[this piece is cross-posted,
with a long and interesting comments thread,
with a long and interesting comments thread,
I made the mistake of going to a local grocery store yesterday when it was very crowded, so I had to spend a long time in line, leaning on my grocery cart. I like to occupy myself at such moments by flipping through those parts of the tabloids that show celebrities at their worst, usually on a beach somewhere.
This time, though, I became engrossed by a conversation that I couldn't help overhearing, between two middle-aged white women who were right behind me in line. They didn't mind waiting, with melting frozen pizzas and ice cream, because they were glad to have run into each other.
They had some catching up to do because they hadn't seen each other in awhile, and I was especially intrigued by their discussion about a long-lost mutual friend.
"Right, Beth!" one of them said. "I haven't seen her in, oh, ten years, I'd say."
"Well, you'd be surprised," the other woman said. "She moved out to California."
"Yeah? So tell me about it. When did she move?"
"About five years ago. But the surprising part is that she married a black guy."
Now, as I write this, I realize that I don't know of a way to indicate whispering in written dialogue, without somehow saying outside of that dialogue that the speaker is doing so. Italics mean the opposite--they indicate various forms of emphasis. I can't think of a way to indicate, typographically, that this white woman had lowered her head a bit, and then lowered her voice, as she basically whispered the word "black."
"Oh," the other woman said. "Um. So?"
Good for you, I thought, as other woman's face reddened a bit.
"Well," she said, "that's just surprising."
"Why?" said the other woman. "A lot of people do that now."
"Yeah, well. I guess I just never thought that Beth would do that."
It was my turn to unload my cart, so I missed the rest of their catching-up. But I think that part of it was over anyway.
What interested me, of course, was that whispering by a white person of the word "black." I've heard white people do that many times, and I'm not fully sure why they do it. Not that all of those who do it necessarily do it for the same reason. Or reasons.
One probable reason that a lot of white people whisper the word "black" is that they think it's impolite to mention race. America is supposed to be "colorblind" now, and so, the common white thinking goes, "we" are not supposed to notice race, let alone point it out. Or even name it. So, when we do point it out, we we should do that . . . discreetly.
Other observers of American racial habits and customs have noticed this phenomenon, and I actually borrowed my post title from an article that I remember from a ways back, "Whispering Black (or Little White) Lies," by Molly Secours.
In her article, Secours offers her own anecdote about a similar moment:
While searching for real estate in Nashville, I encountered a pleasant and accommodating middle-aged women who showed me some property in the Belmont area. Although I wasn't interested in the place, she seemed eager to help me locate something more suited to my taste. She assured me that her partner managed many properties and felt confident he would have something available in the near future. She promised to have him call me as soon as possible.
Before we parted I inquired as to the location of another apartment that interested me. Leaning in close and confidential she advised me to be careful because although the area in which I was looking was close by, it was still "coming around." As my mind and heart raced, I tried to appear as though I didn't know what "coming around" meant.
Normally among whites this coded language is clearly understood with no explanation necessary. But I wanted to hear her say it. And she did. In a sweet maternal tone she warned me of the dangers of the neighborhood because there were still a lot of "blacks" living in the area. And she did what white people often do. She whispered the word "black" as if to protect a coveted secret.
But why whisper? Was she afraid someone would hear her who wasn't white? Was it because black people don't know they are black? Or was it to soften her insinuation that blacks are undesirable to live with? The only certainty is that she must have felt confident that I would understand and appreciate her warning.
Secours goes on to say that she's not sure why she did what she did next--she told a "white lie," by telling this white woman that she herself was black. The real-estate agent was, shall we say, quite literally appalled. She recovered quickly, and then promptly lost interest in helping Secours find a home.
I usually call out people I know on their racist remarks or jokes, however intentional or unintentional. I've also pointed out their whispering of the word "black." The latter even led to a discussion, once, about why white people do that, with my friend Bill. But I've yet to screw up the nerve to pretend that I'm black. I'm not even sure that's really a good idea.
My friend Bill would never consider himself a "racist." He doesn't agree with me that being raised as white in America pretty much makes a person a racist, unless they work to counteract that training. He did agree, though, that suddenly lowering his voice while saying that word was, as he put it, "weird" and "uncalled for."
He also called me recently to say that he doesn't do it anymore, and that he wanted to add something to our conversation about it: "I think people whisper or lower their voice with that word because they know at some level that what they're about to say is racist. But they want to say it anyway. It's like that PC thing, you know?"
"What PC thing?"
"PC, for 'politically correct.' I mean, when people say that, like [Bill lowered his voice again here, but in a louder, more masculine way] 'This may not be a very PC thing to say, but . . . '"
"Ah. That PC thing."
"Right, that one. I think people usually say 'PC' like that because they're about to say something they know is wrong, but they want to say it anyway."
"So you mean, lowering your voice when you said 'black' was the same thing?"
"Right. It was a way of, sort of, recognizing that what I was about to say was racist, but also that I wanted to go ahead and say it anyway."
"Huh. I think you're right about that, Bill."
Bill and I were on the phone. And suddenly no one was talking.
Someone had to say something, so I said, "But even though you said something 'racist,' you yourself . . . you're not a racist, are you Bill?"
"Me? No. I'm not a racist. Forget that!"
By the way, you can find out more about Molly Secours, who works as an activism-oriented writer, speaker, and filmmaker, at her web site. Secours also appeared in the following CNN segment, from an episode of Paula Zahn's show NOW that dealt with "Why Students Self-segregate":