It’s been said more than once by a lot of different people: ‘The problem with Americans is that they have not really started to talk about racism.’ It seems a patently idiotic thing to say given all the media attention ‘race issues’ receive in this country – the O.J. Simpson verdict, Susan Smith alleging that a black man killed her children, the Million Man March and Louis Farrakhan, Colin Powell and his non-bid for office, Affirmative Action and so on and on. Anyone would think that Americans talk about race all the time: the truth is that Americans, both black and white, talk a lot around the race issue but are constantly trying to avoid dealing intimately with it.

The O.J. Simpson verdict fascinated me. White people were so surprised that black people were not angered by it. It puzzled me that they could not understand why. It had nothing to do with guilt or innocence: it had everything to do with the tradition of the underdog using the system of the overlord to outsmart him. It was Caliban getting his way with Prospero by appropriating Prospero’s magic. It was a moment not to feel vulnerable, for a change, not to feel naked in the eyes of white society. There is nothing right or wrong about these feelings, inasmuch as there was nothing right in the wish of most whites to hear a guilty verdict. This was never a transparent issue of right and wrong, justice or injustice – it is never transparent in America when race is involved. But what puzzled me most was when some whites said to me: ‘I had no idea that Blacks were so angry with white America.’ I could not believe it. Nor could I believe it when a number of whites professed that this was the first time they had confronted their own racism – that they were upset that O.J. got off because in their hearts they resented the fact that a black man had violated a white woman. Here in America, a country that has made ‘talk’ on race a veritable industry? It seemed unlikely to me.

Then, a few months ago, something happened to me. A Southern writer had just done a successful reading from a new book on my university campus. My Division hosted a reception at which he began to speak of some of the sources of his fiction. I was the only black in the room, but there was nothing unusual about this in a school with only three black faculty members. He said that in his historical novels he wrote about family, about friends, about people he knew. Someone asked him whether people got upset when he wrote such awful things about them. He laughed and said that for the most part they were pleased because he really toned down the truth a lot – he had to make it more palatable. It was a great joke – his characters are hardly the stuff of decorous living. He offered an example of the kind of scandal-infested reality that was part of his history. It was his grandfather, he said, smiling, who on becoming sheriff, picked six black males at random from the gaol and lynched them. People laughed. I smiled. I was embarrassed for him, for his family, for his people, for his race. It didn’t appear to bother too many people, this story. Yet, later that afternoon, he confided in two of my colleagues that he thought he had offended me; that by telling this story he had ‘lost a potential friend’. They assured him that I was not so dismissive and that I understood the business of story-telling quite well. Still, they let me know that he was worried, so I wrote to him.

I explained that I was not offended but startled. I explained that I could not stop thinking about the families of those six men, I could not stop thinking of their grandchildren, people who are still alive today and, maybe, working in the same town as his family. I said I was fascinated by the story and impressed that he could tell it so candidly. I admitted that it horrified me and that I wanted to talk to him because I wanted to know more of these horror stories that clearly litter the Southern landscape. His reply was prompt. He said he had sensed fear in me, in the way I crossed my legs to protect my genitals, the way I turned my body away from him. It was, he said, the first time – despite having lived in the South all his life, despite having worked with blacks all his life, despite having written about racial issues all his writing life – that he really understood the fear that blacks felt in the face of racism.

I was confused. On the one hand, I was touched that he recognised that he was in some way implicated in the horror he described, both because he carried its memory in his soul, in his genes, and because he carried the story and was willing to repeat it – to keep it alive, regardless of his motives. But I was furious at the assumption that my reaction was one of fear. It did not occur to him that I may have been embarrassed for him; that I may have felt shame for him to be sitting there, in front of a black man, telling a story like that. It did not occur to him because he was not ashamed – and that bothered me. It bothered me that he thought I was afraid, but I had to understand what it was he assumed I was afraid of. Did he think I was afraid of him? Did he think I was reacting with a primordial fear, a genetic fear? I resented the fact that he assumed I was afraid and went on to speak about it, and I reacted by telling him that I did not grow up in the South with that legacy of fear, but in Ghana and Jamaica with a legacy of pride. I could only understand such fear as an admission of weakness, of helplessness, of shame – the shame of the oppressed and the abused.

Above all, I felt angry that he thought he had seen me standing there naked before him and that he could only grasp my reaction to his story in that light. It made sense, though, because the historical reality of the story, and its retelling as myth, were about the invocation of fear. He had learned that story not in a context of shame or regret, but as part of a mythic understanding of the dynamics of race. He understood it as a story about creating fear, and a cult of fear, that would stay in families for generations. So when he saw what he thought was fear in me, he was enacting a tragic habit that went back a long way, and I resented the fact that he was doing this. It left me naked, vulnerable, my genitals exposed, while he stood there fully clothed and watched my shame with some regret, but more amazement. And yet, he had told me all this as an expression of sadness, a way of saying that he had learnt something about the kind of fear that blacks felt. I wanted more. To be comfortable with him, I had to have more. Indeed, the difference between the two of us at that point was that he was well protected, completely free of any vulnerability – layered, clothed – while I stood naked. I did not like the arrangement.

It was at that point that a number of other things about race began to make sense to me. I understood, for instance, that Farrakhan was the way he was because of his need to stave off the shame of fear. Farrakhan decided long ago to wear clothes, layers and layers of them, and the rhetoric of aggression, of being on the offensive, is the form this clothing has taken. Admitting that one is a victim of racism is, for many blacks, an expression of profound shame. Many white people do not understand this. To say I have been a victim of racism leaves me vulnerable; it means that they have got me by the balls and are squeezing me and that the pain is so much I have to scream out. Admitting that I am a victim of racism amounts to standing naked before the world and saying I am helpless. The solution, at that point, is to put on clothes, or to change the arrangement and deploy an aggressive rhetoric that will strip the white person of what he or she is wearing. Farrakhan is a product of white racism, not a product of anything he has made of himself. White racism has left him with few alternatives but to assert his pride and put on clothes. Anything else will be laced with shame – the kind of shame that ate away at Martin Luther King in his private moments, the shame that haunts many black people struggling for equality through non-violence and reconciliation. There’s no question about it, the ‘good blacks’, the loving blacks, all of us, have to contend with mat shame in our quietest moments.

Farrakhan’s power is founded on a reaction to shame, a reaction to profound powerlessness. Farrakhan seems most threatening to whites because they suddenly feel uncomfortable with a black male fully garbed in the anger for which they know he has good reason. I am not denying the monstrousness of some of his statements, but nor will I deny what his existence says about white racism. The truth is that the instinct not to sit at a table with a white man and talk about reconciliation and peaceful coexistence is founded on a suspicion that the conversation will turn on what he has done to me and my people, on what his people think about me and my people, on why I am angry, on why I am ashamed – and that I will find myself naked. He, on the other hand, need not be naked in the same way, even if he admits he has been a racist, that he has always been afraid to give up power and allow himself to be vulnerable. And the chances are that he won’t in any case. So I don’t speak. He doesn’t speak, and there is an impasse. Voilà, America.

I recently saw a video called The Colour of Fear directed by a Chinese American, Lee Munwah. Seven or eight American-born men of different races sat in a circle and talked about race. I watched as one of the two white men became the centre of the discussion. He did not buy the idea that whites had done anything to make minorities feel ashamed or used or oppressed. He was convinced that it was all in their heads. The others gave examples, told stories, got angry, cried, shouted, stood naked before him, and he remained quite calm, confident in his view that this was all their construction. It was the kind of talk I have heard again and again coming from whites. I began to regard the film as a failure. One of the two black men then spoke what I was feeling. ‘I feel like shit,’ he said. ‘I feel like going outside and running my head into a wall. I have made myself vulnerable in front of this guy, I have explained why I feel such shame in the face of racism, and he has turned it back on me, made it my problem – denied any culpability. I feel like shit.’ There was an electric, ugly, uncomfortable silence; Munwah kept the camera rolling.

That moment represented the basic dilemma of American racism. When white America insists on denying its racism – when ‘normal’, right-thinking, decent whites insist on not confronting the source of their prejudices – blacks recognise quite quickly that talking about race will only embarrass them and leave them vulnerable. The blacks just won’t speak, won’t come to the table. They know what is going to happen already and they have no reason to expect the white man to allow himself to feel ‘like shit’, to feel in any way like the victim who needs the forgiveness and tolerance of the black to continue living.

But things changed in the film. The white male slowly came around, he slowly faced his own fears, and then suddenly, in a flood of regret, he began to speak of his childhood, of a father who taught him racism, of a life spent denying the presence of racism for fear of the shame and responsibility he would feel if he admitted that he was part of a system that made so many people feel like shit. He wept. I waited to see the reaction of the other men. Incredibly (but given the history of how minorities have reacted to well-meaning, liberal whites in this country, understandably), they were willing to forgive him, to embrace him, to count this a moment of hope, of possibility. I had to ask myself if I would have done this, or would I have looked at him and said: ‘Yes, you need to cry some more, you need to cry for your father, for your grandfather, for your goddamned great grandfather, ’cause none of them ever cried to my father, to my grandfather, to my great grandfather!’

Two older white men watched the video after me. Like me, they were reviewing it to see if a recommendation that local legislatures be asked to watch it to raise their racial consciousness was a viable and useful one. One of the men, whom I expected to hate the video and dismiss it as just another ‘white bashing’ exercise, reacted in a manner that baffled and humbled me. He began to talk about his childhood, to second-guess his assumptions about what minorities felt. ‘Thought-provoking, very thought-provoking,’ he said at the end. It is probably a reflection of the depth of my pessimism about Southern racism that I saw this as a miracle – as a genuine triumph of hope, as evidence that perhaps things could get better.

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