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.

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.

Oprah Winfrey, the popular talk show host, was once denied access to a boutique on Madison Avenue. Debbie Allen, the actress, director, and choreographer, was refused service at a boutique on Rodeo Drive because the saleswoman thought Ms. Allen could not afford to purchase merchandise in the store. Ms. Allen bought the item to prove a point, only to return it the next day after she realized the offending salesclerk received a substantial commission from the purchase.

Celeste Goring-Johnson, a forty-two-year-old mother of three, from Brooklyn, wasn't given the chance to show indignation like Ms. Allen's. In September 1999, Mrs. Goring-Johnson, who is black, was arrested, taken away in handcuffs, and strip-searched because a Brooklyn jewelry store owner suspected she had stolen a diamond ring.

Mrs. Johnson denied taking the ring. As it turned out the only evidence against her was that she was the only customer near the counter when the jewelry store owner noticed the ring was missing.

After Mrs. Johnson was released from custody, she contacted a lawyer and submitted to a lie detector test, which she passed. The district attorney's office did not prosecute the case.

"Blacks are seen as shoplifters, as unclean, as disreputable poor," Dr. Feagin said to me when I was researching a story on the bias blacks experience in public places. "No matter how affluent and influential, a black person cannot escape the stigma of being black even while relaxing or shopping…"

I've always been ambivalent about my nationality. When I was young I loved being an American. I was as American as Mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet. In school we pledged allegiance to the flag, staged plays on the American Revolution, with little black girls playing the role of Betsy Ross and little black boys reciting the ride of Paul Revere. I believed in democracy, saw communism as a threat to the world, and thought Africa was synonymous with the jungle.

Then black power got hold of me. I danced on the flag and grew to despise the hypocrisy of a nation that preached freedom and justice for all while oppressing a segment of its population. A nation that wanted to dictate policy to communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and Cuba but refused to right its own wrongs. Black soldiers fought and died in wars in Germany, Japan, and Vietnam, only to return home to be called niggers. Forget integration; I believed in a separate black state.

When did I change back? When did I begin to hear myself say how disappointed I was that children today do not know the pledge of allegiance? When did I begin to routinely refer to myself as a black American?

Was it 1978, when I and two friends went to Paris and heard Parisians instinctively refer to us as Americans. Not black. Not Negroes. Americans. Or was it in 1983 while visiting London, where British citizens remarked on my American accent.

"Are you from the States?" a London cabbie asked me upon my arrival at Heathrow. "You speak English with an American accent."

But it wasn't in Europe that I found my Americanness. I found it in Africa, of all places.

I went to Nairobi, Kenya, in 1987, to visit a friend, Sheila Rule, who was working there as bureau chief for the New York Times. In the two weeks traveling throughout Kenya and Harare, Zimbabwe, with Sheila, who is black, I was constantly reminded of my nationality.

Two African men who spotted Sheila and me at an airport in Kisumu, Kenya, said that beyond our speaking English with an American accent, they could tell we weren't African because of the way we carried ourselves.

"You're very demonstrative," one of the men said. "You tend to gesture with your hands, you walk with your heads held high. Most African women don't act that way. Even the way you dress. It's very Western. And we can tell that your American accent isn't fake."

An African man in Harare noticed that when Sheila and I walked into a restaurant with a white male friend, we immediately asked to be seated at a table near the window. "Americans have this sense of entitlement," he explained to us. "That's how I knew you were American."

Africa may be the mother land, but America is my homeland. I realized it then. And I embraced it. I embraced its uniqueness and its freedom. In spite of its faults, it is my home and my native land.

Copyright © 2000 by Lena Williams, published by Harcourt, Inc. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce this information, go to our Permissions and Copyright Requests page at http://www.harcourtbooks.com/pol-copyright.html.