Meaning, it matters, still, whether you identify as African American or as Caucasian. Meaning, it matters if you benefit from white privilege. Meaning it matters how others perceive you, especially depending on where you are, regionally and contextually (ie: are you in the U.S. South or the West Coast? In a cosmopolitan city or a rural township? Are you in a classroom where you are the only one, and is this a course on 20th Century American writers or African American poets?)
I guess I’ve been thinking about this question a lot, lately, because of a novel I’m teaching in one of my classes and because I’ve recently read two articles, one in The New York Times that discusses racial passing, tracing how three families changed their racial identification from black to white over a few generations through a combination of inter-racial marriage and consolidating wealth and status. And the other is in the Chronicle of Higher Education with the provocative title, “Does African American Literature Exist?” Both essays, in their own way, talk about the disappearance of African Americans from the public landscape and discourse– or at least in the latter, that what we think of as African American literature during the Jim Crow era no longer matters since Jim Crow no longer exists in its legalized, institutionalized form (so sayeth the author, not me).
It’s tempting to downplay the legacy of race. To talk about race and racism is wearying. It’s like beating an old drum that many people have tuned out.
By now we should imagine that a month dedicated to black history, African American heritage, and reminding us of the contributions of black Americans to U.S. life and society would not be necessary in the sense that we have moved beyond a stage of needing to highlight the contributions of African Americans because they should be woven within the larger history of the United States.
Yet it’s not. Moreover, I believe that we’re still a pretty racially segregated culture. Perhaps I feel this more because I live in the U.S. South. But I must say that I was impressed with the honesty with which my students came to a writing assignment recently. I asked them to describe the racial climate at Southern University. This was in preparation for talking about the novel Caucasia by Danzy Senna (a wonderful coming-of-age novel and a trenchant novel to talk about issues of race and especially mixed-race identity). My students were pretty honest in their assessment of race relations, meaning that while they noted the diversity here at Southern U, particularly as compared with some of the more homogenous town that they have grown up in, they noted two things. First, that compared to other locations, Southern U is probably not all that diverse. And second, that despite this diversity, people still hang out within self-segregated friendship groups by race–something my students readily admitted that they participated in (albeit it sheepishly). In fact, only one of my students disclosed that s/he had a close friend who was of a different racial background to him/herself (this in-class writing assignment was anonymous, so I don’t have a sense of who this was, at least by gender–since there are only 3 self-identified Asian American students and 3 self-identified African American students, it’s a good guess that this student was white, and also because s/he identified as such).
Nearly all the students lamented the fact that they only had friends of the same race, but none of them really knew what to do about this fact–and a few mentioned that they noticed other races (Asian Americans in the business school, African Americans in the dining hall, Latino students in the dorms) congregating together as well.
Interestingly enough, no one brought up where the mixed-race person fit in–the person who is both black and white. Or black and Asian. I suppose we are still working on hypodescent rules, where the assumption is that you identify with the group you look like the most or that is the furthest away from whiteness.
I was glad that my students felt so free to be honest in their writing about the state of race relations at Southern U. Of course they were also quick to say that they did not notice any racial animosity–that there did not seem to be racial hostility between or among groups, as there may have been once-upon-a-time. But I did wonder about the lack of social mixing, racially speaking. I also wondered if this was a difference in location–because I had grown up, in my high school environment, having close friends who were black and white and Chicano–and when I mean close friends I mean the kind of friends that you have sleepovers with or that you go to prom with or hang out with at parties on the weekend. Not just friends you see in the classroom or chat with because your lockers are next to one another.
A friend recently told me that many white students will say that they have an African American friend but most African American college students don’t claim to have any white friends (or friends of any other racial group). The disparity, a researcher noted, was that the white college students were counting, as friends, black students who sat next to them in the classroom or who lived in the dorm–people they chatted with and were friendly with. But the African American students counted as friendly only people they had significant ties to–whom they socialized with outside of a classroom or dorm environment.
And perhaps the last thing I’ll end with in closing out this post is whether or not it matters. If, as my students said, there is no racial animosity between groups that they can discern, does it matter that students are self-segregating along racial lines? My gut says that it does–but at the same time I am also well aware of the power of having safe spaces and friends that you have absolute comfort with–and in an environment where you are a minority, being able to be with people who understand your experiences is psychically important.