VOICES: Some questions (without many answers) about race

How much does race matter? I want to consider a few different ways to approach the question and ask you, dear reader, to do the same. How you do so may affect your attitude and your actions and the way you relate to others.

I am an English teacher by trade, and I sometimes choose works of literature for my students that will make them think about this topic. In a fictional story first published in 1985 by Tobias Wolff called “Say Yes,” a white character named Ann asks her white husband if he would have married her if she were Black. His gut response is to call it a bad idea because “How can you understand someone who comes from a completely different background?” The discussion becomes rather heated, and she presses him: “Let’s say I am Black and unattached and we meet and fall in love.” He shoots back, “This is stupid. If you were Black you wouldn’t be you.” I will not give away the ending to this engaging story, though thankfully attitudes about interracial dating and marriage have broadened somewhat since 1985.

Another piece I came across more recently has really caught my attention. It is by Ohio-born Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. Morrison published eleven novels and quite a few non-fiction essays. Her only short story of record is titled “Recitatif.” It concerns Twyla and Roberta, who meet as young girls in a homeless shelter in New York City. To put it in the simplest terms, Twyla’s mother placed her there so that she could “dance all night,” and Roberta’s mom did the same because she was sick. These two girls flounder for four months and encounter various characters along the way, including a mute woman named Maggie, who works in the kitchen. Maggie suffers some verbal and even physical abuse from the girls and others. Later in life, they meet by sheer chance multiple times, including at a protest over school busing, discussing (sometimes painfully and disagreeably) their present circumstances as well as their past in the shelter.

Although there are references to race, neither character is identified as Black, white or any other color. I felt the need to have this information, but then I asked myself why. Morrison appears to have written this way deliberately, making me and other readers the subject of her “experiment,” forcing us to examine stereotypes, put them aside, and look more deeply inside the person. In a highly insightful essay about this story, British author Zadie Smith says of these characters: “As Twyla and Roberta discover, it’s hard to admit a shared humanity with your neighbor if they will not come with you to re-examine a shared history.”

Near the end of her essay, Smith goes on: “The long, bloody, tangled encounter between the European [and American] peoples and the African continent is our history. Our shared history. It’s what happened.” How we deal with that shared history has become part of an intense debate these days about how to educate our students regarding the past (slavery and deadly and demeaning discrimination), and how the past continues to influence the present.

About 15 years ago my nephew married Laura. Laura was adopted by her Jewish-American parents more than 50 years ago, at a time when adoption records were sealed and kept from the adoptive parents and the adoptees themselves. Two years ago, Laura submitted a DNA test to discover more about her ancestry. She discovered that she is about 25% African American, something that was not readily, visibly evident to me or members of her family. She has since connected with her biological brother, and this has enriched her life. Would anyone who has had the privilege of knowing Laura love her any more, or less, based on this biological fact?

So how much does race matter, especially in the United States? Perhaps a great deal, either to one’s advantage or one’s disadvantage. How much should it matter? Perhaps less and less over time if we develop our God-given gifts, talents, and take advantage of our opportunities to make the world a better place and recognize the depth of others’ humanity as evidenced by their personal stories.

Jim Brooks is a retired high school English teacher who writes, coaches tennis, and tutors immigrants.

About the Author