Over my many years of discussing the topic of race with college students I’ve noticed the prevalence of certain themes that arise in my conversations with whites.
1. While there are still a few racist people around – (and it’s because they’re older. They can’t really help it. This really freaks me out when I realize that the people in question may very well be younger than I am) – racism is over and was solved by the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream,” and all that.
2. If anything, it’s white people who are victims of racism through affirmative action policies. Students usually bring up the unfairness of “minority scholarships” here.
3. We should strive to be colorblind because talking about race just makes it worse.
When I did my dissertation research among high school students a few years ago I found that the very same attitudes prevailed. What interested me most was that these attitudes existed among white students who held close friendships with students of color. I discovered that in the midst of these friendships there was a great chasm regarding belief about the topic of racism.
Over the past few years this chasm seemed to widen over the shootings of unarmed youth like Trayvon Martin in Florida and Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. I noticed that opinions about these incidents are highly polarized among white and black people, even in places like churches where diverse groups of people share religious beliefs and maintain close friendships.
Although I wrote The R Word before these events took place, my purpose was to explore this phenomenon. The R Word tells the story of Rachel Matrone, an Italian American, suburban teenager who is being raised by her grandparents and police detective uncles. Rachel, like many of the youth I’ve talked to, believes racism is over and is happy she lives in a world where everyone is equal. Rachel’s ideas about race are challenged, however, when she forms friendships with youth of color and begins to see the world from their perspectives. She becomes especially close with an African American boy named Henry. One afternoon around Christmas time, unbeknownst to her family, Rachel takes a ride with Henry in his broken down car, and they are pulled over by a white police officer. While Henry is visibly shaken by the encounter, Rachel soon recognizes the officer as an acquaintance of her uncle and responds to his questions impatiently. After the cop lets them go with a warning, Rachel’s only concern is that her uncle will find out she’s with Henry, while Henry is upset for a totally different reason. Here’s the conversation that follows:
“Do you have any idea what happened back there?”
“You mean the cop? I told you, it’s okay. I don’t care if he tells my uncle. I’m kind of glad, in a way.”
“Your uncle? Your uncle! Who cares about your uncle? You could have gotten me into serious trouble back there!”
Henry hardly ever raised his voice, but he was getting louder with every word. Rachel tried to understand.
“What are you talking about? You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“You just don’t get it, do you? You don’t have to do anything wrong to get in trouble. It’s called DWB—driving while black.”
“You heard me. When a black kid, especially a guy, gets pulled over by a white cop, there’s a certain way to act to avoid trouble. You gotta be respectful, and quiet. You don’t give the cop any excuse to go off on you, and the last thing you want to do is smart-mouth him and try to stare him down. Are you crazy?”
Rachel thought back to the incident at the mall while shopping for Sister Gloria’s wallet. “Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry. I guess I forgot.”
Henry sighed, and Rachel felt some of his anger dissolve. “Rachel, there’re certain rules you can’t forget when you’re with me.”
“But you act like every cop is out to get you.” She thought about her uncles. “They’re not all racist, you know.”
“I know that, and I’m not saying they are. But you never know, and you don’t want to take a chance. Why do you think my family’s always warning me to be careful, especially when
I’m driving in a white area? Did you think they’re afraid I’ll trip and skin my knee?”
“Are you saying your family doesn’t trust white people?” Rachel felt herself getting defensive. “Isn’t that racist, too?”
“Call it whatever you want. There’s reasons. It’s reality.”
The conversation ends there and the two drive on to Henry’s house, where they spend the afternoon decorating his Christmas tree with his family. Rachel remains perplexed about Henry’s reaction, though, and later that day they meet up with some friends for a movie. During a trip to the ladies room (where all the best conversations happen), Rachel looks to her Hispanic friend, Sandra, for advice.
“So how was tree decorating?” Sandra asked over the sounds of flushing, running water and hand dryers.
“It was fun. Getting there was a little tricky, though.”
“What do you mean? Don’t tell me Henry’s car stalled out again.”
“No, it’s just that there was a ton of traffic, and then we got pulled over by a cop on the highway.”
“Oh. That’s scary.”
“I didn’t think it was that scary, but Henry sort of freaked out.”
“Was the cop white?” Sandra had a way of getting right to the heart of the matter, and, for once, Rachel was glad.
“What do you expect?”
“But that’s just it. The cop was a little rude, maybe, but he wasn’t that bad. Henry got all nervous. Then he got mad at me after.”
“It turned out I knew the cop from my uncles. So I argued with him a little—all I said was that we weren’t doing anything wrong. And we weren’t. He wound up letting us go with
“So what’s the problem?”
“It’s just that Henry was convinced this had something to do with race, like he was pulled over because he’s black and not because his car sounds like it might explode any second. I don’t get it. Anybody could have been stopped in that car. And I’ve heard of white kids getting picked on by cops sometimes, too. Maybe this had nothing to do with race.” Rachel was so intent on her words that she didn’t realize how loud she had become. An African-American woman standing in line in front of them glanced back and raised her eyebrows.
Sandra took Rachel’s arm, turning her until they angled the wall. “Maybe it didn’t,” she whispered. “But maybe it did. That’s the thing—if a white kid gets stopped, right or wrong,
he knows it isn’t about race. But Henry can never know that for sure, can he? In his mind, there’s always the possibility that it is.”
“Oh. I never thought of it that way.”
“Of course not. You never had to. Go.” She pointed Rachel toward the open stall in front of them and that was the end of the conversation.
Through this scene I tried to show the dilemma faced by people of color in a variety of situations, whether being stopped by police, applying for a job or an apartment, waiting for a cab, being followed around by store employees, or, for kids, being disciplined at school by a white teacher. Like Henry in my story, they can never really know for sure if race plays a part, and in their minds, there’s always the possibility that it does. So, many white people had trouble understanding the response of anger and hurt from African Americans over the Ferguson incident, while many African Americans did not understand the silence, which they interpreted as lack of empathy, from their white friends and coworkers.
As a white person, I recognize that, like Rachel, my whiteness protects me from the anxiety that comes from never really knowing for sure if I’m being treated according to my actions or if my racial background plays a part. My goal in writing The R Word was to explore these issues through the medium of young adult fiction. Through The R Word I examine how our experiences guide our thinking in matters of race, and I hope that my book can help us think more broadly and more critically about how race continues to affect us all.
*Recent talk given at Spring City Library Local Author Fest