By John McWhorter
I am mystified by John Edgar Wideman's account in The New York Times about how people on the Amtrak Acela train don't take the seat next to him until it's practically the only seat left. I am mystified not because I haven't heard plenty of claims of this kind. I am mystified because nothing of the sort happens to me.
Note: I am not questioning Wideman's experience — which is what makes accounts like this such a challenge for me to wrap my head around. In my book Winning the Race, I devote a chapter to this type of thing — of the sort that motivated Ellis Cose's classic Rage of a Privileged Class. It was the hardest chapter I have ever written.
Quite simply: Over the past nine years, I have ridden the Acela up and down the corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., quite often. Like Wideman, I also prefer the quiet car, and thus our experiences are that much more equivalent. On top of this, I am always on the lookout for the kind of "subtly racist" experience that even middle-class black people, especially men, of unthreatening appearance are supposed to have, as what one of Cose's interviewees termed a "daily litany" of slights.
But Wideman's Acela experience is simply not mine. On the contrary, because, like Wideman, I kind of enjoy having that empty seat to put my bag and food containers on, there have been many times when someone has sat next to me when the train was nowhere near full and I have grumbled to myself, "Why next to me out of all these other empty seats?"
This is the truth. It is based on several dozen Acela trips. It is based on my own experience in my own black skin. And there is nothing I do to invite company on the train; I almost always have my nose buried in a book or newspaper.
Important: I most certainly did have Wideman's experience in the past. In the '70s and well into the '80s when I was a teenager, I would often take the PATCO train between Philadelphia and New Jersey. I quickly noticed — and without being primed by other people talking about it, and not yet keyed into literature on the subject — that whites wouldn't sit next to me unless the seat next to me was the last one, or close to it. And I most certainly did not look "threatening" — I was Urkel squared.
So I do know my racism when I see it. But I have thought of the change in my train-travel experience as evidence that America is moving on. I first noticed the change in the early '90s in California when I would often take trains and buses to and from San Francisco. So it sincerely challenges me to read an account like Wideman's. Why him and not me? Note — I accept the "him" part. But the "me" part must also be accepted. I am telling the truth, and my glasses are not so rose-colored that that I cannot perceive discrimination unless somebody is burning a cross in front of my house.
And when I step off the curb and raise my arm for a taxi in New York, one stops. In eight years of New York life, I have been waiting to be bypassed by a taxi — I almost yearn for it because it is presented as a kind of rite of passage for black men in New York. It has never happened, anywhere in town — ever.
Now, if this were only about me, I'm not sure I would write about it. But because this subject intrigues me, I have asked other black men about it. I know a good eight — some friends, some acquaintances — who say that their experience is like mine. And they are a diverse set in terms of skin tone, demeanor and size. Like me, they hear how even middle-class black men living in a mainstream American context "endure" "constant humiliation" and "dismissal" — and cannot see these descriptions as reflecting a life that they live. Racism once in a great while? Sure. Racism as life itself? Sorry, but no.
Most certainly, someone can much more plausibly make that claim if he lives in a rough neighborhood constantly trawled by the police. But we're talking about something more specific: people like me and Wideman — i.e., the While Black phenomenon. And the problem is, some people make claims like Wideman's, and some do not.
I am speaking up here for the some who do not. Pieces like Wideman's are often taken, understandably, as evidence that his experience is representative — and that therefore, racism colors the day-to-day experience of all black people, just as it did in the Jim Crow South — just more "subtly."
But if we are going to have an honest discussion about whether that's true, in 2010 we must also hear from black people for whom this life sounds alien, largely something we hear and read about rather than experience. In that discussion, just as I will not dismiss someone like Wideman as fantasizing, it will not do to dismiss my friends and me — who I am quite sure "represent" legions of other black men of similar circumstance — as fantasizing, or as too dim to perceive bias unless it's cartoonishly overt.
Nobody sitting next to me on the train until it's full? I only wish!
John McWhorter is a frequent contributor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.