Confronting Our Reluctance to Have an Honest Conversation About Race

A White New Yorker Shares Some Personal Reflections on American Race Relations

Fred Wistow

Whenever a public outcry or riot’s been triggered by yet another racially motivated assault on a black man or woman, politicians inevitably utter (and commentators then endlessly and faux-earnestly repeat), “We need to have a national conversation about race.”

It’s a phrase I’ve heard many times in 66 years, but I, for one, have never actually been a party to any such conversation. Not with a black person, anyway---basically because I hardly know any.

When I do talk about race with the people I do know---white people---it’s to point out what’s staring us right in the face but what we somehow never quite see. Look at how racially segmented everything is, I’ll say. Walk into any Starbucks or Staples or McDonald’s in Manhattan where I live and anybody you see working there will almost certainly be---as if they were servants---black. And, next time you’re in a theater or a restaurant or a museum in even supposedly enlightened and diverse New York City---unless you’re in a black neighborhood---you’ll see almost every face is white. What does it say that blacks are the most unemployed and consistently hold the worst jobs and receive the lowest pay? And what about the crazily punitive drug laws? And absurdly unjust bail practices? And the scandal of mass incarceration? Boy, oh, boy, don’t get me going, because when I do, I can really pile on the outrage! It’s not hard: the list of outrages to be outraged about is so long.

But why? I mean . . . why do I vent?

Even if I had the chance, I doubt I’d even try to engage in a cross-racial conversation about race. I’d be too afraid that I’d trip over my own words and say something provocative, offensive, stupid. Wrong. Too afraid that the prejudices I’m conscious of---my fear, my envy---as well as God knows what other ones I’m not yet aware of, would be exposed. And as far as I know, the people I know---white people---are in the same strange and astonishing boat.

For when it comes right down to it, to us, black people are concepts, not individuals. Surrounded---on the streets, in the subways---by millions of black people, yet knowing but a few, I live what’s in reality a segregated existence in New York City.

The Do-Gooder

As I moved into middle age and my career flourished, it was time to “give something back.” I worked with nonprofits---as director or donor or volunteer---that helped poor black kids to stay in school or avoid pregnancy. How noble of me---privileged, white, feet planted firmly on the other side of the color and class lines---to deign to help the underprivileged Other. How, at the same time, so marvelously generous and so regally condescending.

One of my black mentees, it turned out, had passed the bar and was working from home at not one, but two incredibly low-paying part-time jobs, both of which provided next to no opportunity to learn anything of significance from her employers. As she spoke about her life, I sensed a broken quality. I stared into the darkness of her skin and read into it the unconscionable unfairness of her having to endure---for her entire life---the prejudice her color triggers in others and the toll that inevitably takes.

Bombarded for years with news of a “student loan crisis”---both the size of the debt and the number of debtors were reportedly astronomical---I asked her if she had any student loans. Or, I should say, I made the mistake of asking her if she had any student loans. I say “mistake” because I then had to cope with her answer, which at first shook me up and then literally brought tears to my eyes.

Her college and law school debt, she informed me, amounted to just under $400,000. Even before you factor in interest, $400,000 is an enormous amount of money for someone to owe and one day have to pay off, an amount which seems improbable she could---certainly not for decades and decades to come, at any rate---ever be able to pay off.

“One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic,” Joseph Stalin supposedly said.

Sitting right in front of me was a tragedy.

Black Unlike Me

This summer, I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and learned, at this late date, that the tough black kids he grew up with, the ones who terrorized his Baltimore neighborhood---as others, years ago, had come to terrorize mine in the Bronx---were riddled with fear, that the history of how America had treated the black man’s body was ample enough reason for them to live in that fear, and that the macho gangsta persona which they’d adopted was to disguise that fear. They had good reason to be afraid: they’d been enslaved, humiliated, killed, maimed, beaten, lynched, raped, imprisoned, abused, and mistreated from Day One.

Sixty-six years in, “tied to old ways,” the self-protective/self-deceiving bubble of my own fear and prejudice had prevented me from seeing what had always been staring me in the face, what some part of me had always known, but what Coates was only now waking me up to see: black people were not only angry, they were afraid. Maybe not all of them, maybe not all the time, certainly not merely afraid, but fearful they were. Not of me, but of my Whiteness, of all that that Whiteness had done to them and their ancestors, and what, without warning, it still might do to them and their children.

And my fear was, at least in part, the product of, a reaction to, their fear. And, given all the incalculable horrors we white people had visited on them, their fear was infinitely more justified than mine. How ridiculous and shameful to “discover” something so self-evident at this late date. Black people were not simply objects to pity or fear or help or run from or feel guilty about. Black people were…people.

Astonishing revelation. And absurdly embarrassing for it even to be a revelation. Delivered by a book. Written by a flesh-and-blood person. A black person…not an object.

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Can this awkward assemblage of experiences be the beginning of a semblance of a conversation about race? If so, maybe one day I might even have a real conversation about race with an actual live black person.

Then again, if history is a guide, maybe not.

This blog is excerpted from "Black Like Me." To read the full article, click here. Please share your thoughts.

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Topic: Cultural, Social & Racial Issues

Tags: counseling | psychotherapy | therapist | therapy | black issues | African American | civil rights | race | race relations | networker | Fred Wistow

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