Excerpt: Lena Williams

My brother-in-law and I are not alone in our perception. When I shared the incident with black friends of various ages, classes, and regions, they immediately understood. Kenneth Noble, a friend and Times colleague, is the person who originally advised me to lead with the "hair thing" in my story.

"Because it's something I think whites would never dream blacks find offensive," Kenneth explained by telephone from his Los Angeles home.

As a woman, I may have read more into the woman's gesture than my brother-in-law had. It wasn't just about hair. There's a history of suspicion, distrust, and, to a degree, envy between black and white women.

White women have been placed on pedestals well beyond black women's reach. White women have been portrayed as delicate damsels in distress, awaiting rescue from princes. Black women were mammies and sapphires — nappy haired, big-footed, strong willed, razor toting, heads of households, unable to please their black men?

The Invisible Black Man or Woman

A black person has been standing in line in, say, a restaurant — or in a movie theater or at a department store's cosmetic counter. A white person arrives and cuts the line with not so much as an "excuse me," completely ignoring the black person and asking the maître d'hôtel how long the wait will be for a table — then responds to the black's objections by "innocently" saying something like, "Oh, were you waiting for a table?" Worse, is when they say, "Oh, I didn't see you standing there!"

Whites might view these incidents simply as people behaving badly. But many blacks see them as the typical actions and attitudes of a people that still believe, as the Supreme Court declared in its 1857 Dred Scott ruling, "blacks were so inferior they had no rights that a white man was bound to respect."

It may be history, the past, and a different time and place to whites, but for many blacks — some too young to remember and others too old to forget — changes are slow to develop.

"Blacks tend to see history as currently relevant and echoing in the present," said David Shipler, a former Times colleague, friend, and author of A Country of Strangers. Mr. Shipler, who is white, said, "Whites tend to see history as the past and therefore irrelevant and not governing the present at all. That is one of the major fissures between blacks and whites, and it results in lots of misunderstandings…"

Can You Afford to Buy This?

Just once, I'd love to go shopping dressed down.

I never do it. Can't afford to. For me, and millions of other blacks, going shopping in the white world requires a certain pedigree. We must be dressed properly — preferably in business attire — and our wallets filled with money or credit cards, lest we be mistaken for a shoplifter.

Even looking our best doesn't necessarily mean that we will not be slighted, falsely accused, or followed around the store like a common thief. No matter how affluent and influential a black person may be, we cannot escape the stigma of being black, especially when shopping.

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