Let's Try To Talk About Race

The words racism and humiliation are shown on a plaque at Manzanar National Historic Site on December 9, 2015 near Independen
The words racism and humiliation are shown on a plaque at Manzanar National Historic Site on December 9, 2015 near Independence, California.

I seem to have a knack for showing up to witness minor racial dramas.

Twenty five years ago in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan (Go Blue!), I was walking past a liquor store across the street from campus. At the very moment I passed the doorway, two men tumbled out, one black, the other white.

The African American man exclaimed, “Don’t call me a [insert n-word]!” 

He then punched the white guy. It was a hard hit, making a solid “thwack” and causing a nose bleed.

“But I didn’t,” the Caucasian man protested. 

Since I had missed the crucial instant before the incident, I have no means to determine the facts. I would not make any assumption about who was telling the truth. Any speculation would reveal only my own predisposition. Each of them might well trust his own version of events.

Ten years ago in Detroit, an hour east of Ann Arbor, I was at the Renaissance Center. The Brutalist fortress of an office complex downtown, mirrored glass cylinders and concrete bunkers, was the site of a fancy wedding as well as a tattoo festival. The guests at the former were primarily black people, dressed in formal, lavish, impressive outfits. They were clean-cut, dignified, and radiated a sense of the festive occasion. The attendees at the latter were an exclusively white crowd, clad in leather, such as vests and chaps that were studded but skimpy. They were the opposite of clean-cut and dignified, though they were festive in their own fashion.

When I was riding up an elevator with representatives of both proceedings, including black women attired in ball gowns, an emaciated white gentleman lit up a cigarette. The rest of us backed away ever so slightly as he filled the car with smoke, but nobody said a word. 

I thought to myself, if you had shown up from Mars, or, for that matter, China, you would have an interesting snapshot image of America. I could not have made up a better contrast to conventional suspicions.

Not too long after that, I was driving after dark along Woodward Avenue, the major thoroughfare running from downtown to the suburbs, and I stopped at a service station to fill the tank. You cannot be certain on the desolate streets of the Motor City what businesses you will be able to find. (Shortly after moving back home after twenty years away, I was looking to buy a pair of socks, and I was told the store that sold socks was closed. When I inquired when it would open, the reply was, no, it had closed permanently the year before.)

As I stood at the self-serve pump, I noticed that the one other customer was smoking, the cigarette dangling from his mouth. A service station would seem to be an inauspicious place to be doing that. I would have taken it as given that everyone would be informed about the risk of fire associated with vast quantities of gasoline. Enough movies depict the conflagration.

Yet it felt unwise to point out the problem to someone who appeared indifferent to his own potentially imminent death. As I drove away, relieved to distance myself from the potential disaster, I wondered if I had been reluctant to shout out my concern because the fellow was black. He was middle-aged and otherwise non-descript.

I share these accounts to ask what I — what we — should make of them, in isolation or taken together. I have tried to record these vignettes as accurately as possible, without any judgment of any individual save myself. Perhaps these experiences, other than the one that involved an express allegation about race (according to one aggrieved party), have nothing to do with race at all. Or perhaps they reflect and signal attitudes, fears, and impulses, both spoken and unspoken.

Recently a stranger who contacted me for a professional referral addressed me by the wrong name. Although she was “horrified,” since she had confused me with someone else of Asian descent, I assured her I had been called worse.

As kids say, I told her, “No worries.”

When I was growing up in Detroit, my family among the few “Orientals” to be seen, I used to hear often enough, “You all look alike.” The people who said that then were annoyed rather than apologetic. They could not be bothered to tell us apart.

People no longer say that, even as a quip. When I repeat it, “No worries, we all look alike,” listeners hesitate, trying to decide if I am being ironic and if they ought to laugh. (I am acquainted with not one but two Asian American lawyers who could pass, to the ignorant eye, for Judge Lance Ito, the Japanese American who presided over the O.J. Simpson “trial of the century” racial morality play. I am pretty sure they have messed with folks who believe they have sighted a celebrity.)

I have been mistaken in print, for example, for the late Chinese dissident Harry Wu. The two of us, who had not even met, visited an Ivy League school to give speeches, back-to-back. A critic somehow had the idea we were the same person. My hosts were embarrassed.

Yet once when I was teaching, I committed the same error. I was a visiting professor at a school where I was not known to the students, nor they to me. Despite the seating chart in front of me, I called on one of the two Asian American males enrolled in the class, who was not responsive, until he realized, before I did, that he was not the other man, who was absent that day. 

“Of all the people to do that, I didn’t figure it would be you,” he said afterward, not as peeved as he could have been. I was relieved he had a sense of humor, especially since I had been irate over his failure to answer the question. 

So I am persuaded, by my own guilt if nothing else, that too much sensitivity does not serve us well. I m willing to give, and to accept, a pass for the first gaffe. 

It is the pattern that emerges, which matters. There are phenomenon that can be explained only by race, unless they are to be interpreted as meaningless. To take offense at every slight is exhausting; better to be concerned with what represents the start along a spectrum of attitudes that lead to actions, showing escalating hostility. There is a range, a scale, and identifying everything as morally equivalent renders it incoherent. 

There hardly be denial though. Race has been the basis for granting and denying privileges and protections. Social systems have been organized with race as the foundation. Jobs, homes, seats on buses, the right to vote, welfare benefits, entry into the country, physical safety walking down the street, and much else has depended on color of skin. Life outcomes vary by race, from infant mortality rates to health care options. Slavery and war, and slavery that inspired war, have been all about race. These are not trivial matters. They do not spring forth at the extremes.

When people deny that what they have said or done is racist, they are expressing a range of refusals. For them, and those who would accuse them, subtlety is as necessary as it is difficult. 

The putative non-racist might mean that they do not acknowledge that an action or policy is related to race. It has a legitimate basis. They are not reacting to someone who is black. They are shunning someone who is criminal. The problem, for objective observers, is that it is clear they have rendered black as criminal, or they have treated the black criminal as a worse — for blacks, a transgression is a felony; for whites, the same, a misdemeanor.

Or they might be implying that their racial assumption is of no great consequence. It is what lawyers would deem “de minimus.” Only the politically correct, intolerant-of-intolerance type would bother even to remark upon the matter. It is as if to say “So what?” To call Asian Americans as a group “polite” or compliment them on their English, to ask where they are “really” from after they have already declared where they are from or how they like it in this country, it is all in the spirit of casual chit-chat.

The most robust rebuttals contain the claim that the racial generalization is justified, because it is accurate or at least plausible, and the circumstances do not allow for deliberate investigation about each individual and her propensities. Whether it is biology, culture, or merely probabilities, there is nothing wrong with a government program that targets African Americans as criminals or Japanese Americans during World War II as spies, saboteurs, and traitors. The line of reasoning may run from identity to conduct, but inferences are warranted.

The crux of the issue is whether it is possible to be racial without being racist. If all racial references are prohibited, they are all equal in the abstract. The point is that racial bias is not the same as sports team rivalries, innocent pridefulness and mutual heckling.

If we were aware of what was happening around us, and within our own consciousness, we would recognize that race, if not racism, is pervasive and inescapable. We are all implicated in its influence. We are compelled to pay attention to it. But we become anxious, angry, defensive, uncomfortable as soon as race is called out. We exhaust ourselves, as individuals and as a community such as it is. We lack good will and common interest.

That is why I would like to show that we need not have such trouble even talking about race.