A couple weeks ago, a new aide and the director of her agency sat in my living room for the first time and the director said the aide and I “needed to learn each other.” I agreed, but didn’t have the wisdom to ask “How?”
A young black woman—a complete stranger—is put into my home to work. She listens to how I talk, sees how I dress, looks at the furnishings of my apartment, hears how I talk to people on the phone. She learns me.
I, on the other hand, have no context in which to understand who this woman is, what her values are, or how she relates to other people. For years I have wished that, before I hired an aide, I could visit her home. What level of housekeeping does she maintain in her own home? How does she talk to her friends and relatives? What do her home decorations say about who she is? Is she really like me?
Yesterday a black man was doing maintenance in my apartment and he started snapping at me. A couple minutes later, he was using kind words to me. Did the snapping not mean what I thought it meant? In the world I come from if you snap like that at someone then you’ve got a serious relationship problem. Is that true in the world he comes from? Or is the snapping just the same as scratching a minor itch?
A black woman friend and I went to a coffee shop on the Southside where we ran into a black male friend of hers. As I listened to them talk, a story developed. His wife had shot him. He was in the hospital for a while, then in rehab. They took him to court—in his wheelchair—so he could testify on behalf of his wife. He told the judge that it wasn’t her fault—it was his. He was in a wheelchair for a time longer, then his wife started getting together with him. Now he’s all better and he and his wife are back home together.
Honey, where I come from, if you shoot your husband then the marriage is over.
Another story: a young black couple on the Southside got married. After a while, he hit her. In no uncertain terms, she explained to him that he never, ever, was to lay violent hands on her again. After another while, they were in the kitchen. She was washing dishes. He hit her again. She picked up a knife and stabbed him in the side. They still are together and he hasn’t hit her again.
In my home of origin, nobody ever, ever engaged in physical violence against anybody else. We used words to hurt each other.
A couple years ago, I had an epiphany. White people aren’t necessarily right. The laws in this country aren’t necessarily right, either—they just were made by the largest group. White men made the rules. Among other things, they did not treat women equally if the crime was rape. Among other things, they discriminated against black people because whites are the biggest group. The laws are not the laws because they are right; the laws are the laws because the largest group says so.
The laws are supposed to be applied equally to black people as well as white, but they may be living in two entirely different cultures. A black physician or professor who lives in suburbia may be entirely comfortable living with the white man’s laws, but what of the Southside, where a long-standing and far-reaching different culture exists? Is the Southside culture unacceptable simply because it is, relatively, so small that it can’t fight back?
In other words, does the plantation owner get to make the rules for the people who live in the shacks and dance around the fire? Who says the plantation owner is right and the fieldworkers are wrong? They are just different. Just because I am offended by the black people who stand in the lobby of our apartment building and say “fuck” a lot doesn’t mean they are wrong. By my standards, they are wrong, but my standards are born of white culture. Is it considered bad conduct on the Southside?
We are two generations beyond the passage of Civil Rights laws. In all the most important ways, blacks and whites now enjoy equality under the law. But in sociocultural ways, we have made significantly little progress toward equality.
When a special service was being planned at a local church, the chairman of the board of deacons of the dominantly white church proposed that the only black person in the choir lead some gospel singing. Those of us who knew her cringed. She had been raised in a middle-class suburb, grew up in a white church and now was a librarian. She would have been better able to lead us in opera than gospel.
Administrators of the home health aide system repeatedly say that they cannot discriminate in hiring or in placement of young black aides with old white clients. But it does not work because we come from different cultures. Young black aides do not do what old white clients expect them to do. Whites see it as a problem of blacks. Blacks call whites racists.
How are we to learn?