Burning Crosses on My Consciousness

“My nigga’”

“You’re such a slut.”

“He’s white trash.”

“What a retard.”

In a key part of Blackboard Jungle—a film that retains much of its power 60 years after its release—the white teacher at a working class, inner city, “technical” high school urges caution to his multi-ethnic class about directing ethnic slurs at one another, even in jest. What begins in good-natured joking among friends can easily escalate, he tells them, into hostility and even violence.

I mention this to explain why my central takeaway from more than 20 years in academia comes down to a single word: context.

From the meta level (for example, a nonsense word in English is thick with meaning in French) to the most intimate (“Fross,” my brothers’ nickname for me, conflated a TV character’s name with the surname of my 7th grade best friend), words draw their significance from the context in which they’re used.

Quite literally, words never speak for themselves. Their meaning depends on the audience’s and the speaker’s relation to one another, and on the cultural situation in which they interact.

In fact, context seems most irrelevant only when it operates most successfully—that is, when writer/speaker and audience share the same contextual assumptions.

So people who claim that their words can’t be oppressive (because they lacked oppressive intent) reveal not only an ignorance about the nature of racism (prejudice plus power), but about the nature of language.

The meaning of language never belongs only to the speaker.

If no audience finds a word meaningful, that word ceases to be language in any socially functional sense.

And again, the meaning an audience draws always involves the immediate and wider context in which the speaker/writer and audience live.

By any objective measure, race exists as a key context in American culture. Even accounting for other social factors, race clearly influences health, income, education, home ownership, mental health, even sleep.

In the context of racism’s fundamental presence in our culture, what can seem to the speaker like innocuous comments can constitute micro-aggressions, racism by a thousand cuts. See this excellent piece by Andrea Plaid for a list of examples of the many forms micro-aggressions can take.

As in so many cases, the cover-up can exacerbate—or even exceed—the original crime. For examples of that, see the comments accompanying the article mentioned above.

It occurred to me this morning to think of each micro-aggression as a kind of mini cross burning on my daily consciousness.

Of course, I realize that the term “cross burning” itself is inflammatory (pun intended; I’m all for bringing at least gallows humor to the discussion), so let me clarify that I don’t mean the 25-foot cross with the folks in white sheets gathered around. Just a small, marshmallow-roasting size cross. Individually they don’t amount to much. But you might be surprised how, over a lifetime as a person of color (or woman, LGBTQ person, disabled person), the accumulation of thousands of these small fires can generate an enormous amount of spiritual and emotional heat.

Because ultimately micro-aggressions function to minimize the full humanity of the person subject to them. Here are some examples of what they, and the denial of micro-aggressions themselves, communicate:

  • I get to decide what’s harmful to you and what’s not.
  • I get to decide what should and shouldn’t offend you.
  • I get to denigrate and dismiss your feelings when you share with me how my words have affected you.
  • I get to question your honesty, your sincerity, your motives, even your sanity just because what you tell me about your feelings makes me uncomfortable.
  • I get the luxury of pretending that hundreds of years of racism and cultural oppression have had no impact on me, that I am immune to their effects.
  • (This is analogous to the drunk driver pulled over by the highway patrol who insists a few drinks haven’t impaired his driving, forgetting that the first thing alcohol affects is his perception and judgment.)
  • I get to dismiss them from history because they don’t harm me, or my children, or my loved ones (unless, of course, you insist on beating that old, dead oppression horse over and over and over again).

I carry that heat around with me more and more each day. You might think that after 54 years it would have diminished, but you would be wrong. And I think about the energy of that heat when I hear criticisms of the aggressive tactics of Black Lives Matters protesters, the inconveniences they cause, the lack of “politeness.”

I think about how those criticisms echo attacks on ACT UP during the worst days of the AIDS epidemic; I recall how the same was said about feminist protests and the migrant farm workers movements of the 60s and 70s, and the antiwar movements. And always the same question: “What are they so angry about?”

The answer is simple: We’re angry about what you can’t see, what you refuse to see. All the little crosses burning in our consciousness. The small crosses you lit and continue lighting. Burning.

White Liberalism and the Myth of the Reliable Narrator

A novel doesn’t belong to the writer; a novel belongs to the narrator, whatever point of view the narration employs (single first person, multiple first person, second person, third person limited, third person omniscient). Those who don’t know the difference between the writer and the narrator are often the same people who hunt through a novel in search of the writer’s “meaning.”

When my writing works best, it isn’t because I’ve landed on a meaning. It works because I’ve found a narrator worth listening to, and I gather together what s/he says. I revise to make the narrator’s utterances into as compelling an experience as I can.

As far as plot, the protagonist is the hero of the novel. But as far as the reader’s experience, the narrator is the hero. We only find Gatsby compelling (if we do) because of what and how Nick tells us about him; we can only want to be the Sherlock Holmes that Watson has presented to us. Every part of the world of a novel that works does so because of what the narrator gives us.

There is no such thing as a reliable narrator. There is only that narrator which a particular reader finds trustworthy.

At best, the narrator is only as reliable to me as her world view (which is one reason that, artistically and experientially, I cannot abide Ayn Rand’s narrators). At worst, the narrator is only as reliable to me as his motivations—conscious or unconscious. Again, this applies no matter the point of view.

Reliability, then, is never intrinsic to the work. It is a trick the narrator attempts to play on the reader. Some narrators play this trick badly. The narrator in Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” is one example; so is the narrator of the novel Flowers for Algernon. Most are much more polished in their attempts. But mainly the reliability of the narrator comes down to a judgment on my part as a reader: To what extent do I choose to trust this narrator? And why?

Fortunately, I don’t have to trust the narrator to be engaged by the novel or story. In Poe’s story, I begin to suspect early on that this narrator is unhinged; in Flowers for Algernon, I know that Charley’s limited intellect keeps him from fully understanding the world around him.

I was put in mind of this while considering our country’s current racial strife. The tensions often pivot on the differences between reliability and trust in the judgments we make. It appears to me that many whites—including many white liberals—conflate the terms: They “put their trust” in those they consider “reliable.” These are often those in authority, those who establish and maintain order.

But for many blacks, it can be the very “reliability” of authority figures that renders them untrustworthy. Because that reliability, that consistency, has produced unjust outcomes. Reliable standardized test scores consistently tell us that black intellectual achievement trails that of whites. But those results only hold if I trust certain definitions of learning and certain ways of measuring it, if I trust that the whole range of intellectual ability is being considered, if I trust that the factors that might limit black students’ expression of their ability are being addressed, if I trust that schools are appropriately structured, if I trust that the system is not founded on inequality.

Similarly, my trust in market capitalism, the criminal justice system, the chance for economic mobility, presentations of American history, the government, and various political candidates determines my sense of how reliable they are. Not the other way around. Thus I may find my local police more or less generally reliable, but trust the word of an individual citizen or even a criminal over that of a police officer.

Many whites still believe that we should assume trust in people and structures they consider inherently reliable. But like many blacks, I have come to realize that reliability can be manufactured through the same narrative manipulation that we find in novels and other works of art. We can be induced to find consistency and equity where none exists.

But for us, no more. From now on, my trust will have to be earned.