Friday, December 27, 2013

Underprivileged Blacks, Patronizing Whites and the Ghetto According to David Sedaris

At the moment, I'm reading Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris's latest collection of essays, which came out in April of 2013 and promptly debuted atop The New York Times' Best Sellers list. Although I usually savor and swoon over Sedaris's musings, which encompass personal recollections and social commentary with a blend of vinegar and wit that I've long aspired to conjure in my own writing, I must admit I was feeling a little bit underwhelmed by Owls until five chapters in, when I came across one called "A Friend in the Ghetto."

I’m not sure if Sedaris was being ironic or bravely honest when he wrote it, but "Ghetto" nailed the white side of a social dynamic that I've only experienced from the black side. It's the one in which with-it white 'liberals," typically driven by a combination of guilt, curiosity and pity, pursue some kind of connection (charity, friendship, sex) with the black folks several rungs below them on the social ladder. If you're black, you probably know the white people I'm talking about: They're the ones who say things like "You're blessed to be black" while exhaling deeply because thank God, they're not.

We've seen this dynamic in action on TV for years, from the way Maude Findlay regarded her housekeeper Florida Evans on the '70s sitcom Maude to the black-centric and cluelessly racist comments of Ms. Morello, the title character’s chocolate-queen high-school teacher on Everybody Hates Chris. It's tolerance, not acceptance, and it's doused in stereotypes and underscored with subtle shades to broad strokes of racism.

I experience it from the black side every time someone wants to know if I'm a basketball player (as I've been asked pretty much everywhere from Argentina to Palestine because what else would a black man who can afford to travel do for a living?), or when a white guy approaches me because he only dates black guys or because he heard that once you go black you can't go back. In this particular context, I've ceased being a person. I'm simply the color of my skin, or the size of my manhood. Been there, heard that -- so many times, yet I'm still not immune to feeling slighted by it.

In Sedaris's narrative essay, the object of his guilt/curiosity/pity was, first, a telephone salesman selling camera phones ("The man spoke with an accent, and though I couldn't exactly place it, I knew that he was poor. His voice had snakes in it. And dysentery, and mangoes") and then a black girl who went to his school during the first year of desegregation. He created a friendship, then a courtship, with her that was entirely in his mind. He called her Delicia, though it was clear this wasn't her actual name. It was the early '70s, and since black-to-Africa names were not yet in vogue, Delicia must have seemed adequately "Negro," a word he taught his Greek immigrant grandmother, after gently admonishing her for using "blackie."

Some of Sedaris's more, um, colorful observations about Delicia:

"...though my family was just middle-class, I felt certain we were wealthy when compared to hers."
"I decided for a start that she was virtuous and eager to change, that our association was, in some substantial way, improving her."
"I laid my hand over hers on the desktop and then looked down at it, thinking what a great poster this would make. 'Togetherness,' it might read. I'd expected electricity to pass mutually between us, but all I really felt was self-conscious, and disappointed that more people weren't looking on."

At first, I was alarmed by the narrator's condescension and casual racism toward both the salesman and Delicia in "Ghetto." How could one of my favorite writers be so unenlightened? Sedaris has always been a little mean-spirited in his work, but when he pointed out how Delicia spoke -- she used "stay" in lieu of "live," as in "I stay with my aunt," and made "aunt" rhyme with "taunt" -- I would have thought he was being unusually nasty had he not just made a point that gave me hope for his soul:

"We had two significantly overweight black students at our school that year, and I was always surprised when people confused them for each other."

That's it right there. The childhood him may have been making innocent generalizations based on race (something we can all relate to, if we're human), and the adult him not-so-innocent generalizations based on nationality (something we can all relate to, if we’re human), but the voice of reason, I presumed -- I hoped -- was Sedaris at his core, cutting through the crap of racism and xenophobia and pointing out a simple, evident truth: Black people are no more interchangeable than white people are. One group of characteristics does not fit all. For all of the stereotypes he was blindly accepting, at least he could see well enough to see that.

He later reasoned that it's futile for people in different economic situations to be friends, undermining the progress we'd made throughout the course of the chapter, if not quite cancelling out some of his other insightful observations, but I had to admit that this particular idea wasn't entirely misguided. I remember an episode of Friends in which Phoebe and Joey bemoaned the fact that they couldn't afford to do all of the things that the other four did because they didn't make as much money.

Yes, it might be easier to be friends with people of the same economic standing, but thinking you can only truly be friends with people who reside in the same vicinity on the economic scale is as lazy as thinking that cultural differences preclude the possibility of friendship, or more. Yes, it might be easier if a deaf person falls in love with another deaf person, and language barriers present unique challenges, possibly insurmountable ones, but if we're not circulating outside of our comfort zones, are we growing?

From where I sit -- and currently live -- accepting the idea that opposites repel so why bother would make someone less likely to seek out exceptions to stereotypes, and it easily could be used to justify segregation. (Add color distinctions and a sense of superiority and entitlement, and you've got racism; tear along the seam, and it's apartheid.) It's this dwelling on our differences that leads to an over-awareness of color. That, in turn, leads to ostracism and fetishism, which are two sides of the same bad penny. Of course, those details don't matter so much if you're not the one who suffers most because of them.

As I read "A Friend in the Ghetto," I thought about the American I recently went out with who had developed a hierarchy of African ugliness and beauty determined by geography because all black people from any African country look exactly alike. I can't imagine a social setting in which it would be okay for a white person in the United States to say that Tanzanians are the least attractive Africans, but I suppose that if you're a white American in Cape Town who's out with a black guy, it's perfectly acceptable.

He'd probably consider himself enlightened -- a white American who quite probably chose the view of black people in Cape Town because he's more comfortable surrounded by the city's perceived European-ness (in other words, whiteness) than because he actually wanted to live in the "real" South Africa. He can always drive by a poor township and create a sort of imaginary communion with the underprivileged black Africans who live there without actually sullying himself with squalor in much the same way that a teenaged Sedaris could skip the slumming and feel superior to his white classmates by courting a girl from the ghetto in his head only. He could continue to drive through the south side with the car doors locked and the windows rolled up.

Was Sedaris being ironic or was he admitting his own racism in "A Friend in the Ghetto"? I’m still undecided. But I applaud him for at least having the guts to write something that's honest enough to raise the question.
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