By Christine Clark
I do not consider myself a racist, but sometimes I do or say something so bizarre, a stab of recognition hits me and I must say to myself, “Yes. You. Are.” I do not mean that I am the clichéd racist. No confederate flag flies in front of my home and I abhor the KKK and anything—action or ideology—that represents or promotes that particular brand of hatred.
There are some words I don’t even think—much less say. I remember stumbling over one of those words when I read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my son. I tried, but it was just too tough to say that word.
There are other things I cannot say—although they are neither racist nor inflammatory. I cannot get accents correct. I envy the Meryl Streeps of the world who pick up accents with linguistic ease. One of my daughters can do Southern, English, Scottish—the accents and lilts native to each region roll across her tongue with ease. When I try such linguistic twists, I shake my own head at myself: I sound like a fool.
Regarding accents, I sometimes make assumptions about who can mimic accents, and until recently I did not consider that a racist tendency. I assume someone from England will have an English accent. I assume someone from Scotland will sound Scottish. I associate particular tones and pronunciations with an Indian speaker, and a Chinese, and an Australian, and a Canadian.
I recently, however, made a rather racist, prejudiced linguistic assumption. I took an American Literature class in which students had to do a short presentation on a twentieth-century American author. As part of that presentation, each student read a passage written by that author. One young woman chose Zora Neale Hurston and read excerpts from Hurston’s short story, “The Gilded Six-Bits.” In the story about a black couple, Missie May is searching her husband Joe’s pockets for the treats he brings her. The pocket search is part of a game between the two of them. A part of the passage the student read follows:
“Missie May, take yo’ hand out mah pocket” Joe shouted out between laughs.
“Ah ain’t, Joe, not lessen you gwine gimme whateve’ it is good you got in yo’ pocket. Turn it go, Joe, do ah’ll tear yo’ clothes.”
Wide-eared and, to my shame, wide-eyed, I listened to the young black woman read the exchange between Missie May and Joe. As I listened, yet one more of my personal prejudices smacked me upside the head. I mistakenly thought the student would not stumble over the dialect. She read the passage the same way I might (I am white). I read silently while she read aloud and I realized she didn’t sound at all how I expected she would sound. I expected that just because she is black, she would get the rhythm and intonation and accent of the passage just right. I assumed in the racist pocket of my brain that she would get it, that she would make the words sound the way the ears in my mind perceived the passage should sound.
I was so wrong. Maybe some black people would or could make it sound “right”—whatever “right” is. Maybe some white person could, or an Australian, or Scot, or Chinese, or maybe even Meryl Streep. However, now that I have had heard “Yes. You. Are.[a racist]” loud and clear, I realize that just because someone has dark skin doesn’t mean they can speak with a stereotypical Deep South sound and cadence of “Mammy” from Gone With the Wind.
My own narrow perceptions sometimes squeeze me into categories that make me wince at my insensitivity. Feeling the tight fit of those quarters often is enough to break free from the prejudices that confine me. I learned more than literature in that class. I learned to tear down yet one more narrowing structure that creates a me versus them block in my mind and heart. Sometimes an open mind isn’t enough. I also must have open ears.