Friday, November 30, 2007

The White Spokesperson

When I was in grad school I once told a white friend from Alabama (also a fellow grad student) that there were days when I felt tired just walking into the English Department at our New England University because I knew I'd be the only person of color I'd see the whole day (at the time we were in grad school there was one black Caribbean professor who taught Creative writing and one half-Japanese, half-Jewish professor who taught Literature--there were five students of color, all of whom were either Asian or Asian American, not all of whom were still in coursework and so may have been off-campus someplace finishing their dissertations). I was trying to express to my friend the loneliness and psychic drain of being one of less than eight people of color amidst a department and grad student population numbering over sixty to eighty (give or take the vagaries of MA and MFA acceptances each year).

My Alabama friend grew quite defensive, demanding to know if I had experienced bad treatment due to race, if I had ever been a victim of racist remarks, and, quite frankly, disputing how I could feel in any way, shape, or form uncomfortable, especially since I wasn't black, but Asian and an Asian American woman at that, which means that I was not only not reviled but revered in terms of being from a valued minority group.

You can imagine my anger and frustration and deep level of hurt. This was a close friend--someone I had had numerous conversations with about race--someone who expressed, or seemed to express, a real understanding of race and racial politics, especially black-white relations, especially in the South. We argued, at length, but it was only when another friend, a white male friend, rephrased my words and explained to the Alabama friend my feelings of alienation due to race, that the Alabama friend got it.

And that made me even angrier--that it took my white male friend to reinterpret for my white Alabama friend what I was saying--that only through having a white spokesperson was I understood.

I have been thinking about this lately as I've been immersed in reading books about racial passing--especially because this is something that Black Like Me (by John Howard Griffin) does. Griffin, a white man wanting to understand real race relations between blacks and whites in the South in the late 1950s, took a drug that turned his skin dark, tanned himself, and also added vegetable dye to his skin, and traveled throughout the deep South, passing as a black man. The book charts his growing evolution from being a participant-observer to understanding his own racism as a white liberal. And although the book/Griffin does act in this "spokesman" role, in the epilogue, Griffin is also aware of the role he is playing for other whites about a black experience:

"[I]t was my embarrassing task to sit in on meetings of whites and blacks, to serve one ridiculous but necessary function. I knew, and every black man there knew, that I, as a man now white again, could say the things that neeed saying but would be rejected if black men said them" (190-91).

Unfortunately, this still goes on today--sexism is taken more seriously when men talk about it; racism more seriously when whites discuss it; homophobia when straight people take on queer issues. And don't get me wrong--I think we all need allies--we need to stand up for one another as well as ourselves, or perhaps to see that gaybashing is a form of discrimination that hurts all people and sexism hurts men as much as women, and racism impacts all of us. But it'd also be nice not to need white spokespeople to interpret the very painful experiences of racism that people of color experience.


Tami said...

Very insightful post. This is one aspect of silent racism that is so hard to explain to friends who are not "of color." I imagine, too, for members of the mainstream, it is a bias that is hard to detect in one's self. What is that little subconscious thing that makes the word of a white person hold more weight than that of an Asian, black or Native American person?

Jennifer said...

I really like the phrase you use, "silent racism"--because there is so much that is not obvious about racism--which is why it becomes so invidious and far reaching. Silent racism is why films like Amistad feature white leads in heroic roles--in fact Hollywood is a major offender of the "white spokesperson" syndrome (I should actually devote an entire post to this topic so I'll hold off from holding forth now).

Lets just say that this seems so much part and parcel with white privilege--and perhaps if we can make privilege more transparent, whether it's racial, gender, class, or sexual privilege, then perhaps we can start to speak our own truths rather than relying from someone outside our experience group to voice our reality.