Reprinted with permission by TRANSITION, Issue #58.
Copyright(c) All rights reserved.
It was the new graduate student reception for my class, the first social event
of my first semester in the best graduate department in my field in the
country. I was full of myself, as we all were, full of pride at having made
the final cut, full of arrogance at our newly recorded membership among the
privileged few, the intellectual elite-this country's real aristocracy, my
parents told me-full of confidence in our intellectual ability to prevail, to
fashion original and powerful views about some topic we represented to
ourselves only vaguely. I was a bit late and noticed that many turned to look
at--no, scrutinize--me as I entered the room. I congratulated myself on having
selected for wear my black velvet, bellbottom pants suit (yes, it was that long
ago) with the cream silk blouse and crimson vest. One of the secretaries who'd
earlier helped me find an apartment came forward to greet me and proceeded to
introduce me to various members of the faculty, eminent and honorable faculty,
with names I knew from books I'd studied intensely and heard discussed with awe
and reverence by my undergraduate
teachers. To be in the presence of these men and attach faces to names was
delirium enough. But actually to enter into casual social conversation with
them took every bit of poise I had. As often happens in such situations, I
went on automatic pilot. I don't remember what I said; I suppose I managed not
to make a fool of myself. The most famous and highly respected member of the
faculty observed me for awhile from a distance and then came forward. Without
introduction preamble he said to me with a triumphant smirk, "Miss Piper,
you're about as black as I am."
One of the benefits of automatic pilot in social situations is that insults
take longer to make themselves felt. The meaning of the words simply don't
register right away, particularly if the person who utters them is smiling. You
reflexively respond to the social context and the smile rather than to the
words. And so I automatically returned the smile and said something like,
"Really? I hadn't known that about you"--something that sounded both innocent
and impertinent, even though that was
not what I felt. What I felt was numb, and then shocked and terrified,
disoriented, as though I'd been awakened from a sweet dream of unconditional
support and approval and plunged into a nightmare of jeering contempt. Later
those feelings turned into wrenching grief and anger that one of my
intellectual heroes had sullied himself in my presence and destroyed my
illusion that these privileged surroundings were benevolent and safe; then
guilt and remorse at having provided him the occasion for doing so.
Finally, there was the groundless shame of the inadvertent impostor, exposed to
public ridicule or accusation. For this kind of shame, you don't actually need
to have done anything wrong. All you need to do is care about others' image of
you, and fail in your actions to reinforce their positive image of themselves.
Their ridicule and accusations then function to both disown and degrade you
from their status, to mark you not as having done wrong but as being wrong.
This turns you into something bogus relative to their criterion of worth, and
false relative to their criterion of authenticity. Once exposed as a fraud of
this kind, you can never regain your legitimacy. For the violated criterion of
legitimacy implicitly presumes an absolute incompatibility between the person
you appeared to be and the person you are now revealed to be; and no fraud
the authority to convince her accusers that they merely imagine an
incompatibility where there is none in fact. The devaluation of status
consequent on such exposure is, then, absolute, and the suspicion of
fraudulence spreads to all areas of interaction.
Mr. S. looked sternly at Mrs. P., and with an important air said, "You a
colored woman? You're no negro. Where did you come from? If you're a negro,
where are your free papers to show it?"...As he went away he looked at Mr. hill
and said, "She's no negro."
--The Rev. H. Mattison, Louisa Picquer, The Octoroon Slave and Concubine: A
Tale of Southern Slave Life
The accusation was one I had heard before, but more typically from other
blacks. My family was one of the very last middle-class, light-skinned black
families left in our Harlem neighborhood after most had fled to the suburbs;
visibly black working-class kids my age yanked my braids and called me
"pale-face," Many of them thought I was white, and treated me accordingly. As
an undergraduate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I accended an urban
University to which I walked daily through a primarily black working-class
neighborhood. Once a black teenage youth called to me, "Hey, white girl! Give
me a quarter!" I was feeling strong that day, so I retorted, "I'm not white and
I don't have a quarter!" He answered skeptically, "You sure look white! You
sure act white!" And I have sometimes met blacks socially who, as a condition
of social acceptance of me, require me to prove my blackness by passing the
Suffering Test: They recount at length their recent experiences of racism and
then wait expectantly, skeptically, for me to match theirs with mine.
Mistaking these situations for a different one in which an exchange of shared
experiences is part of the bonding process.
I instinctively used to comply. But I stopped when I realized that I was in
fact being put through a third degree. I would share some equally nightmarish
experience along similar lines, and would then have it explained to me why that
wasn't really so bad, why it wasn't the same thing at all, or why I was stupid
for allowing it to happen to me. So the aim of these conversations clearly was
not mutual support or commiseration. That came only after I managed to prove
myself by passing the Suffering Test of blackness (if I did), usually by
shouting down or destroying my acquaintance's objections with logic.
The white kids would call me a Clorox coon baby and all kinds of names I don't want to repeat. And the black kids hated me. "Look at her," they'd say. "She
think she white. She think she cute."
--Elaine Perry, Another Present Era
These exchanges are extremely alienating and demoralizing, and make me feel
humiliated to have presumed a sense of connectedness between us. They also
give me insight into the way whites feel when they are made the circumstantial
target of blacks' justified and deep-seated anger. Because the anger is
justified, one instinctively feels guilty. But because the target is
circumstantial and sometimes arbitrary, one's sense of fairness is violated.
One feels both unjustly accused or harassed, and also remorseful and ashamed at
having been the sort of person who could have provokes the accusation.
As is true for blacks' encounters with white racism, there are at least two
directions in which one's reactions can take one here. One can react
defensively and angrily, and distill the encounter into slow-burning fuel for
one's racist stereotypes. Or one can detach oneself emotionally and distance
oneself physically from the aggressors, from this perspective their personal
flaws and failures of vision, insight, and sensitivity loom larger, making it
easier to forgive them for their human imperfections but harder to relate to
them as equals. Neither reaction is fully adequate to the situation, since the
first projects exaggerated fantasies onto the aggressor, while the second
diminishes his responsibility. I have experienced both, toward both blacks and
whites. I believe that the perceptual and cognitive distortions that
characterize any form of racism begin here, in the failure to see any act of
racist aggression as a defensive response to one's own perceived attack on the
aggressor's physical or psychological property, or conception of himself or of
the world. Once you see this, you may feel helpless to be anything other than
who you are, anything or anyone who could resolve the discord. But at least it
restores a sense of balance and mutually flawed humanity to the interaction.
My maternal cousin, who resembles Michelle Pfeiffer, went through adolescence
in the late 1960s and had a terrible time. She tried perming her hair into
Afro; it didn't prevent attacks and ridicule from her black peers for not being
"black enough." She adopted a black working-class dialect that made her almost
unintelligible to her very proper, very middle-class parents, and counted among
her friends young people who criticized high scholastic achievers for "acting
white." That is, she ran the same gantlet I did, but of a more intense variety
and at a much younger age. But she emerged intact, with a sharp and practical
intellect, and endearing attachment to stating difficult truths bluntly, a dry
sense of humor, and little tolerance for those blacks who, she feels, forgo the
hard work of self-improvement and initiative for the imagined benefits of
victim status. Now married to a WASP musician from Iowa, she is one tough
cookie, leavened by the rejection she experienced from those with whom she has
always proudly identified.
In my experience, these rejections almost always occur with blacks of
working-class background who do not have extended personal experience with he
very wide range of variation in skin color, hair texture, and facial features
that in fact has always existed among African-Americans, particularly in the
middle class. Because light-skinned blacks often received some education or
training apprenticeships during slavery, there tend to be more of us in the
middle class now. Until my family moved out of Harlem when I was fourteen, my
social contacts were almost exclusively with upper-middle-class white
schoolmates and working-class black neighborhood playmates, both of whom made
me feel equally alienated from both races. It wasn't until college and after
that I reencountered the middle- and upper-middle-class blacks who were as
comfortable with my appearance as my family had been, and who made me feel as
comfortable and accepted by them as my family had.
So Suffering Test exchanges almost never occur with middle-class blacks, who
are more likely to protest, on the contrary, that "we always knew you were
black!"--as though there were some mysterious and inchoate essence of blackness
that only other blacks have the antennae to detect.
There are niggers who are as white as I am, but the taint of blood is there
and we always exclude it."
"How do you know it is there?" asked Dr. Gresham.
"Oh, there are tricks of blood which always betray them. My eyes are more
practiced than yours. I can always tell them."
--Frances E. W. Harper, Iola Leroy Or Shadows Uplifted
When made by other blacks, these remarks function on some occasions to reassure
me of my acceptance within the black community, and on others to rebuke me for
pretending to indistinguishability from whiteness. But in either case, they
wrongly presuppose, as did my eminent professor's accusation, an essentializing
stereotype into which all blacks must fit. In fact no blacks, and particularly
no African-American blacks, fit any such stereotype.
My eminent professor was one of only two whites I have ever met who questioned
my designated racial identity to my face. The other was a white woman junior
professor, relatively new to the department, who, when I went on the job market at
the end of graduate
school, summoned me to her office and grilled me as to why I identified myself
as black and exactly what fraction of African ancestry I had. The implicit
ac-cusation behind both my professors' remarks was, of course, that I had
fraud-ulently posed as black in order to take advantage of the department's
commit-ment to affirmative action. It's an extraordinary idea, when you think about
it: as though someone would willingly shoulder the stigma of being black in
racist society for the sake of a little extra professional consideration that
guaran-tees nothing but suspicions of foul play and accusations of cheating. But it
demonstrates just how irrationally far the suspicion of fraudulence can extend.
In fact I had always identified myself as black (or "colored" as we said
before 1967). But fully comprehending what it meant to be black took a long time.
My acculturation into the white upper-middle class started with nursery school
when I was four, and was largely uneventful. For my primary and secondary
schooling my parents sent me to a progressive prep school, one of the first
take the goal of integration seriously as more than an ideal. They gave me
lessons, piano lessons, art lessons, tennis lessons. In the 1950s and early
1960s they sent me to integrated summer camps where we sang "We Shall
around the campfire long before it became the theme song of the civil rights
Of course there were occasional, usually veiled incidents, such as the time
preadolescence when the son of a prominent union leader (and my classmate)
asked me to go steady and I began to receive phone calls from his mother,
drunk, telling me how charming she thought it that her son was going out with a
little colored girl. And the time the daughter of a well-known playwright,
also a classmate, brought me home to her family and asked them to guess whether
I was black or white, and shared a good laugh with them when they guessed
wrong. But I was an only child in a family of four adults devoted to creating
for me an environment in which my essential worth and competence never came
into question. I used to think my parents sheltered me in this way because
they believed, idealistically, that my education and achievements would then
protect me from the effects of racism. I now know that they did so to provide
me with an invincible armor of self-worth with which to fight it. It almost
worked. I grew up not quite grasping the fact that my racial identity was a
disadvantage. This lent heat to my emerging political conviction that of
course it shouldn't be a disadvantage, for me or anyone else, and finally
fueled my resolution nor to allow it to be a disadvantage if I had any thing at
all to say about it.
I will live down the prejudice, I will crush it out ... the thoughts of the
ignorant and prejudiced will not concern me. . . . I will show to the world
that a man may spring from a race of slaves, yet far excel many of the boasted
--Charles Waddell Chesnutt Journals
But the truth in my professors' accusations was that I had, in fact, resisted
my parents' suggestion that, just this once, for admission to this most
prestigious of graduate programs, I decline to identify my racial
classification on the graduate admissions application, so that it could be said
with certainty that I'd been admitted on the basis of merit alone. "But that
would be passing," I protested. Although both of my parents had watched many
of their relatives disappear permanently into the white community, passing for
white was unthinkable within the branches of my father's and mother's families
to which I belonged. That would have been a really, authentically shameful
thing to do.
"It seems as if the prejudice pursues us through every avenue of life, and
assigns us the lowest places...And yet I am determined," said Iola , "to win
for myself a place in the fields of labor. I have heard of a place in New
England, and I mean to try for it, even if I only stay a few months ."
"Well, if you will go, say nothing about your color."
"Uncle Robert, I see no necessity for proclaiming that fact on the house-top.
Yet I am resolved that nothing shall tempt me to deny it. The best blood in my
veins is African blood, and I am not ashamed of it."
-Harper, Iola Leroy
And besides, I reasoned to myself, to be admitted under the supposition that I
was white would not be to be admitted on the basis of merit alone. Why
undermine my chances of admission by sacrificing my one competitive advantage
when I already lacked not only the traditionally acceptable race and gender
attributes, but also alumni legacy status, an Ivy League undergraduate
pedigree, the ability to pay full tuition or endow the university, war veteran
status, professional sports potential, and a distinguished family name? I knew
I could ace the program if I could just get my foot in the damn door.
Later, when I experienced the full force of the racism of the academy, one
of my graduate advisors, who had remained a continuing source of support
and advice after I took my first job, consoled me by informing me that the year
I completed the program I had, in fact, tied one other student for the highest
grade point average in my class. He was a private and dignified man of great
in-tegrity and subtle intellect, someone who I had always felt was quietly
for me. It was not until after his death that I began to appreciate what a
compassionate and radical gesture he had made in telling me this. For by this
time, I very much needed to be reminded that neither was I incompetent nor my
work worthless, that I could achieve the potential I felt myself to have. My
choice not to pass for white in order to gain entry to the academy, originally
of naivete, had resulted in more punishment than I would have imagined
It wasn't only the overt sexual and racial harassment, each of which
exacerbated the other, or the gratuitous snipes about my person, my life-style,
or my work. What was even more insulting were the peculiar strategies deployed
to make me feel accepted and understood despite the anomalies of my appearance,
by individuals whose racism was so profound that this would have been an
impossible task: the WASP colleague who attempted to establish rapport with me
by making anti-Semitic jokes about the prevalence of Jews in the neighborhood
of the university; the colleague who first
inquired in detail into my marital status, and then attempted to demonstrate
his understanding of my decision not to have children by speculating that I was
probably concerned that they would turn out darker than I was; the colleague
who consulted me on the analysis of envy and resentment, reasoning that since I
was black I must know all about it; the colleague who, in my first department
faculty meeting, made a speech to his colleagues discussing the research that
proved that a person could be black without looking it.
These incidents and others like them had a peculiar cognitive feel to them, as
though the individuals involved felt driven to make special efforts to situate
me in their conceptual mapping of the world, not only by naming or indicating
the niche in which they felt I belonged, but by seeking my verbal confirmation
of it. I have learned to detect advance warnings that these incidents are
imminent. The person looks at me with a fixed stare, her tension level visibly
rising. Like a thermostat, when the tension reaches a certain level, the
mechanism switches on: out comes some comment or action, often of an offensive
personal nature, that attempts to locate me within the rigid confines of her
stereotype of black people. I have not experienced this phenomenon outside the
academic context. Perhaps it's a degenerate form of hypothesis testing, an
unfortunate side effect of the quest for knowledge.
She walked away...The man followed her and tapped her shoulder.
"Listen, I'd really like to get to know you," he said, smiling. He paused, as
if expecting thanks from her. She didn't say anything. Flustered, he said, "A
friend of mine says you're black. I told him I had to get a close-up look and
see for myself."
--Perry, Another Present Era
The irony was that I could have taken an easier entry into this privileged world. In fact, on my graduate admissions application I could have claimed alumni legacy status and the distinguished family name of my paternal great uncle, who not only had attended that university and sent his sons there, but had endowed one of its buildings and was commemorated with an auditorium in his name. I did not because he belonged to a branch of the family from which we had been estranged for decades, even before my grandfather--his brother--divorced my grandmother, moved to another part of the country, and started another family. My father wanted nothing more to do with my grandfather or any of his relatives. He rejected his inheritance and never discussed them while he was alive. For me to have invoked his uncle's name in order to gain a professional advantage would have been out of the question. But it would have nullified my eminent professor's need to tell me who and what he thought I was.
Recently I saw my great uncle's portrait on and airmail stamp honoring him as a captain of industry. he looked so much like family photos of my grandfather and father that I went out and bought two sheets worth of these stamps. He had my father's and grandfather's aquiline nose and their determined set of the chin. Looking at his face made me want to recover my father's estranged family, particularly my grandfather, for my own.
[TO BE CONTINUED...]