she had been attacked by conservatives in the British press, who labeled her a "militant black feminist" and protested that her ideas should not be given such prominence.
Discuss this interview in the Community & Society forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Books & Authors:

In the Very Middle of Things (April 1998)
In his new book, Calamities of Exile, Lawrence Weschler's explorations lead him to some very strange -- and familiar -- places.

The Next Left (April 1998)
Richard Rorty, the eminent philosopher and author of Achieving Our Country, argues that the American Left, if it is to recapture its relevance, must take pride in its past.

All for One, One for All (April 1998)
Can science call the postmodernist bluff? Edward O. Wilson, the author of Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, says it can -- and must.

Inheriting Slavery (February 1998)
Edward Ball, the author of Slaves in the Family, set out to reckon with the legacy of his ancestors' plantations.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Seeing a Color-Blind Future Now, with the American publication of Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race, Williams's lectures have made a timely landing on native ground. The term "color-blind" is everywhere in the air -- bandied back and forth in debates over "color-consciousness" in public life -- nowhere more so than on the racial battlegrounds of California, Texas, Washington state, and elsewhere in the country where war is being waged against affirmative action. Though her book does not deal overtly with affirmative action (primarily because, as Williams points out, Britain does not have programs like those in the United States), Williams makes no secret of how she feels about current trends. "In the context of today's ghettos, inner cities, and those places doomed to be called the Third World," she writes in the first lecture, "I hear the word triage. I worry about this image that casts aside so many so easily. It envisions poor and dying populations as separate, distant, severable." She continues, "I fear triage; I fear that one cannot cut off a third of the world without some awful, life-threatening bleeding in the rest of the body politic."

Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, is the author of two previous books, The Alchemy of Race and Rights (1991) and The Rooster's Egg: On the Persistence of Prejudice (1995), both published by Harvard University Press. A contributing editor and a columnist for The Nation, Williams is also a frequent commentator on National Public Radio and has written for many publications, among them The New York Times, The New Yorker, Ms., The Village Voice, Civilization, and others. She spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Wen Stephenson.

Can you explain your book's title? Do you see yourself as entering self-consciously into current debates over the achievability, even desirability, of a "color-blind" society? The book doesn't mention affirmative action explicitly.

Yes, all of this intersects with specific legal remedies such as affirmative action, and the counter to those, which has been appeals to color-blindness -- not just color-blindness as a social ideal but as a kind of literal mandate that seems to be requiring, as in California's Proposition 209, that you eliminate all reference to race even when you're trying to remediate the effects of racism. That's the paradox, it seems to me -- that you can't talk about what it is that you're trying to remediate. Therefore you can't talk about it sensibly. In the book I use the image of the three monkeys, Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil. To me, that image represents the wrong kind of color-blindness, because that's just plain blindness, rather than unselfconsciousness about race or about the mark of color.

"While I do want to underscore that I embrace color-blindness as a legitimate hope for the future, I worry that we tend to enshrine the notion with a kind of utopianism whose näiveté will ensure its elusiveness. In the material world ranging from playgrounds to politics, our ideals perhaps need more thoughtful, albeit more complicated, guardianship."
--Patricia Williams. From Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race.

The book opens with an anecdote about your son's being misdiagnosed as (literally) color-blind. The well-meaning teachers in his nursery school had taught the children that "it makes no difference" what color you are, and it seems your son took this quite literally, so that he resisted identifying color at all. The story illustrates the way children are taught that race doesn't matter. But you're pointing out the many ways in which the color of one's skin does, unfortunately, matter. How do you explain to a child the idea that race matters?

Well, you know, I think there is no rational way to explain it. That's the great injury of race -- it is not rational. It does matter, and yet it shouldn't. And yet it does.

When I had my son's vision tested, the doctor told me that he was indeed not color-blind. It was his teachers who had said he was having trouble distinguishing colors in various color games and tests, and that he was so smart in other regards that I should really see if he were color-blind. It turned out that he was saying it doesn't matter what color the grass is, it doesn't matter what color the sky is.

It is one thing to teach children from the inception that race does not matter, that skin color does not matter. And yet my son's teachers had made this point of its not making a difference only after it had made a difference. They ignored the racial dynamics of the classroom up to a certain point, but when some children excluded my son from their play because of his race the teachers said color doesn't make a difference. His believing that literally was his attempt to resolve something that was nonsensical, basically -- something that was two things at once.

Related feature:

Race in America (November 1997)
If there is a race problem in America today, what is it? An Atlantic Unbound Roundtable featuring Glenn C. Loury, Christopher Edley Jr., Dinesh D'Souza, and Nicholas Lemann.

I have not found a sensible way to talk about race to my son. I do not want to poison him with the kinds of demarcations that would most effectively explain what racism is. Racism means that certain people don't like you. I guess my concern is that most children, black children in particular, understand the negative consequences of race before they have words to understand the great complexity of what's embodied in its history. It's a little bit like wondering how you explain war to a child.

You're known for the use of anecdote in your writing. In fact, you manage to write about pressing legal and philosophical issues from a position that's very much "on the ground." What draws you, as a writer and as a legal scholar, to anecdote? Are there any dangers inherent in the use of anecdote?

Surely. I sometimes get characterized as somebody who does nothing but anecdote. And that's absolutely not true. Part of what I've tried to do in my writing is insert anecdote at the moments when people have reasoned their way by virtue of broad generalizations. I insert an anecdote to bring it down to the individual level -- to make it nuanced, to make it real. That's where I think it's most effective.

On the other hand, I've been in situations where everybody's saying, "I am a representative of this," "I am a representative of this." It's as though they can't get past their own little anecdotal stories of self-validation and self-credentialization. That's the point at which I will reverse it and reach for the broad statistic. I find, for example, that people use the worst-case scenario when talking about welfare reform. It's always, you know, a black teenage mother who's thirteen, has six children, and whose boyfriend is a crack dealer. Broad public policies are made with her as the representative figure. That's anecdote. Willie Horton is anecdote. And that's the point at which I think it's useful to say that in 1996 only two percent of single mothers on welfare were under the age of eighteen -- and only eight percent when you count those who were eighteen and nineteen. It helps to put things in proportion. So I try to use anecdote consistently to illustrate larger points. I use it strategically.

You've written very critically about the images of Africa conveyed by the American media. What did you think of President Clinton's recent trip to Africa and the way it was covered?

Some people have worried that this visit will introduce a new, American kind of corporate colonialism in Africa. That said, I do think it is extremely significant that Clinton is the first American President to have visited the continent in such an extensive way -- or at all. That is an unqualified good. I hope it helps. I thought it brought a somewhat more complex visual image of Africa to the American public. It gave a sense of Africa as a series of governments rather than as an unpeopled or undivided continental landscape, ripe for extraction of resources. It showed that there is enormous cultural diversity, enormous linguistic diversity. For once, the only leader beating a drum was Clinton himself.

In other words, Africa is not just chaos. There are plenty of functioning states.

Because Africa is covered so marginally in the United States, I think that a significant part of the American public actually believes that there is nothing but chaos from one end of the African continent to the other -- little ability for government, for self-representation, for coherence. And I do think that even Clinton's trip was covered marginally: I will not get over the picture in The New York Times with President Clinton and his wife standing in the Door of No Return, at Gorée Island. They're standing there, and the caption is to the effect that they're holding hands, and it's obviously a photo-op for how close they are in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. So Africa was a backdrop for more commentary on Clinton's sex life.

But even given all that, I thought it was an improvement. I think it was about time an American President went to Africa and treated it as part of the diplomatic community -- went as a head of state and was welcomed by other heads of state.

From The Atlantic:

"The Conservative Line on Race," by Glenn C. Loury (November 1997)
In America in Black and White, a book uniting social science with ideological argument, the authors contend that African-Americans should rejoice in the progress they have made since the 1960s, stop playing "the race card," and renounce the other articles of racial liberalism.

"My Race Problem -- and Ours," by Randall Kennedy (May 1997)
A consideration of touchy matters -- racial pride, racial solidarity, and racial loyalty -- rarely discussed.

"Whatever Happened to Integration?" by Gerald Early (February 1997)
"In short, the liberal believes that whites are the problem, the conservative that blacks are the problem. Any thinking black person must sit between these contesting categorizations, which have existed since antebellum days, feeling something between bemusement and contempt."

On affirmative action:

"Reverse Racism, or How the Pot Got to Call the Kettle Black," by Stanley Fish (November 1993)
In America "whites once set themselves apart from blacks and claimed privileges for themselves while denying them to others," the author writes. "Now, on the basis of race, blacks are claiming special status and reserving for themselves privileges they deny to others. Isn't one as bad as the other? The answer is no." A distinguished professor confronts the objections to affirmative action and offers a spirited rebuttal.

"A Question of Fairness," by Juan Williams (February 1987)
Clarence Thomas, a black, and the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, does not believe in integration, affirmative action, or the possibility of a colorblind society. His job, he believes, is to protect individuals, not groups.

"The Issue Before the Court: Who Gets Ahead in America?" by McGeorge Bundy (November 1977)
The case before the court: The Regents of the University of California v. Allan Bakke. The essence of it comes down to one perplexing question: Should we reduce opportunity for some whites, in some ways, in order to enhance opportunity for some blacks and other victims of long-standing discrimination?

More Atlantic articles on race.

In the new book you write that "in a society as relentlessly bombarded with visual images as ours" mere conversation about race isn't enough, and that "we need to pull together a comprehensive analysis of words and images, in both high and low culture." Do you think there's any danger that a relentless focus on the media distracts attention from what's happening in our neighborhoods, in our schools, in our legislatures? Does it tend to deflect political discourse away from actual policy?

I think the media is such an important filter for everything. Television cameras and commentators are everywhere. We're losing all sense of boundary between what goes on in a courtroom or in Congress and what goes on in the minds of an editorial team. Civic participation is enormously filtered by the media. My reference in the book was not just to visual images but also to the intervention of those who own the media, some of whom are pumping huge amounts of money into certain propagandistic ventures. The Manhattan Institute has enough money and power to send books and position papers to every judge in the United States, to every editorial board in the United States, and in an era of downsizing even in editorial rooms, this provides the terms of debate rather too conveniently, and a kind of reliance upon it becomes significant.

I also think that there's an absolute necessity for people to be more educated about why black people are offended by this or that image -- the images of buffoons, of blackface, for example -- and why somebody gets upset when Ted Danson did what he did, why blacks are upset by what so many white people dismiss as mere political correctness, why certain words wound some people. That seems to me part of a conversation that involves the media but is also a civic conversation. So I do think the media is one of the most important participants in that conversation, but no, I don't propose media criticism as a substitute for policy debate.

I used to do a lot of court-watching. I would actually sit and watch an entire trial that the media was also covering, and then would compare what actually went on in the courtroom with how it was covered. I'm fascinated, for example, by the way in which trial participants are no longer just playing to the jury -- they're playing to the media. So the prosecution will go precisely until four o'clock in the afternoon, and then rest, so that now the defense has to come up and preach to an empty courtroom because all the media has run off to make their deadlines.

There are many levels to what I mean by media education. I think it's up to all of us, right and left, to keep one another honest.

You've written about representations of class and class-bias in the media. For example, in The Rooster's Egg you tell how you began "to listen much more closely for insulting and dehumanized depictions of poor whites in the mainstream media, even those too 'respectable' to use overt markers like 'white trash.'" And yet, ironically, as you point out, "in spite of an arguably shared experience, blacks and poor whites end up on opposite sides of a left-right divide." This seems to be one of our greatest dilemmas. That is, how can we overcome the very real effects of racism on the one hand and of deep-seated class-bias on the other?

There's a historic pattern of divisiveness among groups. Some would say that it's cynically cultured by politicians who want to remain in power, but there is a kind of economic ethos to it as well -- the pie is too small, and you've got to fight for your group or fight for yourself. But the poor-white division is one that has a very specific history going back to pre-slavery days, and especially just post-Civil War. If you look at something like the D. W. Griffith movie Birth of a Nation, you see poor whites, whose lot was little better than the recently freed blacks, being drawn into a sense of self and a sense of political power based on race -- which, in its most cynical form was a way of keeping the plantation and the class system in its place.

There was a piece in The New York Times recently about a revival of Old South values -- not the slavery, of course, but chivalry and the whole thing. It does strike me that what we're seeing is a revival of not just chivalry, and not just the manners, but also of this kind of class consciousness. We went through a period, perhaps beginning in the thirties with The Grapes of Wrath, of getting over at least some of the revulsion and stereotypes -- of giving poor whites a dignity. But we seem to be going backwards recently, with descriptions of figures like Tonya Harding. Around the time of her notoriety, one began to see a re-emergence of the term "trailer trash," with no quotes around it, used in so-called respectable publications.

Do you see a possibility for a kind of populist politics that somehow transcends race?

I do think that the movements that have most effectively advanced populist coalitions have been the labor movements -- and there's been a great deal of money dedicated to breaking those movements apart. People who get paid decently and who have a chance at decent housing are quite frankly much more pacific than those who don't. The attempt to break apart every single union, including teachers unions, seems to be a self-defeating strategy. It's like what happened when Californians, with Proposition 13, made war upon the use of tax dollars for the common good. The California schools have gone from being some of the best in the nation to among the worst. And this hasn't just affected minorities. It has meant that white kids have a higher suicide rate, are more self-destructive, are less educated. This is well documented.

So I guess my concern is that we suffer from not just racial divisions, not just class divisions, but that we in this country seem to have let the whole notion of a common good, of a public space, in which we can all exist, fall into terrible disrepair, and that we've allowed even the notion of equality to become some kind of cipher for the greediness of one group getting a preference at the expense of others.

In a recent report on NPR about the persistence of de facto racial segregation in suburbs south of Chicago, one African-American woman who had won a housing-discrimination suit said that "no amount of lawsuits" would ever change the deep-seated prejudices of some white communities. You write of your own experience with discrimination in the real-estate market where you bought your home. How would you respond to that woman who, despite winning her lawsuit, decided not to move her family into that neighborhood but instead found a house on the other side of Interstate 57, in a predominantly black neighborhood?

Well, it's important to win suits. It's important to get a result. As far as actually moving into the neighborhood, it's in some ways the same question as, What do I tell my child? It's a horrible catch-22. What is there to be said? How can you explain this rationally? What's going to make sense of an impossible situation? Do you tell somebody to move into what is, effectively, if not a war zone then a kind of battleground, to prove a point? Or do you tell her to move into a segregated community where she will feel "more comfortable," but that usually will suffer from some lack of political clout or a host of resource-related problems? Where can you feel most at home while waging this ongoing battle for acceptance and integration? Historically, a lot of black people have made the tremendous effort to move into white neighborhoods to wage this battle and to prove that they still believe in integration.

I think as long as she's fighting, suing, pushing for an end to the divide, not retreating into utter resignation, then I'm not troubled by her decision to move into the black neighborhood. I would invite the white communities to feel her loss as a neighbor, and encourage those who feel her pain to move across I-57 to join her, to be good white neighbors in a mostly black neighborhood. That's one thing I would love to see more of. How can any of us exist when there's a perception that the white neighborhood is over here and the black neighborhood is over here? How do you straddle fences? You end up on the railroad tracks, you end up in the middle of the Interstate, you end up getting squashed somehow. It's hard; it's hard. We need creative crossover.

Speaking about the pitfalls of "racial voyeurism," you cite the specific example of black churches in Harlem that are overrun by foreign tour groups on any given Sunday morning. Sometimes, however, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the voyeur and the person who sincerely seeks some kind of human connection across a cultural divide. Assuming there are such sincere people, is that kind of seeking for connection worthwhile?

I think it's worthwhile. I also think that seeking connection with "others" is not just an issue of tourism in the literal sense. I think that it is also sometimes a kind of projection, a sort of finding of the wild side of oneself, or a seeking of forgiveness. I can't tell you how many white people come to me and say, "I apologize for the misdeeds of all white people." Please don't. Please don't. I'm not going to apologize for the misdeeds of all black people. And I do sometimes think that that seeking for communion takes on a kind of hackneyed, self-righteous overtone to it -- "I am your brother," that sort of thing. It can be extremely annoying. Nevertheless, the project of seeking connection is essential. And we ought to forgive each other for our transgressions in this regard, to a certain extent.

I think there's a moment when another kind of seeking can occur. Frequently there is the person who says, "Oh, that's just politically correct, because actually I love black music, I've gone to black churches." In other words, it gets used as a surrogate for the real kind of difficult conversation, which is one where you've got to listen to what you don't want to hear, not just pick and choose the gospel music that you love, not just pick and choose the food or the taste or the look that you really like.

So I shouldn't feel proud of myself for listening to John Coltrane and John Lee Hooker?

Right. You've got great taste, but it's not the same as wrestling with the politics.

Writing about the repercussions of slavery in the title essay of The Rooster's Egg, you remarked that "1856 is not very long ago at all." Yet at the outset of the new book you say, "I don't mean to suggest that we need always go about feeling guilty or responsible or perpetually burdened by original sin or notions of political correctness." How are we to define our relationship to the past?

We need a very careful examination of exactly how this history has affected us. Sometimes I think it's rather too easily done by creating almost iconic figures, such as Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman. And certainly they deserve to be icons, but icons can become meaningless. They're false gods. We have a limited repertoire, a limited pantheon, of such images with which to discuss race, and once you get beyond that repertoire the discussion lapses into guilt (I have heard guilt described as a wasted emotion, and I tend to agree) or feelings of responsibility, as I mentioned earlier, when somebody says I apologize on behalf of all white people for the great history of suffering of your people. And then I get surly and refuse to apologize for Louis Farrakhan one more time. I mean I have -- I do -- but at some point, just as whites don't want to be burdened as the descendants of all slave masters, I don't want to be burdened for every demagogue. And so, therefore, I'm distinguishing that impulse to apologize, which I think is sort of empty and gets us nowhere, from really looking at the way in which we are affected as members of these groups by these histories -- by the way in which we communicate based on habits of thought. And that's all we can be responsible for. Yet that's a lot.

There's an enormous history of violence -- legalized violence -- and there's an enormous history of not speaking about that violence. I think I mentioned in The Rooster's Egg an image brought to me by a friend of mine who teaches psychology at Harvard Medical School. It's a picture of a lynching from around the turn of the century -- the whole white town has turned out to watch the lynching -- and in the foreground is a little white girl with a doll that has a noose around its neck. It's this quiet image of incredible barbarity transposed to the young. John Singleton's film Rosewood has another very affecting image, of a little white boy being trained to tie a noose -- you know, you have to do thirteen knots around it in order to make a good noose.

But if that's all we talk about, how do we find a balance between acknowledging the wrongs of history and their repercussions and yet still finding inspiration in the achievements and progress of the past?

I'm not saying that I think that's all we have to talk about. But I don't think we've begun to talk about it -- about how hard it is. And it's going to get much harder. I mean, the literal definition of trauma is that which cannot be spoken. The psychoanalytic definition of trauma is either that which you cannot speak because it happens to you at an age before you have words to understand it, or that which knocks the words out of you, because it's so brutal. And therefore you act it out over and over again. I am impressed by the fact that the moment we get close to some of the history of violence around this subject, we say, "But we need something inspirational, let's turn to..." This is an American tradition. We're optimists, we want a happy ending, we want the movie to come out right -- but I think an optimistic ending is our ability to live with our mourning a little bit. I have a friend, a historian, who offered a course called "Mourning in America" --

Wow. That's quite a title. I mean, the ironic reference to Reagan...

Does it strike a chord? The class was completely overwhelmed with students. The moment I say that title it immediately strikes this chord. And that's what I mean -- that we don't have words for what's really at stake, that we need to look at how we have not mourned so much of what's happened here.

Read an excerpt from Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race, by Patricia Williams.

Discuss this interview in the Community & Society forum of Post & Riposte.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

Wen Stephenson is editorial director of The Atlantic Monthly's New Media department. He has written the In Media Res column for Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Williams photograph © Gasper Tringale.