A Guide for the Perplexed

Several years ago, I was the lone African American in a small group of people spending an academic year together. It had all the makings of a great experience, except for one persistent problem: A few in the group were determined to spend at least a portion of their time exploring race relations. Unfortunately, I had been designated their unofficial tour guide, the person in charge of giving them insight into what it is like to be black in America. The problem was that sitting around discussing race with people who knew little on the subject was not what I had had in mind for the year.

Looking back, I suspect the experience was frustrating to all involved. I could not fathom why my associates felt entitled to take up my time with their questions. From their point of view--one I admit I did not consider back then--they were probably equally confounded by my rebuffs. I suspect they found me hostile, just as I found them smug and ill informed. But that's the tricky thing about attempting to communicate across the racial fault lines. We know so little about one another that it's easy to lose everything in the translation. Curiosity can often be seen as arrogant stupidity. Annoyed disinterest can come across as bitter disdain. What we needed that year was a mutual cultural insight that could have helped us find common ground.

It is just that kind of perception that New York Times reporter Lena Williams provides in her book It's the Little Things. With a wit that takes the sting out of sensitive subjects, Williams, who is black, examines issues rarely touched upon in interracial settings in the hopes of helping form a foundation for an improved conversation on race.

"This book is about perception--how blacks and whites perceive not only their own individual experiences but one another's," she writes. "I consider this book a guide to understanding the racial dynamics of everyday life: the self-imposed apartheid in school cafeterias, the polarization in the workplace, the de facto segregation in housing patterns." Before writing the book (which originated in a 1997 article in the Times), Williams traveled across the country talking to friends, family members, and interracial focus groups. What she heard during those discussions, she recounts, left her at once shocked and pleasantly surprised. "Although there were moments of tension when we first sat down, most people left--some staying long after the discussions ended--carrying on personal conversations. There were hugs, handshakes, and in some instances, exchanges of telephone numbers and business cards. I even heard a couple of times: 'I'm sorry, if I ...'"

The result is a book that clarifies a lot of little things--everything from why black people resent the word articulate to how white men feel about the pervasive stereotypes of race, sexuality, and size. Williams helps us understand that whether or not there is a scientific basis for racial differences, in this country race really does play a large role in shaping our perceptions of ourselves, others, and issues and events around us.

Take the case of two co-workers failing to acknowledge each other when walking down the same street. "The white eye treatment" is how the African American involved explained his white co-worker's behavior. In the book, Dr. Ted Manley, a black professor of sociology at DePaul University in Chicago, recalls riding to work on a train with a white colleague, virtually walking side by side to the campus, but never exchanging a word until they reached their destination and Manley opened a door for his co-worker. At that point, the other man said hello to Manley. "He didn't acknowledge me on the train platform, on the train, or the escalator, or walking across campus," Manley said. "I'm carrying a briefcase and all the academic paraphernalia he had, but he didn't acknowledge me." Manley himself didn't initiate a conversation, he explained, because he believes that burden too often falls on black people: "I said to myself, I'm not going to say hi, because too many times I have to be the one to initiate."

For whites, that incident may appear to be nothing more than an isolated act of bad behavior. For African Americans, who have a painful history of being deemed "less than," it can be seen as proof of the slow pace of progress in this country. "Racism, many blacks believe, has rendered us invisible," Williams writes. "We are a people without a name or a country; a people lacking an identity, other than that given us by whites; faceless entities placed on earth to serve the white man." It is that sense of diminishment that is at the heart of African Americans' abhorrence of the word articulate when applied to African Americans, particularly to those of such achievement that it would be astounding if they were anything less than articulate. "I get the articulate thing all the time," Ronald Frazier, a middle-class executive with a master's degree told Williams. "The assumption is blacks can't speak, can't write, and can't think."

While the book purports to be a look at the subject from both the white and the black point of view, Williams mostly concentrates on the black perspective. But the back of the book does give voice to the frustrations and fears that mar everyday interactions for white people. For some it is an annoyance at the way African Americans seem to delight in the notion that white people show their age sooner. Sylvia Lewis, a white woman in her 50s who lives in Queens, New York, and does not disagree with the widely held belief, resents the way African Americans seem to flaunt it. "It's just not nice to go around telling people: 'Oh, you look much older than thirty-this, or forty-this or fifty-this.' And to generalize about all whites like that. Well, it's not right."

Then there is the sensitive subject of sexual stereotypes. While Williams had initially hoped to avoid the question, the frank discussions during the focus groups forced her to address it. As a result, we hear from Kevin, a twenty-something white lawyer who refuses to undress in front of black men in the locker room. "I always resented the assumption. I always felt it was as wrong for black men to say that about us as it was for us to assert that they were these overendowed beasts with tails," he says.

In the end, It's the Little Things is not a big book. It's not the definitive answer to race relations. It will not soothe all tensions. Nor does Williams present it as such: "What I have tried to do in this book is to offer little brain cramps: a tiny little tinge that, perhaps, makes you think before you act, to think less about what is intended but more about what may be felt." She also provides a window inside a reality not easily available to most Americans. At one point, Williams quotes an old army friend of her brother's. "On the one hand, blacks accuse whites of being ignorant about them and the way they live, but when we make an attempt to find out more, they shut us out or snap at us for the least mistake; we're afraid to go there," he says. The sentiment was one I'd heard before. Williams provides the very tool I wish I had a few years ago--a primer that can help everyone get up to speed. With something like this book as a foundation, perhaps I could have been part of a conversation on race that would have satisfied my colleagues without sapping my patience. ยค