Wednesday, December 23, 2015

"You're telling me what my own experience was?"

Ifemelu is a Nigerian living in the United States.  For a while she'd had an affair with a very attractive  and wealthy blond man.  She now has a black American boyfriend, Blaine.
"Some years later, at a dinner party in Manhattan, a day after Barack Obama became the Democratic Party's candidate for President of the United States, surrounded by guests, all fervent Obama supporters who were dewy-eyed with wine and victory, a balding white man said, "Obama will end racism in this country," and a large-hipped, stylish poet from Haiti agreed, nodding, her Afro bigger than Ifemelu's, and said she had dated a white man for three years in California and race was never an issue for them.
"That's a lie," Ifemelu said to her.
"What?" the woman asked as though she could not have heard properly.
"It's a lie,"  Ifemelu repeated.
The woman's eyes bulged.  "You're telling me what my own experience was?"
Even though Ifemelu by then understood that people like the woman said what they said to keep others comfortable, and to show they appreciated How Far We Have Come, even though she was by then happily ensconced in a circle of Blaine's friends, one of whom was the woman's new boyfriend, and even though she should have left it alone, she did not.  She could not.  The words had, once again, overtaken her, they overpowered her throat, and tumbled out.
"The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not.  We all wish it was not.  But it's a lie.  I came from a country where race was not an issue .  I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.  When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn't matter when you're alone together because it's just you and your love.  But the minute you step outside, race matters.  But we don't talk about it.  We don't even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we're worried they will say we're overreacting or we're being too sensitive.  And we don't want them to say, Look how far we've come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we're thinking when they say that?  We're thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway?  But we don't say any of this stuff.  We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this we say that race doesn't matter because that's what we're supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable.  It's true.  I speak from experience."
. . . The poet shook her head and said to the host, "I'd love to take some of that wonderful dip home if you have any left," and looked at the others as though she could not believe they were actually listening to Ifemelu.  But they were, all of them hushed, their eyes on Ifemelu as though she was about to give up a salacious secret that would both titillate and implicate them. 

Ifemelu then offers the reader examples of incidents where her white boy friend didn't see the racism as well as some where he did.  When she went to get her eyebrows waxed and the Asian hairdresser said they didn't do 'curly.' He got that.
"When they walked into a restaurant with linen-covered tables, and the host looked at them and asked Curt, "Table for one?" Curt hastily told her the host did not meant it "like that."  And she wanted to ask him, "How else could she have meant it?"  When the strawberry haired owner of the bed-and-breakfast in Montreal refused to acknowledge her as they checked in, a steadfast refusal, smiling and looking only at Curt, she wanted to tell Curt how slighted she felt, worse because she was unsure whether the woman disliked black people or liked Curt.  But she did not, because he would tell her she was overreacting or tired or both. . ."
I'm back to reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah again, after putting it down to read 
book club books.  Adichie's depiction of race issues is amazing.  She beautifully articulates the way people deny that race matters, and the frustration victims feel over and over again, and how those feelings are aggravated by white partners who tell them they're being overly sensitive.

I find the line 
The woman's eyes bulged.  "You're telling me what my own experience was?"
particularly provocative here, because that's what people of color ask when whites deny their accounts of racism.  Here the poet uses it when Ifemelu denies the poet's claim that race was never an issue with her white boyfriend.  Lots to think about.

[Sorry for those seeing this reposted - Feedburner problems again.] [Again, the reposting resulted in immediate pick up by other blogrolls, while the original post had not been picked up for over 12 hours.]

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.