Watching whites struggle to understand their whiteness

April 21, 1997|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

LET ME TELL you about the time I tried to break into this white lady's car.

I drive a dark green minivan that looks just like 800,000 others in your average suburban parking lot. So there I am with my head in a magazine and my key out before me like a blind man's cane, trying to open the door. Of somebody else's vehicle.

The woman inside recoiled in shock, but me, I panicked, sprinting over to my car and pointing to it frantically.

Hoping she'd get the message. Hoping she wouldn't flag down a cop and say, ''That black guy attacked me!''

Hoping Johnnie Cochran does pro bono work (''If the key doesn't fit, you must acquit!'').

I didn't stop hyperventilating until she came out of her car, laughing.

'Just people'

You might, if you are white, take the foregoing as illustration of the fact that black people are ever ready to assume race.

Maybe you'll wonder why we can't take a cue from you and learn to be just, well . . . just people.

Matt Wray thinks you're fooling yourself. Mr. Wray is a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, and last week he helped organize a conference. The subject: defining whiteness.

We will pause here for you to get the Donny Osmond jokes out of your system.

"We have tremendous confusion about what it means to be white because we are never looked at as a race," Wray says. "Whites are the unracial center of a racialized world. We're the norm against which all other humans are measured."

So it was Mr. Wray's intent to examine white as a race.

Not surprisingly, he's been taking incoming rounds. A conservative radio host called conference organizers ''self-hating fools.'' Others accuse him of white-bashing.

I can't tell you whether either charge is true. But I can say this: In my experience, white people don't generally like to think of themselves as white unless prodded to by confrontation or comparison with someone who isn't. Even then, the acknowledgment seldom comes without puzzlement, reluctance or resentment.

Who can blame them? As Mr. Wray observes, ''white'' so often means supremacist fantasies or guilt-ridden apologias. He seeks a new paradigm that embraces neither.

Mr. Wray even had Barry Manilow close the conference with a James Brown classic: ''(Say It Loud) I'm White And I'm Proud.''

A problem unknown to blacks

OK, so I made that last part up. Forgive my facetiousness. It's not that I doubt Mr. Wray's sincerity or the importance of his conference. Indeed, I think he's ahead of his time.

But by the same token, he's . . . how should I put this? Well, let's just say he's not describing a problem familiar to black folks. If there's one thing we do know, it's how to think of ourselves as black.

I remember two years ago, while driving in Maryland, I inadvertently pulled out in front of a white guy in a sports car. There followed much beeping of horns and exchanging of invective. Then the guy said, ''Why don't you go back to -- ''

Freeze-frame right there. Because every molecule of my being suddenly went to battle stations, every synapse in my brain called red alert and the blood pounded like thunder in my temple, pounded so loud I almost didn't hear the last word of the sentence.

Which was, ''Florida.''

Guy had read my license plate. He was attacking my region, not my race.

Different race, different flaw

If blacks tend to think too much about race -- and we do -- perhaps the salient point of Mr. Wray's conference is that whites think too little. And too smugly. I've lost count of the times well-meaning white people have advised me to quit being black and ''just be a person.'' Which is not unlike a sighted man telling a blind one to enjoy the rainbow.

''Just be a person.'' At best it's a luxury exclusive to whites. At worst, it's a lie that begs the question: Can anyone be truly individual in a tribalistic society? Now here comes Mr. Wray suggesting that whites surrender luxuries and lies for hardscrabble truths, and who can be surprised that so many react with anger?

On the other hand, some of us were never asked. Some of us never had a choice.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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