Many years ago, when I was attending a community college in Alabama, I was a work study student in the campus bookstore. One day, my manager, her adult daughter, and two other employees were in the bookstore chatting. They were all white women who usually left me out of their conversations. At this particular, we had no customers in the store. We were all standing around waiting to be busy. As usually happened in these moments, the women started up a conversation from which I was passively excluded, but this one got a bit more awkward than most.
Julie, the manager’s daughter, had come into the store eating M&Ms. At some point, they began discussing the candy. Then they were naming their favorite color of M&Ms. Julie said, “I hate the brown M&Ms. I can’t stand them.” She was adamant. And that’s what prompted the change in the tone of their conversation.
The other women in the store began energetically arguing against Julie’s claim that brown M&Ms were somehow less enjoyable than other colors.
Julie’s mother insisted, “The brown M&Ms are good.”
A second woman, a blonde the same as Julie’s mom, said, “I like the brown M&Ms.”
Maybe Julie didn’t see the problem. She stood firm in her conviction that brown M&Ms were particularly odious and defended herself matter-of-factly. Her casual demeanor suggested that she did not know why the other women were making such a big deal out defending brown m&ms.
As they repeated these arguments, their voices became increasingly higher pitched and strained. Julie looked at them, somewhat defiant, with a puzzled expression. “I just don’t like them,” she insisted.
Everyone seemed to be making a point of not looking at me, and noone asked me what I thought about brown M&Ms.
I stood in the room unwilling to speak, paralyzed by the awkwardness of the moment. What could I say? I wanted to interject into the tense shrillness of their conversation, “It’s okay. Brown m&ms are not black people. This is not a conversation about race.”
But they had not made the metaphor explicit. I could not be the first one to say it aloud. I think we all knew that the brown-shelled M&Ms had transformed into brown-skinned people early in their conversation, and that that fact was responsible for the increasing urgency and shrillness of their speech. But I, the one brown-skinned person in the room could not I could not be the to make the conversation explicitly about race because my presence there was probably the reason that they had made the conversation metaphorically about race.
I think about this event when I hear racists insist that people of color or anti-racists “make everything about race.” This accusation is meant to perpetuate the narrative that racism is not a problem or not nearly as big a problem as POC claim, and that people who bring up racism as related to specific experiences or events are merely doing so as a way of distracting from real issues. Racism, these people argue, is in the mind of the person who perceives the racism. In fact, “white” people make everything about race, and the accusation that other do is merely a projection.
In certain areas of this country, northern Illinois for example, the locals are fond of claiming that they have moved beyond a time when race mattered. They point to the American South as the last haven of American racism. When I moved to the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago, many “white” people told me that race didn’t matter in their communities. I came to realize that what they were really saying was that the Northwest Suburbs have been so successfully segregated, excluding any significant numbers of African Americans, that the European Americans can go about their daily lives without having to contend with the presence of dark brown skinned difference, and this allows them to pretend that racism was not their problem. They had not solved the problem of racism, they had solved the problem of racial difference.
For those Illinois “white” people, race matters more than they will admit. In fact, I would guess that all aspects of their existences are touched by the mythologies of race in the U.S. Whiteness as an identity construct is not natural, and like anything unnatural, it must be maintained. Whiteness, which signifies both the belief in whiteness and belief in the supremacy of whiteness, must be repeatedly justified and affirmed. Segregation makes this easier. If one is not confronted with real human individuals who represent data a challenge to whiteness as a default identity, believing in one’s exclusive right to humanness is easier. Everything is about race for “white” people because “white” people can not exist and thrive without the concept of race. This is true for “white” people across the country.
Chances are that, had I not been in the bookstore that day, Julie’s comment about brown M&Ms would have been unremarkable. Perhaps the others would have simply taken her at her word and moved on to a new topic. Perhaps they would have spent a few words discussing it. I doubt their conversation would have taken on the emotional charge that it acquired with me as audience. The shrill insistence that brown M&Ms were just as good as any other seemed to be the older women’s attempt to prove that they were not racist. Their need to prove that was directly tied to my presence there. However, they and not I made the M&Ms about race. When I heard Julie’s initial comment, I thought, “Meh. I never really noticed a difference in the flavors of different M&Ms.” The other women turning Julie’s comment into a serious argument forced me to think about race. They “made it about race.”
If one’s entire existence and sense of worth depends upon the mythologies of race, then those ideas will be hovering in one’s mind at all times. Whiteness requires of its performers that they both repeatedly affirm the notions that prop up whiteness and perpetually pretend to be unconcerned about doing so. Both sides of that performance, on display in that bookstore that day, become even more necessary when a non-”white” person is watching. This performance, this struggle, must be overwhelming.
Every single time that I have taught the work of an early European or Euro-American writer whose characters or texts express racist beliefs or use racist words (Twain or Conrad for example), at least one pale-skinned student will speak up to defend the author’s racism on the grounds that racism “back then” was just part of the culture. We can’t blame Thomas Jefferson for his racist assessment of African people because “everyone was racist back then.” Some students have actually argued that the n-word cannot be considered a racist term in the context of texts such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Heart of Darkness because “back then” that was just the word everyone used to describe black people. To call Marlow’s (in HOD) use of the n-word “racist,” these students argue, is to unfairly impose upon that character a contemporary, “politically-correct” morality. I have to remind them that the n-word has always been a negative term and was never ever neutral. I also inform that that at no point in human history have all “white” people or all indigenous Europeans been racist. In places and times when oppression of others (any kind of Other) was the dominant ideology, there have always been dissenters.
The fact that these supporters and defenders of racism use the falsehood that all white people are or were racist in a particular time period or location to try to defend against the accusation of racism seems to be in direct conflict with the fact that often the same people will froth at the mouth in fury as they accuse antiracists of assuming that all white people are racist. Of course, a true antiracist would never assume that all “white” people share the same set of thoughts or behaviors, but this fact is apparently irrelevant in the face of the paranoia of the Euro-American student sitting in my class who assumes that any unfavorable representation of any European (even if it is of that European’s own construction) is an indictment by me of all people of European descent and especially of any people of European descent who happen to be in my classroom.
What I find exceptionally odd about this phenomenon is that so many people of color are overtly and covertly accused of paranoia on a regular basis whenever they discuss their experiences of racism with their “white” acquaintances. Shortly after I moved to Auburn to start my PhD program, one of the professors in my department decided to welcome me by telling me where I could find “soul food restaurants” in town. He concluded his list of restaurants and locations by saying, with a shrug of his shoulders, “Well, we eat that kind of food too.” A few years later I told a pale-skinned redhead this story, and she was quick to let me know that it was in fact not a story about racism but a story about a kind man who was just trying to be helpful. Now, this kind man did not ask me what type of food I liked to eat so that he could point me toward the best burger joints or sushi restaurants in town. Nope. He made the assumption that I would be on the lookout for “soul food” because that’s what people like me eat. His final statement, using the plural first person rather than the singular, only served to prove that he was thinking in terms of group behavior, group identity and had failed to see me as an individual, a person. It also demonstrates that he was not assuming that I would need to try soul food because I was new to the South or that he assumed anyone living in the south would need to know where to find soul food. If he viewed soul food as linked with Southern identity rather than “black” identity, he would not have needed to say “We” eat it “too.” He was from the South.
I had assumed that anyone with a functioning brain could see why what he said was racist, but apparently that is not a fair assumption. I have so many stories like this: I present a narrative of racism, and a pale-skinned person tells me that I’m being “paranoid,” “hypersensitive,” or just “determined to find racism everywhere.” Or they provide a narrative of the events that But now, interpreting course content about racism as an attack on “white” people is definitely not paranoia. My brown-skinned, female instructor is talking about what King Leopold of Belgium did to the people of the Congo in the nineteenth-century? Clearly, she is attacking me, a person in her class in the 21st century, and clearly she hates all white people in the 21st century. Again, this is definitely not paranoia. This is Fox News logic. If I feel that I am being attacked, then I am being attacked even if the instructor has not indicated any connection between the characters in the text and the people sitting in her class at the present moment. What she actually says is not important, because I know what she really means.
An odd thing about the way that Euro-American students glean evidence of my alleged racial hatred from the texts I teach is that this same process never seems to work for the positive or non-racist representations of people of European origin. In one semester for an early literature class my students discuss the works of several authors representing a variety of perspectives and issues. I will teach, for example, William Bradford, Anne Bradstreet, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Ralph Emerson, Nathanial Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Lydia Sigourney along with, of course several writers of color. But when students complain that I am “bashing white males,” representing “white” men as evil, or attempting to make “white” people feel guilty, they are only talking about some (and not all) of our discussions about Bradford and Jefferson. For these writers I choose selections from their large texts that deal with the historical significance of these writers—Bradford’s explanation of why the “pilgrims” left England or Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence—along with some of the excerpts that represent their racist attitudes. Of all the authors I teach in a semester, two authors who express racist notions are viewed as my attempt to color all “white” people as racist and make my students feel guilty for being “white.” Students take my teaching of Bradford’s classism, racism, and homophobia as an affront to white identity. They take my acknowledgement of Jefferson’s racist attitudes about Native and African Americans as an affront to “white” identity. But they do not take my teaching about the feminism of Bradstreet or the poetic innovation of Whitman as compliments paid to “white” identity. They do not take personally my enthusiasm for Dickinson, nor do they assume that I am secretly trying to convince them that all “white” people write great poetry.
It is clear to me that the way some of my European-American students respond to my curriculum is determined by their own expectations rather than by what actually goes on in my classroom.
When someone accused of being a racist says, “I’m not racist. I have lots of X friends,” do you ever wonder if those X people think of the speaker as a real friend? Does Hollis Johnson think of Paula Deen as part of his family or does he just tolerate that racist bitch because she’s paying his salary?
I recently realized that, while there may be people out there who count me among their “black friends,” from my perspective I have had very few “white” friends since I was a child. I have known and currently know “white” people that I might introduce as friends although many are really more like acquaintances or people-who-have-talked-to-me-more-than-once. I have a host of “white” people in my Facebook friends list. But I have had an extremely limited number of real, deep, meaningful relationships with “white” people. And, after careful consideration, I have determined that it’s not me; it’s them.
I have not intentionally segregated myself away from “white” people. In fact, because of my career and personal interests, I tend to find myself in places populated with more “white” people than people of color. Yet I have formed few lasting connections. This I believe has to do with how the potential “white” friends I have known in my adult life have dealt with me. In my adult life, most interactions that I have had with “white” people who could have been potential friends have turned sour because the “white” friend engaged in some behavior that made me aware of an invisible wall between us, constructed by them, impenetrable by me.
I post this in the hopes that all the “white” people out there who think they have friends who are not “white” will reconsider how they really see those friends. The chances are that, if you have ulterior motives in striking up a friendship with a person of color, you will do or say something that will reveal your motives.
One day my “white” friend will say something that lets me know that our friendship has been little more than her attempt to learn about “my people.” We will be discussing some political, social, or less weighty issue. I will state an opinion. Her eyes will open wider, and she’ll say “So that’s what black people think about X. I’ve always wondered.” Or she will ask me, “What is the black perspective on X?” Or she will make a generalizing comment about some mundane aspect of my daily existence, revealing that she assumes that my mundane routine is indicative of the lifestyles and habits of all people like me: “Oh, so black women do wash their hair more than once a month? Because I thought they couldn’t get their hair wet.”
This “white” friend will often try to participate in what she perceives to be my culture. She will get her hair braided in cornrows, or attempt to learn whatever butt-centered dance is supposed to be popular among African-Americans at that moment, or strike up a conversation about how much she loved the latest [insert popular hip-hop/rap artist here] album only to be visibly disappointed when she realizes I don’t know what she’s talking about. For people who are not African-American, this type of “white” friend might smoke hookah, wear turquoise jewelry, sport a sari, or learn a few words of Spanish and then never shut up about how much they understand the struggles of immigrants, or any other culturally-specific appropriation.
These words and behaviors reveal that the time I spent thinking of this person as my friend, she only thought of me as an object of study, specimen A, the Samoan to her Margaret Mead. For her I am not an individual, I am representative.
The Critical Eye
This type of “white” friend reveals himself whenever I am lured into enough familiarity with my white friend to think that I can complain about my woes and I make the mistake of relating an instance in which I encountered racism. It always happens in the same way. (1) I tell my story. (2) My “white” friend tries to convince me that what happened to me in the story wasn’t racism. Sometimes my “white friend” suggests alternatives: “Maybe he/she was just having a bad day. Did you think of that?” “Maybe the server was nice to the ‘white’ customers and not to you because he knew them from somewhere.” “Maybe this.” “Maybe that.”
This “white” friend offers his own analysis because he thinks that I am incapable of bringing a critical eye to my own experiences. He assumes that I, and all people of color in the U.S., am eager to experience racism, and when I fail to experience actual racism, I resort to calling racist that which is not. This “white” friend will often take me to task for what he assumes to be my affinity for unfounded anger. He assumes that I am less human and, therefore, do not have the same capacity for rational thought and careful consideration of evidence that he possess.
This “white” friend’s primary motivation for befriending me is so that he can feel charitable. He is the first to welcome me to a new environment, to tell me how wonderful it is that I am there, and to eagerly laud the benefits of “diversity.” “I’m so glad you’re here,” he says to me, “I love diversity.” Well, terrific. Glad I have your permission to occupy this space. It does not seem to occur to him that I do not need his validation. This is because. . .
. . . This type of “white” friend sees people of color always as abject, always as targets of pity. He imagines the most pitiable internal and external circumstances for most people of color and feels that by extending the “white” hand of friendship he is ameliorating what would otherwise be an unbearable existence. He is always thoroughly encouraging and says things like, “You know you’re actually quite bright” or “You’re very articulate” as if this is a surprise. I am the “dog in breeches,” the native to his Marlow.
This type of “white” friend is warm and engaging only in certain environments when she is alone with me, when there are other people of color around, or when we are together with others in a circumstance that requires our interaction such as a classroom setting. However, when this “white” friend sees me in a public place beyond the established locations of our relationship, she will pretend not to know or even see me. Usually, the “white” friend is with someone she knows but whom I do not know: a boyfriend, a fiancé, a parent, another “white” friend. This “white” friend seeks to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to have the “black friend” that proves that she is not a racist without having that friendship impact the status she holds in her racist world.
The Beauty Contestant
This type of “white” friend, typically female, only wants to be friends with me so that she can feel physically superior in contrast. If the “white” friend and I are out together, the “white” friend assumes that all men will prefer her to me. Any man who directs more attention to me will immediately become the subject of ridicule by this “white” friend. A man who she initially finds “cute” or “hot” will suddenly become “creepy” if he asks for my number instead of hers. She will take every opportunity to deny the physical beauty of women of color and laud the beauty of “white” women. She will watch Bend it Like Beckham and loudly and repeatedly whine that Keira Knightley is sooo pretty, and it doesn’t make sense that she doesn’t get the guy, trying to deny to herself and everyone else in the room the blatant reality that Parminder Nagra is prettier than Keira Knightley.
This friend will engage in frenzied preening of her straight hair whenever she is in my line of vision. She will go on and on about how much she loves her hair, stressing such features as its ability to “blow in the wind,” and she will make frequent sympathetic remarks about the limitations of curly hair. She will lament that her skin is so “white” and patronizingly say to me, “You’re actually lucky that you don’t have to tan” as if she were passing out alms to the poor. If I dare to express an appreciation for my own appearance, this “white” friend is quick to admonish me for being “stuck-up” or “conceited,” reminding me that “It doesn’t sound right to talk about how much you like yourself.”