Excerpt: Lena Williams

The following is an excerpt from the book It's the Little Things: The Everyday Interactions That Get Under the Skin of Blacks and Whites by Lena Williams. Williams, a reporter for The New York Times, speaks from experience about a range of annoying to dangerous incidences that are caused by the lack of understanding between the races.

Buy your copy of Lena Williams' book here.

Excerpt: Little Things in Public Places

I OFTEN say perception is reality, then have to spend the next few minutes explaining what I mean.

I usually do so by citing an example of extremes.

"If a police officer tells you to freeze and you reach inside your coat jacket, that cop just might shoot you. Now, you may have simply been reaching for your wallet or identification, but the cop doesn't know that. That cop might think you're reaching for a gun, and at that moment, his, or her, perception is the reality."

When it comes to race matters, perception is reality. Racial misunderstanding is mutual.

An innocent gesture can be misconstrued as a calculated insult. An entire race can be maligned or stereotyped by the inconsiderate actions of one. We form impressions and judge one another based on brief encounters or on what we believe, or are lead to believe, we know about the other group. Is the white jewelry-store owner justified in refusing admission to a black youth, because he believes the young man may not be there to buy from him but to rob him? Are blacks being racially insensitive or just plain rude when they verbally lash out at whites who patronize black establishments? Does institutional racism prevent blacks from enjoying the rights and privileges routinely taken for granted by whites?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but the anecdotes provided in this chapter may give you some insight into just how much our perceptions and realities differ when it comes to the little racial things in life.

The Hair Thing

The chic woman threw back her head and ran her fingers through her long flaxen hair on a crowded elevator in Macy's department store.

"I hate it when they do that," my brother-in-law whispered. I nodded in agreement.

"If she does it again," he said, "I'm going to tell her about it!"

He sounded agitated and I gently patted his hand. The woman, still fingering her golden locks, got off on the next floor.

Later I couldn't help but wonder why such an inconsequential gesture had provoked such a strong response in both of us.

My brother-in-law, Francis Grinage, a soft-spoken, reserved black man of sixty-two, has seen the best and worst life has to offer. Unlike me, a forty-something recovering black nationalist, he has been a staunch integrationist.

Yet here we were, philosophical and political opposites, poised for a new millennium, feeling a shared sense of racial indignation over a white woman shaking her hair. What may have seemed to be a petty annoyance aroused long-simmering racial slights.

We knew the woman meant no harm. She was doing what came naturally. But as blacks we understood instinctively the role hair texture has played in perceptions of beauty and privilege in America. All our lives we've been bombarded with images of white movie stars, models, and other beauty icons with long flowing hair, which has been beyond our reach. For that moment, we both saw a white woman flaunting a symbol of preference.

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