Friday, September 10, 2010
learning something ugly about yourself
Over the last several days, I've been processing an event from earlier in the week. I should preface by saying that I've always thought myself fairly enlightened on matters of race compared with many white people (of course, I suppose all white people probably believe that). Unlike a great many whites I know, I don't live in denial of my own latent racist tendencies, or of the benefits I have personally derived from white privilege. I live in a mixed neighborhood, and by choice. I'm politically left on matters of race, from affirmative action to prison reform and the War on Drugs. For a white person, I think I'm pretty well read in terms of African American literature.
So to the matter at hand: on Tuesday I was surfing the intarwebs, and I came across a series of Harvard tests on implicit associations and preferences. Just for kicks, I decided to take the race one. After about 5 minutes, the results were in.
According to the test, I have a "strong" preference for white faces over black, stronger than most white respondents.
What does that mean? Does it mean I'm more racist than most people? At first I thought, "well, I went to pretty segregated schools for the most part, and there aren't a ton of black people in my profession, so maybe it's just that I don't have as much experience with black people as others." That isn't true, though, nor is it relevant. It means exactly what it looks like: I associate white faces with good qualities and black faces with bad more than most white respondents. Are my southern upbringing and, shall we say, "racially insensitive" parents to blame? Maybe, but does it matter?
What do I do with that? People on all sides of the political and racial spectrum deride "white guilt," but shouldn't I feel guilty about this? Shouldn't I feel convicted, to borrow a less ambiguous term from theology? I suppose "should" doesn't really matter. I do.
Perhaps I could counteract this subconscious malady of mine by interacting with more African Americans. How would I do that, though? I know hardly any black people these days aside from a few of my neighbors, with whom I have little or nothing in common and who all have busy family lives. I don't work closely with any, and I could probably count on one hand the number of black people who even work in my giant academic library. There are none in my wider circle of friends or in their circles. I don't share the religious tastes of most African Americans, so church is out of the question. The only obvious place I can go to socialize with black people is the bar down the street, which I've made a point to avoid because a) drinking at bars is expensive, and b) it allows smoking inside, which makes me smell like an ashtray and entices me to smoke.
It appears I've run aground against a persistent spatial segregation in America. Even when I want to hang out with black people, there are few places where our lives intersect. We have constructed separate societies for ourselves that inhibit not only necessity for interaction, but opportunity for it.
Some months ago I asked a friend of mine what it was like growing up in the segregated South (he was a kid in Tenessee in the late 50's-early 60's). What he said was that in the Tennessee he grew up in he hardly knew black people existed. Segregation wasn't about making black people use crappy water fountains or giving white people the good bus seats; it was about moving black people away so whites didn't have to interact with them. It was about not living near them, or being in the same stores and restaurants as them, or standing in line with them or sitting next to them or going to school with them.
Here I am, 50 years removed from Jim Crow in a part of the country that was never officially segregated, and suddenly I'm finding that description of 1950's Tennessee alarmingly familiar. I'm also feeling like I just saw those test results all over again.