Letters to My Tutor…

My dearest Simone,

So, it came to me that one of the main attributes that singled out some of the social scientists and aid workers who visited the Mississippi Delta as racists was that such people communicated that they didn’t just find Southern, black culture to be different than theirs; they thought it inferior. Though the condescending sentiment was invariably delivered with a smile and quite often with great subtlety and charitable zeal, the blow was not softened. Since being in California and being mistaken for someone who grew up in a housewife paradigm, this same attribute has been what I have found disturbing. A number of people appeared to be of the opinion that I should feel complimented to be considered such, that traditional housewife was a step up on the cultural development scale for black women. And while in Mississippi the notion that a black person was exactly like a middle class white person complete with every item of learned cultural behavior was tied to skin color and hair texture, some of my more recent acquaintances seem to tie this notion to income level and level of education… and they appear to think that this is less racist than the skin color notion or not racist at all. I found the latter more dehumanizing in that it appears to more specifically deny the existence of black culture. While I have met black people who are more culturally similar to middle class white people than to me, it usually had to do with having grown up in that type of community and never with skin color, income level or education.

When a black woman is falsely assumed to be middle class white, the depth and breath of knowledge about middle class white culture she is deemed to have is considerably more than for a black man. And unsurprisingly, within the radius of those with whom I found it the most challenging to interact, the black people present, if any, tended to be male. The knowledge of learned cultural behaviors I was deemed to have was knowledge to which I did not have access. While I did have friends of various backgrounds growing up (and beyond), I did not spend a lot of time visiting middle class white households. In Mississippi in the eighties and nineties, neighborhoods were highly segregated and too many social household visits across color lines, even when just children, was something to be avoided for safety considerations. And though television shows often featured middle class white households there were limits to what one could learn from such episodes with no context. For instance, it may have been easy to discern that an interaction between a man and woman was funny because of an exaggeration, but how much of an exaggeration was it? Was the exaggeration limited to just the verbal language or was the body language part of that, too, and so on… (Will continue next week.)

With continued devotion,