The loss of adult conversation:
When did you first become aware of race as an issue in American society?
In real life, the first time I can remember thinking about it was when a neighbor called my mother to say, “Did you know that Fran is in the front yard playing with a little colored boy?” I was really young, about five or six. My mother got into a fight with the neighbor. We lived in a small house. It was summertime. There were screen doors. These things are important because you could always hear the grown-ups talking. This was the 1950s, an era when there was such a thing as adult conversation. An era when there was such a thing as an adult. An era when there was such a thing as conversation. Now children can hear everything, and adults speak like children.
This next part where she addresses “we” and “the public discourse” hits home for me. When the media refer to the “public conversation” and the “national debate,” I wonder who, exactly, is debating? I don’t see it, I don’t hear it. I see a lot of put-downs but that doesn’t constitute debate. (Maybe this has to do with item number one above.) Lebowitz takes this on:
What are we doing wrong?
Well, first of all, by “we” I assume you mean the public, the public approach or the public discourse, which means the discourse that takes place in the media. And for the purposes of this discussion, let us imagine that the media is white and thus approaches the topic of race as if they (the white people) were the answer and them (the black people) were the question.
The customary way for white people to think about the topic of race — and it is only a topic to white people — is to ask, How would it be if I were black? But you can’t separate the “I” from being white. The “I” is so informed by the experience of being white that it is its very creation — it is this “I” in this context that is, in fact, the white man’s burden. People who think of themselves as well intentioned — which is, let’s face it, how people think of themselves — believe that the best, most compassionate, most American way to understand another person is to walk a mile in their shoes. And I think that’s conventionally the way this thing is approached. And that’s why the conversation never gets anywhere and that’s why the answers always come back wrong and the situation stays static — and worse than static.
She helps me understand why people cannot see their privilege. They are too defined by it, their “I” is so informed by their experience.
The playing field:
Well, that’s part of the problem. What’s part of the solution?
The way to approach it, I think, is not to ask, “What would it I be like to be black?” but to seriously consider what it is like to be white. That’s something white people almost never think about. And what it is like to be white is not to say, “We have to level the playing field,” but to acknowledge that not only do white people own the playing field but they have so designated this plot of land as a playing field to begin with. White people are the playing field. The advantage of being white is so extreme, so overwhelming, so immense, that to use the word “advantage” at all is misleading since it implies a kind of parity that simply does not exist.
She says education is a solution, but:
I think it is generally agreed that the great scandal in this country is the state of public education. But far worse [is the] proposal that it be solved by the use of school vouchers — a genuinely diabolical plan and one that, if instituted, would surely result in the end of any sort of democratic society.
All stereotypes are equally virulent:
What do you think are the most virulent stereotypes held by blacks of whites and by whites of black?
All stereotypes held by all people are equally virulent — it’s just that some are more fun than others. People hate the bad ones but love and even cultivate the good ones, despite the fact that they are imprisoning and diminishing to the same extent. Both pride and prejudice should be individually earned because allocating them at a group rate is, in fact, the very definition of racism.
In the end she makes an excellent case for affirmative action.
Here she is in 2012: