“So, what I want to know … is if this is really happening? Right now?”
The questioner is a kind-looking but obviously concerned white woman. We have all just seen Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning “Disgraced,” a searing and sadly relevant treatise on race, religion and identity in America that ends its run at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre today.
This woman is asking a post-performance panel, including me, whether the disturbing bias we’ve just seen onstage is real or fictional. And she’s so earnest and sincere that it breaks my heart to have to tell her that it’s not fake.
This panel was the first of two times that week I had been invited into a predominately or entirely white space to lend an African-American voice to a conversation about racism. The second was a book club at the gorgeous The Club at Ibis, where I was asked to participate in a discussion of popular author Jodi Picoult’s racially-charged “Small Great Things.”
Normally I resist such invitations because I’m not the Official Black Voice. There is no universal black experience, just like there’s no universal white or Latin or Asian experience. Still, how many times have I seethed over discussions about diversity that don’t include any diverse people? We’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t talk to each other.
Carol Lubin, for instance, who invited me to the book club, was so moved by “Small Great Things” that she not only recommended it as her group’s next read, but wanted to add a different perspective to the discussion.
“Unfortunately, my friendships are limited to a mostly white community, and you were the black person I most wanted to know and hear from,” she wrote me. “I thought that in some small way discussion about the book might accomplish some new insight.”
So I said yes.
If you believe that racism does not exist, or is just a guilt-inducing exaggeration to explain away failure, then you’re gonna hate this. Because something is broken here. There is a reason that “Disgraced,” whose main character is a successful Pakistani-American lawyer struggling to reconcile his heritage with the prejudices of others and of even himself, was the most-produced play across the United States last year.
In the first two months of 2017, we’ve had news of worshippers slaughtered at a Montreal mosque, a white supremacist planning an attack against black people “in the style of Dylann Roof,” the apparent attack on a white disabled man by black youths captured live on Facebook and the toppling of Jewish headstones in a cemetery.
We need to talk. And I’m willing to, although, like I said, I haven’t always felt comfortable. Early in my Palm Beach Post career, I told my editor I didn’t want to be the “black reporter,” whose opinions would only be considered if writing about race.
“You should probably reconsider that,” replied my editor, who is a white guy. “It’s not as if no one’s noticed that you’re black. And since they have, and when it makes sense, why not talk about it? They already are.”
He’s right. Throughout my career, I’ve gotten angry emails from people who disagreed with some movie or music review and believed that difference wasn’t just a matter of taste, but because I was an unqualified black woman. One called me an Affirmative Action hire and inquired about “the white man whose job you stole.”
I once got a request from the friend of a friend who asked me to re-watch the Oscar-winning film “Crash” with her because she was uncomfortable with its discussion of race and didn’t know anyone black to talk to about it. I did not want to go, because what if her sole black resource said the wrong thing? But I went, for the same reasons I went to see Carol Lubin and her friends. Because she cared enough to ask about something she didn’t know.
So there I was with 17 women, all white and at least 15 to 20 years older than me, to discuss “Small Great Things.” In her own author’s notes for “Small Great Things,” whose title comes from a Martin Luther King Jr. quote, Picoult writes about a project about race that she’d abandoned years ago because she wasn’t sure it was her story to tell.
But years later, she revisited the topic when she realized that we all have racial prejudices, even if we’ve never burned a cross, hurled an epithet or barred a child from a school house door. She wanted to start a dialogue, not, as she writes, “to tell people of color what their own lives were like (but) to my own community — white people — who can very easily point to a neo-Nazi skinhead and say he’s a racist — but can’t recognize racism in themselves.”
So she wrote this book, about an African-American maternity nurse accused of murder in the death of a newborn whose white supremacist parents barred any black staff from touching him. It’s written in the first-person voices of Ruth, the accused black nurse; Kennedy, her well-meaning white public defender, and Turk, the white supremacist father of the dead baby. Interestingly enough, most of us found Turk the most convincing and moving because, as Lubin explains, “she humanizes this monster.”
I don’t personally need Jodi Picoult to explain to me that racism exists. But for the ladies at this book club, many of whom are Jewish and have their own stories of prejudice, some of these stories were new. In one passage that particularly intrigued the book club, Ruth is shopping with Kennedy, who is annoyed by the clerk who is shadowing them through the aisles until she realizes she’s watching to make sure Ruth’s not shoplifting.
“I had never thought how unfairly blacks could be treated in everyday life,” book club member Rona Sterling explained to me later. “Yes, I was aware of the law enforcement problems that blacks encounter, but I was not aware of the less obvious treatment of being followed around in a store assuming that someone was going to steal because that someone is black.”
Just like the lady at the play, the book club members looked at me, wanting to know if this sounded familiar. Yep! From being presumed to be my own child’s nanny, or being asked by a nosy fellow customer at a deli if I was waiting to ask the hostess for a job application, rather than a menu. I mean, she didn’t even work there. She just decided she needed to know why I was there, because I didn’t seem to belong.
For book club attendee Renee Silver, the discussion reminded her of being “the only Jewish person in the entire school” in Kansas where she was teaching, and being “appalled at the prejudiced misinformed questions that my young students innocently asked me” during a presentation about Hanukkah. Those questions, she knew “were based on the inexcusable venom that came from their parents.”
Like me, Silver found herself representing a diverse group of people to an eager audience, even if it was from an uninformed place. So she “answered all of their questions and reassured them of the goodness and truth that we all shared. I left school that day feeling that at least these children had a real life experience with a Jewish teacher that they liked and admired and hopefully they will hold on to that. “
See, that’s all I was trying to do. We did not solve racism that day. But she did what she set out to, which was to get people talking, “looking at the inequities and looking inward,” as Lubin wrote me later.
That’s all we can do. I’m listening.