As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
I met Patricia Williams six years ago while co-organizing a conference and anthology on “masculinity” for the Dia Center for the Arts and Routledge Books. I was blown away by her first book, The Alchemy of Race and Rights, and wanted her to present a paper. Our first conversation underscored her brilliance and great style; it did not take long to discern the depths of her wisdom and loyalty. Since then, we have talked about many things, race, class, and sexuality among them. I have found her support invaluable and her ideas a great influence and inspiration. I have found, in Patricia, an extraordinary friend.
I am deeply moved by Patricia’s newest book—Seeing a Color-Blind Future. It represents a powerful synthesis of personal narrative, storytelling, and razor-sharp analysis. Her elegant, almost literary style allows her to challenge some of the most durable myths about race in America without distancing or alienating the reader. She takes our hand and walks us close to the action, allowing us to overhear the troubling and troubled dialogues of everyday life. She provides us with an astonishing bird’s eye view of our nation’s tormented racial landscape, untangling the pervasive and destructive myths that equate blackness with poverty, pathology, and violence; and whiteness with justice, normalcy, and honesty. I believe that her uniquely open-minded and optimistic arguments will help to forever change the way we think about race in America.
Maurice is a wonderful person. In the first place, he’s not a lawyer, and from my vantage point, that’s always the most refreshing. In the second place, he’s an artist. As one who spends her entire life mired in verbal slippage and its judicial consequences, I find it a great pleasure to hang out with someone who can bring an aesthetic dimension to the table. He opens my eyes in an almost literal way; Maurice sees things with a precision that I don’t—he’ll describe the political dimension of a situation in a very visual way, while I’ll tend to hear it in the words, in the dialogue, always the dialogue. I’m always uncovering social meaning buried in the contradiction of skewed sentence structure. He does too, but then he goes beyond.
I guess that’s why I find his book, White Lies, so moving, so disturbing, and so valuable. As a lawyer, I’m used to considering race in a way that is pretty straightforwardly rhetorically bound. Conversing with Maurice and reading his work reminds me that race is also an aesthetic entrenchment, a matter of representation, that there are compositional components to be considered, a vocabulary of symbols designed to please or play with the emotions or jar you into edginess.
Maurice is also the most relentlessly honest person I know. This makes him a particularly valuable person to run novel or risky thoughts by. He’s extraordinarily patient, too, so he’s donated hours and hours to hearing me beat some really bad ideas to their natural, if protracted, end. A mutual friend describes him thus: Maurice is the sort of person you want to put in a bottle so that when your’e feeling down, you could give yourself a little spritz. I couldn’t agree more. The essence of Maurice’s intelligent, compassionate insight is something we all could stand to see spread around.
Maurice Berger We are sitting at your kitchen table having a conversation about race. We’ve had this dialogue many times before. I can’t help but feel a sense of irony about all of this. While I have tremendous confidence in what we’ve been doing, I’m not particularly optimistic about the current and very fashionable idea that a national or community-based dialogue on race—as proposed by Lani Guinier or President Clinton, for example—will move the country any farther away from its problems with race. Obviously, as writers devoted to thinking about race, our conversation has been driven by a particular kind of passion. I’m not sure most people can begin this dialogue, given the tendency of most Americans, as you would say, to “repress or resent race matters.” What do you think?
Patricia Williams This morning somebody in the press called me up to comment on whether we’ve talked about race too much, is that the problem. Conservative commentators like Abigail Thernstrom, of the Manhattan Institute, are always being quoted in the Wall Street Journal claiming that the Kerner Commission was wrong, that America has become less and less segregated, and that things are hunky-dory—so whatever in the world are black people complaining about? Repression or resentment, you ask. Against the backdrop of such glaring problems as residential segregation, school segregation, welfare and employment discrimination, I do think that in some strange way we vacillate between the, “Things are fine, just shut up about it,” to hyperbolically staged conversations in which everyone vents, and nothing ever happens. But the really hard conversations, the ones which I think could be productive, are the kind that occur around specific encounters, as they’re happening. These little daily engagements tend to feel rather more mundane, but they are also those that risk personal involvement, and injured feelings. These are the small but important moments that we must learn to negotiate so that we stop falling into these extremes—whether it’s, “Let’s sit down and prepare to talk about it as though we are dealing with this huge diplomatic event,” or “We’ve talked about it too much. This is getting us nowhere, so let’s all just shut up about it and go about our business.” This seemingly simple enterprise is what I try to deal with in my books. I know it sometimes risks being very personal, but what I am trying to do, what I am aiming for, successfully or not, is this attempt to root it in what is routinized and therefore overlooked precisely because it is banal.
MB In all of your books, and in much of my own work on race, there is a tendency to position ourselves in the first person. I think the use of the autobiographical voice is telling. Most people are not well equipped to talk in the first person, let alone “dialogue,” about race. It’s hard for them to talk about their private attitudes, their secrets concerning race. I understand what you mean and actually agree that the possibility exists for deeper conversations about race, but I’m not optimistic that they are going to come soon. In 1994, I actually moderated a four-month, online dialogue on race. At the time, I thought the debate was honest. I was so ecstatic about the results, I even wrote a piece for Wired magazine about it. I suspected that this conversation wasn’t entirely “new” for most of the participants. Most of them—a mix of grad students, artists, writers, and professionals—had thought very hard about race before they joined me online. For the most part, whenever I hear of a “successful” dialogue on race—successful meaning that the participants duked it out, screamed and yelled at each other, and finally talked about the bigotry they felt, the suspicions they felt, the anxieties they felt—I suspect that most of the participants had already done some private and constructive soul-searching. They had already thought about race because their kid had a fight with a black (or white) classmate, or they worked with people of different races, or a white person or black person moved into their neighborhood. For the most part, I do not believe that most Americans are ready for a national dialogue, even at the most banal level. People must first begin to have a more private, internalized dialogue where they can think about things that embarrass them or upset them, where they can be honest and not fear humiliation or retribution. How can we get people to sit down in front of their television sets or in the classroom and think about race at this most private, and potentially more honest level?
PW I don’t know. How do you get people to sit down and watch their televisions more honestly, as you put it, when everything, not just race, is subject to such … I want to use the word vulgarity, but it sounds so quaint under the circumstances, if you know what I mean.
MB Sounds right to me. (laughter) Yes.
PW Such catering—not even to the lowest common denominator, but as though to a standard of outright grossness. Of who can pick most deeply at the scabs of each other’s wounds—what in another universe might be displays of the most remarkable kinds of cruelty. There is a certain undercurrent of sadism in our society, not just about race certainly. All these talk shows where people heap abuse on each other. That, as a national ethic, strikes me as being a very unfruitful frame of mind. It’s politics as entertainment, social work as championship wrestling … absolutely not dialogic but a reflection of isolation, on levels that, again, implicate a great deal more than race.
MB Do you think it’s a form of deflection?
PW I think it’s immensely deflective. But I also think that the deflection is indicative of the trauma involved. We are a nation which has inflicted such violence upon itself in the name of racial division. There are many nations which suffer the echoing, repercussive feelings of war’s devastation and we can happily congratulate ourselves for having avoided most of the ravages of great wars. But at the same time, we’re a nation that has been engaged in a low-level, free-enterprise war with itself, within ourselves. I’m not just speaking of the obvious—like the legacy of slavery or guns or militia movements or hate groups or high rates of crime. I also include the free-floating emotional residue of our society having always been a harbor for people who have made this the end of their diaspora. A friend who works with torture victims from around the world who have migrated to London once told me that the safe haven at the end of diasporic flight often represents the most dangerous moment psychologically because that’s when you come to rest, that’s when the demons rise like ghosts, and that’s when you must come to terms with all the psychic injury. I have a friend, an English professor named Eduardo Cadava who’s been teaching a course called “Mourning America.” The course was an instant hit, and while he is indeed a wonderful teacher, it’s also true that just the title made it one of the most over-subscribed courses he’d ever taught. For me, what was captivating about this was how the title alone—aside even from the reading list—was so powerfully evocative. I sometimes think we are a nation in deep and constant mourning, about all sorts of things—and that we have absolutely no idea how to express it.
MB You used two words that are very significant and crucial. One is “demon” and the other is “mourning.” Both words imply to me a psychological process. I have a very strong belief that there are therapeutic processes that could help us to exorcise our demons or help us to mourn, and that the process of dealing with our racism brings up both issues. I spent the last couple of years interviewing hundreds of people about race. Most of these discussions were casual, without a tape recorder. I kept thinking of the old joke, “How many shrinks does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the bulb’s going to have to want to change.” Few of the people I talked to had any desire to change their attitudes about race. One way in which I sensed that such change was difficult, was the extent to which people would lie to me, would deny their own obvious complicity in the racist incident they were recalling. Most of the black people I interviewed, while reluctant to talk about the painful racism they had experienced, were at least willing to talk about race honestly—even to the extent of sharing their past and present feelings of hostility towards white people. Most of the white people, on the other hand, deflected the more difficult questions about race and rarely ever talked about their own racist attitudes. How then do we actually deal with our demons? How do we start mourning or entering into other kinds of deep emotional processes when so many of us—for want of a better word—are not interested in being theraputized into getting better?
PW I’m not a psychologist, so I certainly don’t want to hypothesize any more than I already have. But in general terms, I think this issue overlaps with a sort of liberal, middle-class state of mind which is self-protective but also deeply self-serving, even self-deceiving. “I would never do that … ” even as you do. I like Lewis Begley’s novels for their ability to lay bare this sort of double-mindedness. In his book, About Schmidt, the narrator, a well-heeled partner in a major Wall Street law firm, just cannot come to grips with his daughter’s choice of fiancé—who just happens to be Jewish, but of course that has nothing at all to do with why he finds the young man so brash and somehow wanting … at one point his daughter calls him an anti-Semite, and he responds with a passionate defense of his motives, along the lines of: “But I brought this young man into the firm. I was the person who argued his case against the others, I tolerated him … ” and even as he’s saying it, it’s incredibly anti-Semitic with its bass line of “How could I be anti-Semitic, I dealt with those people just as though there were no difference … ” I think that that kind of duplicity is precisely how racism works in the face of really good intentions. That is how it works. But it isn’t until you set it up starkly like that, that the cognitive dissonance comes to light. The real task is uncovering it just like that, and of course that’s when the really uncomfortable part begins.
MB Would you actually say to someone, “You’re being duplicitous,” as a means for uncovering it? As a device for uncovering it? Should someone say that?
PW I do that. (laughter)
MB I do too.
PW Right in the middle of cocktail parties. I think this has not always endeared me to a lot of people. There are many places I’ll never be invited again. But I guess since I talk about this stuff all the time, I don’t view it as necessarily as threatening as many people do. It doesn’t have to be about putting friendships on the line; I think it makes for better friendships. And I try not to do it in a way that is in-your-face-finger-shaking. So there I am: always one who is cheerfully ready to talk about these problems. It’s hard for many people to do that, they can’t talk about it without tears. It feels so full of accusation. It’s so overlaid with whole lifetimes of everything else that hasn’t been said. So it’s risky business, but I’m all for unlayering that overlay, and as a part of everyday conversation.
MB Oddly enough, this is where my optimism actually does exist. Like you, I also call people on things like this, and I try not to do it in an accusatory way. I will admit that most people can and do hear you. At least I think so. I don’t know if you’ve had the same sense of that.
MB People hear you if you say to them, “Look, you know, you just said something that was offensive.” I think of the artist Adrian Piper’s Calling cards. As a light-skinned black woman she often hears the racist comments white people make when they think no black people are present. She would hand a small card to a person who just made a racist remark that said—and I’m paraphrasing badly here—”Hello. You might not have realized it, but I’m black. What you just said, laughed at, agreed with, smirked at, shook your head at offended me, hurt me.” Her strategy has been very effective. People have stopped in their tracks and thought, “Oh my God, what have I done?”
PW I have long since stopped saying “That offends me,” I haven’t said that since I was in my early 20s.
MB What do you say?
PW Saying, “I find that offensive,” is like a declaration of war. Well, maybe I have said it if somebody really just has gone over the top. But in most instances where people are saying something in a casual social setting, they’re unaware of the historical resonance, for example. It’s something they’ve grown up around. It’s not self-evident to them. So I might proceed to talk about the history of an idea, or the genealogy of a word. Or sometimes, I make analogy to the experiences of ethnic groups other than black, to bring it home to the immigrant experience—either in the old world or the new. Many people’s immigrant forebearers suffered experiences very similar to racism, if not always in degree, then at least in terms of this level of felt unfairness. It’s also a way of unsettling what it means to call oneself “white” in America—as a lot of scholars have observed, whiteness as identity is not only the other half of a dualism with blackness—it is also a marker of the suppression of ethnicity. Blackness and ethnicity are arguably akin in that they sometimes impose a kind of expectation upon you and you end up traveling through the world as a public stereotype. It’s about always walking through the world with a kind of limited profile. The privilege aspect of whiteness is that, as a generalization, it tends to confer a more open-ended archetypal or mythic status rather than just narrow stereotype.
MB Following up on the issue of sensitivity—I think people’s instincts are not to put themselves in an uncomfortable position. And in the course of working on White Lies—parts of which are autobiographical—I deliberately set out to put myself in an uncomfortable position. I wasn’t sure how far I would get. I did not just look at the racism in the world around me, but closely and meticulously examined those moments, both banal and extraordinary—like my mother putting layers of chalky white make-up on her dark, Sephardic skin every morning—that most radically shaped my own anxieties, beliefs, and views about race. I scrupulously tracked those moments that taught me how to be a racist and those that taught me how not to be—like the incredible and passionate conversations I had with my father, who was deeply committed to the cause of Civil Rights. I searched through everything—the worlds of my parents and their parents, my teachers, the media—and explored how these forces conspired—for want of a better word—to do all kinds of funny things to my head about race. There’s a vignette in the book about my father falling in love with a black nurse during one of his hospitalizations. I really hated this woman. Not just because she was taking my mother’s place, or so I thought, but hating her for her blackness. In retrospect, my attitude was really shocking, especially given the love I felt as a kid for my black teachers and classmates, given the fact that I didn’t grow up with white people—I grew up in a predominantly black and Hispanic low-income housing project, I went to primary and secondary schools with a black and Hispanic student body. I had befriended many of these students. In hating this woman, I was connecting with my dead mother’s racism or with the pathetic thinking of professors who taught me that the history and culture of black people didn’t matter. I think back on my feelings in horror. This process of writing White Lies resulted in months and months of nightmares, of literally waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Not just because I was dealing with my own attitudes on race, but those of my parents, my teachers, my friends, my ancestors. Dealing with racism is necessarily painful, touchy, incendiary.
PW Yeah, it’s so interesting. Watching my son go through school and then what you say sort of evokes my growing up. My parents were … I consider myself extremely lucky to have parents who were committed about these things. I don’t know what the word would be today, but, growing up, being “committed” race people meant: integrationist, against all forms of bias, that sort of thing. Now when you say, “committed race people,” it sounds sort of nationalist. But I’m talking about the ’50s and ’60s. So I was raised with that commitment, but at the same time in a mostly white, ethnically-mixed neighborhood where that commitment was constantly a battle, constantly challenged. The challenge was not to feel ultimately excluded, to have your feelings so hurt that you turned inward and became angry at white people, that you could still function in a mostly white world. The challenge was not just how to grow closer, but how also to put certain things at bay, how to let go of certain things. And now, as I raise my own son, I have to go through this all over again. For me, the hardest part about having a child is getting interrupted by one’s own little flashbacks of childish exclusion, or having to confront an old ghost and then put things into perspective all over again. It’s so clear to me how this stuff lives from generation to generation, because reliving your experiences through your children is such a subtle, subtle process. That said, I don’t want to dismiss the insight of my long-ago experiences out of hand, because I think while the world is extraordinarily different today, there’s also a lot that’s unfortunately, similar.
MB But I’m curious, what sort of things?
PW Well … when I was growing up—I grew up in Boston—it was much easier just to go out and play. We kids just made our own friends, we made our own enemies, and you dealt with it at that level. Every now and then there would be some incident in school where it would really come to a matter of parents having to intervene. Like one parent saying that she didn’t want her child to be “the colored kid’s” partner in the recess line, and so my mother had to come to the school and say, “You cannot exclude my child that way.” But by and large, people would call you names, they would do that, but there usually wasn’t a specific parental involvement. In comparison, what I encounter in New York in the late 1990s is on a much more subtle level, a mix of part race and part class. You don’t just play out in the street, you go to people’s houses. The question of how you are invited for play dates, or negotiate that, is something which I find as mystical as country club membership. It’s like being in a sorority or a fraternity, applying, not getting in. So in this sense, it isn’t really just about the children learning to work it out, it always, always, always is also about the parents and who they are.
MB You know, when you mention your child, I think of the story that begins Seeing a Color-Blind Future, the story of your child’s “color-blindness.” I found that story so amazing that I quote it in my book. I can’t remember all of the details, but I would love it if you’d tell it to me again.
PW When my son was younger, three different teachers told me that he was probably color-blind. He was very little, and since lots of children don’t really develop a color sense until a little bit older, I didn’t think much about it at first, but they were saying he seemed to have tremendous perceptual abilities as to everything else, and that there might be a problem. So when he was three I took him to an opthamologist. The opthamologist told me he had absolutely no trouble distinguishing color, that he was not at all color-blind. To make a long story short, it turned out that what he was really doing was not misidentifying color, he was refusing to identify color at all. What he kept saying, over and over, was: “Color doesn’t matter.” This unusual insight had apparently come after a series of incidents which had not been reported to me, involving friction in the mixed-level classroom, in which one five-year-old in particular kept excluding my son. Black kids couldn’t play anything but the bad guys, as it was recounted to me. It had gotten so bad that they had called this other child’s parents repeatedly. But they hadn’t told me about it because they said it wasn’t my problem, it was the other little boy’s problem. So my son, with the literalism of the very young, had quietly internalized the message that his well-meaning teachers were telling all the students: “Color doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether you’re red or blue or green or black … ” So my son, apparently quite invested in this in an anxious way, gave it a literalism that wouldn’t permit him to play color identification games like Candy Land. It was fascinating to me that he had any sense of himself as invested in color identification at such an early age. But once we dealt with it and we talked about it in terms as straightforward as one can with a three-year-old—that he’s a wonderful person, that most everyone loves him but that sometimes there are angry people who will not treat him with the respect we all deserve—since then, color-blindness has seemingly not been an issue.
MB Certainly, the whole idea of color-blindness is such a mythic one. It’s the idea that’s attached to virtually every discussion of integrationism or the melting pot. I’m intrigued by the argument you make in this book, and I agree with it and ultimately I think it’s extremely complex. But there’s a part of me that is very nervous about the idea that the US Census Bureau would put the term “multi-racial” as a possibility on the census forms. Of course, I’ve written about the mutability of race—on the idea that so many so-called white ethnics would have in fact been classified as black in many states in the 19th century in terms of the standards of the times. My dark, little Sephardic grandfather would have probably been perceived as black in the 19th century. The whole issue of mutability is so complex. When I’m walking down the street, fascinated as I am by the interactions on the street, I don’t always know who’s black and who’s white; it’s not always that visually apparent. Yet, the multi-racial category concerns me, because by erasing the categories of race, the categories that establish and determine difference, that’s a way, in part, of helping to deny or to paper over the reality that those racial differences matter. We’re not a “color-blind” society. Your book has a wonderful—I can’t even find quite the right word for it—a kind of almost prayerful sense at the end, that someday this could be possible, this might be what we want. I’m curious how acknowledging all of these myths, this color-blindness could actually work.
PW Yes, well, the census is a complicated example, because on the one hand, nobody wants the government tracking people by race. And, on a very superficial level, this kind of tracking sounds like the Louisiana race codes of the last century.
PW But on the other hand, we don’t want to live in a state of denial about deep racial divisions, with no mechanism for tracking those divisions. So it seems to me very important to constantly interrogate why it is we gather particular kinds of information. Are you gathering it to put people in prison? Are you gathering it to put the mark on the door? Or are you gathering it as part of some remedial scheme? And you have to constantly reassess how effective that is in achieving that goal. When I was teaching at CUNY in the 1980s, I remember there was some reassessment of a provision for Italians in CUNY’s affirmative action guidelines, left over from earlier in this century, but which many people felt was still viable. After a long conversation, they decided to keep the provision. It probably wasn’t quite what was meant in the heyday of bias against Italian immigrants, but by the 1980s, the argument had shifted from a so-called oppressed category into one of economic disadvantage, at least in New York City. So, that kind of periodic reconsideration seems to me a good thing. History lives, circumstances do change. Having said that, I do think we’re seeing a lot of people attacking affirmative action scattershot, and not as part of that kind of careful interrogation. They’re tired of hearing about the problem, they’re in the full grip of Rush Limbaugh-inspired backlash. “20 years is enough,” they insist. “Pack it up, drive it out, let’s not hear another word about race again.” But the end result of this facile, impatient color blindness is simply ridiculous. It leaves us with no words with which to address specific civil rights violations. You can’t build sensible remedies, if you can’t take race into account in remedial schemes. Like affirmative action, the census’s collection of racial and ethnic information is part of such a remedial scheme. Things like the Fair Housing Act are part of that remedial scheme. Some people may try to subvert it to use the data for a different purpose, but that’s not alone a reason to abandon a valid pursuit. That’s like revoking the tax code because there are people who cheat on their taxes. But the best-laid laws and policies can always end up being a double-edged sword. That’s why part of any agenda for change requires keeping one’s ideological goals straight, and uncorrupted.
MB The flipside of this—which sort of gets back to the whole issue of a color-blind society—is that more often than not, the fiction or the myth that’s created is that we are a “melting pot.” I remember an incident that occurred the evening after the OJ Simpson criminal trial verdict was handed down. It was a subtle, though deeply disturbing moment, a moment filled with more pathos than almost any other for me in the whole trial. Ted Koppel was hosting a “town meeting” on Nightline. He walked up to a white friend of Nicole Brown Simpson—Steve Garvey’s wife, Cindy. He asked her what she thought of the trenchant reaction of white and black people to the verdict. She replied—without any sense of irony or pathos—”I’ve always taught my kids to be color-blind.” Minutes before, black people in the audience were screaming at white people, and vice versa, despite the fact that the actual breakdown of who thought OJ was guilty and who didn’t was much more complicated than the rigid black-white schism suggested by the media. But here you had a program that opened up with a videotape of white people standing in some lunchroom, and the verdict was announced: faces dropped, women were crying, and it was a flurry of Kleenex pressed to their faces. And then on the other side of the split screen, black women and men cheering, “Yeah! He was acquitted.” And then here is this woman saying, “I teach my children … ” I didn’t want to judge her for what she was saying. She probably had the honorable idea that color-blindness was possible. It occurred to me that I trusted what she was saying on some level, but I also wondered if she understood how impossible that idea might actually be, at least at this tortured moment in our nation’s history.
PW How formidable. I guess it is almost an act of faith that color-blindness is where we’re marching toward. And what’s so resonant about the scene you describe is almost the religiosity with which we have to cultivate the notion. On the other hand, what’s also evoked is a kind of leaping for it too soon, saying, “All we have to do is not see,” and that risks being a way of closing one’s eyes and ears, like the three monkeys: Hear-no-evil, See-no-evil, Speak-no-evil. They’re not icons for innocence, but they’re not angels. They’re naive. They’re isolated, and for all their purity that misses the point as much as anything else. And when I say it’s isolationist, I also mean it’s divisively protectionist in that it allows many white people, who are the principal proponents of that form of color-blindness, to protect themselves on a personal level from any implication in the costs of racism on society. It’s a way of aggressively not seeing. It seems to me the next step and the more insidious form of it is to theorize it into a kind of apolitical, ahistorical pique whose bottom line is not merely “Leave me alone,” but “Let them eat cake.”
MB I agree with you. I so believe that it’s at the point of the individual, at the level of the conscious and unconscious mind that our best race work is done. I think the idea of a “National Dialogue on Race” tends to abdicate the individual’s responsibility. I think we have to start to engage this process of racial self-inquiry in our childhood—we must allow young people to explore their own relationship to race in very personal ways. I think of the race project that was done at the Unified School District in Durham, North Carolina, called Black Self/White Self, in which the photographer and teacher, Wendy Ewald, and a group of other teachers helped students—on an individual basis—to think more empathetically on matters of race.
PW That was a marvelous project.
MB It was a wonderful project. The project consisted of visual and literary assignments to help young black and white students in the integrated, though racially-troubled, school system to think empathetically about racial attitudes. Students were first asked to write self-portraits as themselves and then as a member of the opposite race. They were then photographed posing both as their “white” and “black” selves and were later given these photographs to draw on and to incorporate some of the ideas from their written portraits. The results were amazing and revealing. Sometimes sad realities were revealed. A number of black kids wrote, for example, that if they were white, they would be “normal.” White kids made interesting speculations on what they couldn’t do if they weren’t white. And it isolated whiteness in a way that whiteness was never isolated before, at least how it is applied in the classroom. And it’s at that level, or the way sometimes television programs, even ones that are widely watched like The Simpsons or ER, will throw something into the program that compels me to think about my own racial attitudes and my own whiteness and the privileges and power that go along with being white. And it’s those moments which are also banal, that I have great confidence in. And again, I don’t think everyone could, when subjected to this kind of process, actually go through with it. When I was reading Seeing a Color-Blind Future, I was thinking, in this elaborate text are these moments that suggest to me surprisingly practical things about the way people in this country, white and black, can begin to rethink their own attitudes about race. Throughout this text I think of these issues of equality, color-blindness, fairness before the law, all of these issues, and I really do see that there are practical ends to all of this. There are possibly even practical processes to bring about solutions. And I’m just curious, what are you thinking about now, where can we go with all of this?
PW I guess the practical stuff strikes me as being an extremely complex proposition. I am, as I said in the book, really hesitant to prescribe solutions for this daily level of encounter. But I do think that transformative encounters will only occur when we are in daily contact with one another—and not just as tokens, or “the only” one of this or that. So education has always been a big priority of mine. I think this nation has gutted its public school system in the name of white flight, as a way of avoiding the question of equal access and public accommodation. I think the best education comes from a general commitment to learn about one another, a commitment premised on the reality that we can do better. Lots of other nations do better at educating more of their youth to some minimum standard. We have gotten sidetracked by this writing-off of so much of our nation’s potential brainpower: we treat some children as inherently ineducable and others as inherently more deserving of resources that those ineducable ones are incapable of appreciating. We have to get over that. It’s the worst kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, Claude Steele, who’s a psychologist at Stanford, has published studies which demonstrate that one’s self-esteem, in combination with how teachers view their students in terms of these hierarchies—who’s marked and who’s not, in other words—has a great deal to do with how students end up performing. So education is one area. The other area about which I have particular concern is the media. The unspoken messages conveyed by a barrage of visual images are among the most powerful influences on racial attitudes today. It was hard enough in the old linear world. It may be even more challenging, I think, in the echoing, fragmentary hall of mirrors of an artificially intelligent, Internet society. But we’re still on the cusp of its great power; there is a lot of expressive force in this technology, perhaps, that could be harnessed to help us communicate and reveal ourselves in new ways, thus breaking down many of the divisions of the past. How’s that for a touch of optimism with which to end?
Patricia Williams is a columnist (“Diary of a Mad Lawyer,” The Nation) and a professor of law at Columbia University. Her previous books are The Rooster’s Egg and The Alchemy of Race and Rights. She also contributes regularly to Ms. and the Village Voice. Her latest book, Seeing a Color-Blind Future, was published by Noonday/Farrar, Straus & Giroux in April.
Maurice Berger is a Senior Fellow at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics of The New School. He has published extensively in the area of cultural history and criticism, critical theory, art history, and race and legal studies. His most recent book, White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness, will be published in January 1999 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.