Underprivileged Blacks, Patronizing Whites
Man you are a black. We (whites) are gift for you.
I’ve received a surplus of racially charged Grindr messages in my time, but that one, from Horny in Budapest after I dared to object to his “black c**k” come-on, might be the most egregious of them all. Although there wasn’t an N-word in sight, it took me right back to the days of slavery.
According to prominent American historians, some Southerners back then actually believed blacks benefitted from the institution because whites introduced them to Christianity. By forcing slaves to perform back-breaking labor under the most extreme duress, the masters saved the servants’ souls.
Some whites have apparently inherited those messianic delusions of grandeur. The savior complex lives on in Hollywood. It lives on in literary classics like Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird
It lives on in the martyrdom of Abraham Lincoln. (The likes of Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, and black Civil War soldiers are but extras, if they show up at all, in the version of How the Slaves Were Freed that’s taught in U.S. schools.) It lives on in the horniness of gay white men who think they’re rescuing gay black men from lifetimes of rejection.
They expect gratitude, not attitude, when they benevolently bestow upon us the gift of appreciation: “Big black c**k” isn’t objectification. It’s a “compliment.” You’re welcome.
Is that a form of black privilege, being fortunate enough to grab the attention of whites who secretly think they’re superior to us and that our value is limited to our physical endowment?
Girl from the Gutter
Should we all aspire toward the exalted status of Delicia, the black heroine who exists only as seen through the eyes of the white narrator in David Sedaris’s “A Friend in the Ghetto”? For those who aren’t familiar with the gay writer’s work, “Ghetto” is the most-intriguing and most-maddening chapter in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, his 2013 collection of essays.
When he’s in tip-top form, Sedaris brings out the wide-eyed fanboy in me. His musings encompass personal recollections and character sketches with a blend of vinegar and salty wit, an enticing spiciness I strive to bring to my own writing. But I must admit, I was underwhelmed by Owls when I first read it in late 2013 — that is, until Delicia showed up five chapters in.
I’m not sure if Sedaris was being ironic or bravely, brutally honest with “Ghetto,” but it nailed the white side of a racial dynamic that I’ve experienced from the black side only. It’s the one in which with-it white “liberals,” typically driven by a combination of guilt, pity, and curiosity, pursue some kind of connection (charity, friendship, sex) with the black folks several rungs beneath them on the social ladder.
If you’re black, you probably know the white people I’m talking about: They’re the ones who say things like “You’re blessed to be black” while exhaling deeply because, thank God, they’re not.
We’ve seen this dynamic in action on TV for years, from the way Maude Findlay regarded her housekeeper Florida Evans on the ’70s sitcom Maude to the black-centric and cluelessly racist comments of Ms. Morello, the title character’s chocolate-queen high-school teacher on Everybody Hates Chris. It’s tolerance, not acceptance, and it’s doused in stereotypes and underscored with subtle shades to broad strokes of racism.
I experience it from the black side whenever non-blacks ask if I’m a basketball player, which they’ve done pretty much everywhere, from Argentina to Palestine to Sarajevo. I’m tall and black and can obviously afford to get out of my home country. What else would I be?
I suppose I could be a rapper, but that assumption would be too blatantly racist. God bless the child who’s got his own, and the non-black non-American who offers the crazy notion that I’m a student (Do I really look that young?… Thank you!) — or bothers to ask what I do before guessing some crusty racially charged generalization, a courtesy I imagine non-black non-Americans typically extend to all non-black tourists.
In “A Friend in the Ghetto,” the first object of the narrator’s guilt/pity/curiosity is a telephone salesman selling camera phones (“The man spoke with an accent, and though I couldn’t exactly place it, I knew that he was poor. His voice had snakes in it. And dysentery, and mangoes”) and then a black girl who went to his school during the first year of desegregation.
He created a friendship, then a courtship, that was entirely in his mind. He calls her Delicia, though it’s pretty clear this wasn’t her actual name. The recollection is set in the early ’70s, and since black-to-Africa names were not yet in vogue, Delicia must have seemed adequately “Negro,” a word he taught his Greek immigrant grandmother, after gently admonishing her for using “blackie.”
Some of the more, um, colorful observations about Delicia:
…though my family was just middle-class, I felt certain we were wealthy when compared to hers.
I decided for a start that she was virtuous and eager to change, that our association was, in some substantial way, improving her.
I laid my hand over hers on the desktop and then looked down at it, thinking what a great poster this would make. “Togetherness,” it might read. I’d expected electricity to pass mutually between us, but all I really felt was self-conscious, and disappointed that more people weren’t looking on.
At first, I was alarmed by the narrator’s condescension and casual racism toward both the salesman and Delicia. How could one of my favorite writers be so unenlightened?
Sedaris’s work has always had a snark streak, but his description of how Delicia spoke felt more like blaxploitation: She used “stay” in lieu of “live,” as in “I stay with my aunt,” and made “aunt” rhyme with “taunt.”
Earlier in the chapter, though, he’d gone and made an observation that gave me hope for his soul:
We had two significantly overweight black students at our school that year, and I was always surprised when people confused them for each other.
I hoped that voice of reason — the one belonging to a guy who wasn’t too blinded by color stereotypes to see the different shades of black — was Sedaris at his core, cutting through the racist, xenophobic crap to point out one simple, evident truth: Black people are no more interchangeable than white people. His observations about them may have been misinformed and distorted by preconceptions about race and ethnicity, but he could see well enough to see that one group of characteristics does not always fit all.
The Black List
I first read “A Friend in the Ghetto” shortly after going out with a white Midwestern American in Cape Town who had developed a hierarchy of black male African beauty — and ugliness — determined by geography. He went down the list as if he were a dog lover sizing up breeds, or a master comparison shopping for a slave.
Earlier, he had patronizingly referred to the world outside Cape Town city limits as the “real” Africa and even more patronizingly dismissed Cape Town neighborhoods that were too white. I chuckled on the inside at his brand of white enlightenment. Despite his comments about whitewashed neighborhoods, I suspected that he chose Cape Town’s version of Africa because he was actually more comfortable surrounded by the city’s European flavor (i.e., whiteness).
He could always drive by a poor township and create a sort of imaginary “A Friend in the Ghetto”-style communion with the underprivileged black Africans living there. He could even stick around long enough for a photo op with a gaggle of adorable brown children to flaunt his open-mindedness to his Facebook friends before leaving the kids to their squalor.
Deigning to live on the dark continent had apparently made him feel like the best shade of white, a superior one who was qualified to whitesplain black African beauty while side-eyeing me over my soft spot for the kids in Tanzania, home of the continent’s least attractive black men, in his unsolicited opinion. I hadn’t borne witness to such patronizing profiling since binge-watching episodes of Maude on YouTube in Johannesburg a couple of weeks earlier.
Likewise, the narrator of “A Friend in the Ghetto” could feel superior to his white classmates by courting a girl from the gutter, even if it was in his head only. He could slum in his fruitloop daydream and still drive through the south side with the car doors locked and the windows rolled up.
Was Sedaris being ironic, or was he revealing his own racism in “A Friend in the Ghetto”? Was he ridiculing white people who say things like “Some of my best friends are black,” or was he echoing them? Did he think he was a “gift” to his friend in the ghetto who was cursed with blackness?
If Delicia was anything like me, a minimalist at her core, she probably would have preferred cash instead.