Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Imagine trying to convince a fish, happily finning around in its native element: "You're wet!"

This image, for me, sums up the elemental condition of many white people regarding racism in the United States. And yes, this has to do with my Quaker childhood.

Within the nicely painted walls of bourgeois respectability, we were pretty darn liberal. The neighborhood we lived in in Philadelphia was integrated, if our street wasn't. Before I got to ninth grade, my private school in the city had instituted a "Community Scholars" program whereby academically motivated kids from the neighborhood surrounding the school could become students there. Ever oblivious, I was never sure who the Community Scholars kids actually were, but I did know that one of the CS girls in my graduating class was the closest thing to valedictorian that most Quaker schools have. In my family we were proud to be on the right side. Heck, my school had stayed IN the neighborhood when "the other G-town private school" had deserted the city for the litter-free safety of the suburbs.

The politics, voting record, and wallet policy in my household were "progressive." My parents supported the United Negro College Fund, the ACLU, all that. At the age of maybe 12, I took part in my first demonstration against the Vietnam War, and I developed a vague notion that policemen on the street were sort-of-bad-guys.
All the while, there was racism in my family, but I didn't notice the disconnect. I was a wet fish. Actually, with the razor vision of adolescence, I noted the racist comments made by the older generation. But not my own blindness, white-on-white, as I stared into a mirror that revealed so little contrast by way of reference points that I read it as a picture of the whole world. Racism, by our definition, could not be subtle--if it were, we would have had to redefine ourselves. Even as we unconsciously distanced ourselves from the black 'other'--there was no real socializing across racial lines--we measured ourselves, not by what we actually said and thought, but according to our distance from the racist thugs of lynchings and voter fraud.
I have read Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness, three times, and each time, I might have been wearing frosted glasses. It was only when, as an adult, I read Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe's essay about the book that I realized that I, myself, am an illustration of white blindness. If I were African, or descended from Africans, wouldn't I respond to their portrayal as Achebe did? How could I have missed it? It's very simple: Conrad's Africans are half-animal, dangerous, ripe for manipulation by the evil "Mistah Kurtz." Their love of evil is not rooted in what they do, like Kurtz, whose moral degeneration has led him to "the horror", but in what they ARE. They have no choice, being "dark." Isn't that a definition of racism?

Achebe revealed the contrast in things. Take the bland question that my next door neighbor asked me once: Had I noticed that the local grocery store was becoming "dark" ? If we hadn't grown up in a society tinged with racism at every level, would she have chosen a code word as a stand-in to mean "The population is changing at Acme. I keep seeing more and more black people there, and this is a bad thing"...? Would I have understood her code? Of course, I did understand, but I was too much of a coward to say anything.

Blindness. It's a privilege to be able to ignore this stuff, but it's a privilege that, with the new year, we can choose to revoke.

Achebe's essay on Heart of Darkness


Mary L. Tabor said...

I find this an unusual take on Conrad's Heart of Darkness and thus must reconsider my view. But still I would argue that the book is about the nature of evil in us all--no matter the color of our skin--and about love ultimately in the character Marlow and his dealings with Kurtz's wife. The book questions the nature of humanity. Thus, Coppola's Apocalypse Now uses the allusion to this masterpiece. If we are to imply that Conrad is a racist, then we must discount what has been achieved in this book. I cannot go that far.

hmallon said...

Thanks for posting! I think your comment cuts to the heart of the nature of language. Beliefs are most literally expressed in words, not music or, say, visual art. We can live with the tension inherent in saying "Richard Wagner was a great composer AND a rabid anti-Semite" because we can divorce the anti-Semitic element from the experience of listening to his music. If his librettos declared his racism directly, it would be a different matter.

Conrad was a great writer, no question. I (personally) think H of D is a powerful indictment of imperialism, but his argument in the book is faulty: Watch out, Europe, or you'll turn into an extension of the Dark Continent.

Achebe's essay struck me at a very basic, human, level: If I were black, this would bother me, too. The weird thing is that without Achebe's 'intervention' I would have missed it.

Laura said...

Thanks for this post. You reminded me that each summer our Meeting (London Grove) would host a group of kids from Mantua for a day in the country. A group of black kids would arrive and get matched up with one of us white kids and we would spend the day climbing trees, sharing a picnic, swimming together. My mother told me that some of "them" had never seen a tree or grass before. I remember holding hands with another little girl as we walked along and then looking down to see if my hand was now brown. As a teenager in boarding school I was assigned a black girl from Queens as my roommate. My liberal, open-minded mom asked to have me re-assigned - I was appalled! That roommate and I graduated 30 years ago and have been close as sisters all these years.

hmallon said...

Laura, yours is such a rich story. I wonder, did the little girl whose hand you held wondered if her hand had turned pink? It's great that you and your roommate are so close--more often in the racially pained/confused/charged atmosphere we live in, that kind of connection doesn't happen. I hope your mother learned from your example!

janjoplin said...

This is a great post. It is a privilige to see the privilege. I agree whole-heartedly! Thanks for writing this.

hmallon said...

Meg, Thanks so much. For some reason this whole issue has captured me, and I want to do a lot more writing on the topic. I also feel grateful to have had my eyes opened--I think racism against others hurts us white folks more than we realize.

Healthy and happy New Year to you and your family! We're doing some serious vegging here.