Saturday, January 22, 2011

Racist Like Me

I just received word that my memoir "Racist Like Me," accepted roughly a year ago by the print journal Smash Cake Magazine, will be appearing in the journal's inaugural (March 2011) issue. It's been a long time coming, but I think it'll be worth the wait!

If you're interested in preordering the issue, here's the link. Word has it that this will be a double issue, with lots and lots of cool stuff, and at $8 it's a steal.

And for those who can't wait to read the essay, here's a preview:

Racist Like Me

by J. David Bell

Years ago, when my wife and I had just settled into our first house and our now pre-teen daughter was little more than a month old, I got held up by a black guy. I’d walked over to our former apartment to check the mail, which didn’t seem to be arriving at our new home. It was nighttime, and snowing, probably a stupid time to take a stroll. The guy was ahead of me, and when he doubled back alarms should have gone off but didn’t. He was far away, I couldn’t see him distinctly, my mind was on other things, fatherhood and home ownership and missing messages and the start of the spring semester, a week off. It wasn’t until the gun was in my face that I realized anything peculiar was going on.

The mugger didn’t get anything from me--I wasn’t even wearing a watch--but he did make me lie face down in the snow while he frisked me. “I swear to you,” I kept saying to him. At one point I foolishly reached for my pocket to prove I had nothing; I’m lucky, I guess, he didn’t shoot me then. When he left I stayed down a good five minutes, the tips of my fingers wet in the snow, my body not registering the chill. Walking back unnaturally fast, feeling as if my feet weren’t touching the ground, I managed to stay calm, only my breathing a bit off tempo. But when my wife met me at the door with our bundled daughter and asked what had taken so long, my voice choked and I started to cry.

The cop who came wanted a description. I couldn’t give him one. “You were looking at the gun, right?” he said. That was true--it seemed to blot out everything, even the hand holding it--but that wasn’t the real reason. I’d seen the man’s face. But once he pulled the gun it disappeared, never to return. In a perverse parody of racial profiling, I robbed the robber of a face when, having fulfilled the stereotype of AAA (Armed African-American), he no longer needed one.

As a professor whose work centers on the representation of race in American literature and culture, I wish I could say this incident is what corrupted me, turned me from an angel into the sort of bigot my teaching and scholarship have sought to expose. It would be truer, however, to see my teaching and scholarship as acts of expiation, or even exorcism, for the racism I’ve long recognized to be my own. I’ve feared black men most of my life, an unreasoning, visceral fear manifested by the clench in my chest when one (except, oddly, this one) nears me at night. But there are other symptoms, less obvious, masked as bravado or disdain: safely ensconced in my own vehicle, I scoff when one pulls up beside me, the bass thump of some rap anthem rattling his SUV. Or when another peels around me, I think not “reckless driver” but “black guy,” “ghetto,” or even “gang-banger.” When a dark, dour face flashes on the eleven o’clock news, as it always does, associated with some drive-by or rape or other crime against humanity, all my reading and knowledge of economic inequality and judicial bias and selective reporting go out the window and I see what they want me to see: a black beast loose in my neighborhood. When a black teenager from the school where my wife works showed up on the news one night, accused of butchering a baby in a hail of indiscriminate bullets, I didn’t mourn, as she did, the waste of two young lives. I thought, “there goes another one.” I was almost glad, in the sick way racists are, to see my prejudices confirmed.

The story we tell about racism in this country has two threads, one individual and the other social. The individual says that racism comes from education: you learn it, you can unlearn it too. The social says that, thanks to the integration of our schools two generations ago, the nation as a whole is gradually outgrowing racism, or never learning it to begin with. But my own experience suggests that neither of these stories is accurate--or at least, that the latter offers no real answer to the former. A child of enlightened parents and integrated schools, I received no proper training in racism. On the contrary, I received lesson upon lesson dedicated to withering it in the bud. Yet a lifetime of such schooling has proved inadequate to touch attitudes far more basic, beliefs bred in some abyss I can’t quite identify. At most, my formal education has enabled me to intellectualize my racism, to name it for what it is, to recognize its voice when it croons to me like a demon lover. To own it--in part by distancing myself from it--but not to root it out or will it away.

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