Thursday, 14 October 2010


I've been away for a while on a holiday (of sorts) to Atlanta - more on that in later posts- so I've been trying my best to avoid the daily reads and the ensuing desire to give forth on them, but alas...

A few days after my arrival I noticed, quite by accident, an op-ed in the New York Times by John Edgar Wideman. The article details Wideman's experiences on the train between his home in New York City and his workplace in Providence:
Over the last four years, excluding summers, I have conducted a casual sociological experiment in which I am both participant and observer. It’s a survey I began not because I had some specific point to prove by gathering data to support it, but because I couldn’t avoid becoming aware of an obvious, disquieting truth.

Almost invariably, after I have hustled aboard early and occupied one half of a vacant double seat in the usually crowded quiet car, the empty place next to me will remain empty for the entire trip.
I’m a man of color, one of the few on the train and often the only one in the quiet car, and I’ve concluded that color explains a lot about my experience. Unless the car is nearly full, color will determine, even if it doesn’t exactly clarify, why 9 times out of 10 people will shun a free seat if it means sitting beside me.
The account was so similar to experiences I've had, and those of some of my acquaintances of colour, as to be banal. In hindsight, perhaps it would be nice if some readers became more mindful of their behaviour. Anyway, it wasn't saying anything I didn't already know so I didn't really pay the article any mind. I was therefore, rather taken aback by John McWorther's response.

It really is a thing of beauty.

McWorther claims that he is not questioning Wideman's experience, and he isn't. However his rhetoric appears designed to shift the problem from the behaviour of Wideman's fellow passengers onto Wideman himself (and as a corollary from whites to blacks). Both McWorther and Wideman have ridden the quiet car on the Acela in recent years, both are black, yet their experiences are completely different. Furthermore, McWorther has never been stopped while driving his car, he can pick up a taxi in New York City, and he has he been followed in a store. He has asked other black men and they share his experiences. So why Wideman and not them?

He does not answer that there is anything wrong with Wideman or people who claim similar experiences, no. However he skillfully opens the door to those kinds of explanations, and American culture provides many of them. Claiming oversensitivity, or that someone is looking for racism, or imagining things, or that racism will go away if people just stop bringing it up are all strategies employed again and again to derail conversation. 

It reminded me of a discussion on my friend Loco's blog where one commenter appeared so concerned that people might think that Japan is a racist country that, in the interest of fairness, just had to come in and make sure Loco's readers knew that Loco's experiences were not at all representative of black people's experiences in Japanese society.

McWorther says that his experiences, those of his friends and the many other black men who have yet to encounter a "while black" moment should not be dismissed, and that we need an honest discussion about racism in America in 2010. I agree, but I have to say that his piece didn't feel very honest to me.

As Resistance put it on her blog:
Obviously, in the interest of fairness, John McWhorter needs to make sure you know this doesn’t happen to him.  Or his friends.  Because of course the problem is that we don’t hear enough accounts of how racism doesn’t really affect black people.  (Or how they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps.)

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