What would it be to be marked by race? Wait, first, what’s the point of the exercise? You could say it’s to empathize, that acts of compassion are good in themselves, but who really gains from these exercises? As with the voyeurism of corporate news, hearing about war and famine all the time can induce apathy by appealing to the emotions, eliciting sympathy that doesn’t translate into action. Or perhaps the exercise is just self-congratulatory, a particularly repugnant form of prejudice because it presumes a moral high ground while luxuriating in idle, though disinterested, examination. But I’d argue that compassion is sympathy in action, and that acting on emotional and moral impulses requires making things personal. So often, though, is the suffering of others made impersonal, is aggregated and turned into statistics, is so historicized that the magnitude of the problem becomes daunting enough to “justify,” on an emotional level, preoccupation with other, more achievable projects. As an antidote to apathy, to callous dismissal of petitions for relief, let’s see if this works.
Say my skin is white in a black America, that even though I don’t have relatives who were slaves, until my grandfather was a grandfather he couldn’t walk into some restaurants. To have my taste in art mocked? Or to be told by other whites that my taste was disgraceful, that it encouraged stereotypes, when all I wanted to do was like what I liked, which wasn’t mainstream. To be asked what it felt like to be white but not have it be the same as the question “what does it feel like to be yourself?” For police officers to question me without cause more than three times in my childhood and for me to feel scared and guilty and angry with them, to want to hurt them for their ignorance and abuse though I know I shouldn’t. What if I decided to beat them at their game? To be an adventurer, a pirate, a robin hood. But maybe I would know that road goes nowhere, only because my parents say it’s bad, only because I’m lucky enough to have a rare obedient disposition as a child. So I go to college having endured high school, having been constantly reminded of my difference by the way girls look at me or don’t, the way the black majority makes jokes about the group I belong to but perhaps insist it is all humor, even if I fit some of the stereotypes.
I don’t really understand how it would feel to be black today in America because the things that could make me something other than neutral and set me in the dominated part of a hierarchy are mostly invisible, like faith. I could argue there are parallels in my size but I’d have to be much shorter or skinnier or fatter to really be marked. Part of the problem with imagining being someone else is entering the state of mind they acquire because of constant accumulated stimuli unique to their status. If I want to say I can understand black oppression because of class oppression, I’d be wrong because I lived in a town with fairly small, close income ranges compared to Dartmouth, so my class awakening is only a year old, if that. Awareness of blackness presumably begins much earlier, when exposure to media heightens the distinction between the white Ideal and the black Real of the self, when after watching twelve of my favorite action movies the main character looked nothing like me. Maybe being black would be kind of like depression, which is more often the result of lack of privacy, a sense of guilt, a host of consistent, small aggravations.
But already, in trying to understand, I’m generalizing, theorizing, not empathizing, turning experience into abstraction to make it easier on me, avoiding the hard questions, the things I don’t know about blackness the not-monolith, which is probably everything. I don’t know what it would be like to be black in America. But more importantly, racial injustice is not to me what might be to a black someone. I can feel indignation or moral outrage at injustice, but I cannot feel racial injustice. I cannot feel something that is not happening to me. The color of that experience is beyond the scope of my vision.
Having led a life free of so many kinds of suffering, having gone uneducated for so many years about the world’s habit of making pain seem normal to good people, (read slavery and Holocaust, the banality of evil, the willingness of people to be misinformed or apathetic) I have decided I need to listen more carefully—to those who testify of their own suffering, to those who testify of others’, to those who have made a study of these stories. I am obligated to look at lives I only thought I understood, to hear the past making the present what it is—history.