I think there’s something about the white psyche that’s intrinsically uncomfortable with the notion that they are not the source from which all knowledge and experience flows. My interactions with white people, not always but on the whole, never fail to demonstrate a near total inability to internalize another perspective, paradigm, cultural context, or racially influenced experience as legitimate or valid. Not being included or consulted in a cultural context is novel to many white people, and their instinct urges them to attack and prove invalid the competing perspective. It’s gotten so extreme in my own life that I’ve ended relationships and severed friendships as a result.
So take the other day, for instance. I was out on a coffee date on a Tuesday afternoon, and the person with whom I was spending the date and I began exchanging high school experiences, my date’s in inner city Philly, mine in girls’ boarding school. We wandered from social experiences to friends we’ve maintained, and wound up talking about the books we read for our English classes.
Now, in my high school experience, one of my teachers had me and my classmates read a lot of Harlem Renaissance literature and probably three different Toni Morrison novels. About ten years before I took this teacher’s class, she went to see Nobel laureate Toni Morrison speak live about her writing career, and at the discussion, Morrison asserted that unless a reader is a woman and is black, the reader will not fully understand her work. My poor white English teacher was devastated, but made it her mission to learn the social and cultural contexts better so that she could at least try to understand Toni Morrison better for herself, a task I found noble, though her methodology seemed a little forced and absurd at times. One time, I remember her taking the Black girls in my class aside to determine the cultural motivation they experienced to relax their hair.
As I was relaying this story to my date, the two white women two tables over from me started listening in. Fine enough, I suppose -- the coffee house was rather small and sparsely populated, and my loud voice tends to carry. I put the final bow on my story, saying that my English teacher works diligently to this day to understand Black culture and Black womanhood for a fuller appreciation of one of her all time favorite authors.
As if she were a part of the conversation the whole time, one of the white women chimed in. “Not to eavesdrop or interrupt you,” she began, “but I fully disagree. I love Toni Morrison and I feel like I deeply relate to many of her characters, especially in Song of Solomon and Beloved.” My date and I looked at her puzzled and rather stupefied. On the very surface, she did, in fact, interrupt a conversation between two people. Moreover, though, this white woman felt it urgent to argue with Toni Morrison’s own assertion about who’s backgrounds best equip them to understand the gravity of her writing. Remember, this woman wasn’t arguing with my point of view -- her qualms were with Toni Morrison’s own analysis of how people read her work.
Rather than grind this woman up, I suggested instead that she go back and re-read her favorite Morrison texts with this new paradigm. I myself go back and re-read Morrison’s works every three years or so; my base of knowledge and life experiences grow so much every few years that it’s like reading a brand new book every time I go back. In that sense, I wish this woman the best as she goes back through this literature and wish that she can at least embrace the legitimacy of Morrison’s assertions.
More than that, though, I hope that this woman discovers a perspective outside her own. With disheartening frequency, I find that white folks don’t even understand what they don’t understand. The very idea that this white woman was incapable of comprehending the full weight of a work of literature because of an experience she lacked came across as wild and nonsensical to her. Think about that: in her mind, she was entitled to the full perfect understanding of anything and everything around her. It’s the old attitude of “columbus-ing,” where a person takes over an existing entity and claims the inception and evolution of it as their own, imbuing the entity with their own perspective and paradigms without consulting those from whom the entity originated.
As a tribe, we owe it to ourselves to re-legitimize the perspective of the Black American. Encourage those discussions, engage in those uncomfortable confrontations, and assert that your experience is valid and equal to that of our white counterparts and friends. The key to forward motion is discussion and an open conversation, and who better to initiate it than us?