Ta-Nehisi Coates continues his excellent blogging from Paris with this pensée about what he’s learned from his French classes this summer. Excerpts:
I am the only person in the class who speaks only one language. I tell my friends there that I wish more people in America spoke two or three languages. They can’t understand. They tell me English is the international language. Why would an American need to know anything else? Their pursuit of language is not abstract intellectualism. A command of English opens job opportunities.
I am getting some small notion of what it feels like to be white in America. What my classmates are telling me is that the Anglophone world is the international power. It dominates. Thus knowledge is tangibly necessary for them in a way that it is not for me. Of course the flip-side of this calculus is that power enables ignorance. Black people know this well. We live in a white world. We know the ways of white folks because a failure to master them is akin to the failure of my classmates to learn English. Your future dims a little. The good slave will always know the master in ways that the good master can never know the slave.
I think this is the seed of the “We don’t have any white history month!” syndrome. Through conquest the ways of whiteness become the air. That is the whole point of conquest. But once those ways are apprehended by the conquered–as they must be–they are no longer the strict property of the conqueror. On the contrary you find the conquered mixing, cutting, folding, and flipping the ways of the conqueror into something that he barely recognizes and yet finds oddly compelling. And all the while the conquered still enjoys her own private home. She need not be amnesiac, only bilingual. The phrase “code-switching” is overdone, but there is no cultural code from which all white people can “switch” from. It’s not even a code. It’s just the world.
This is one reason why it is so important for Americans to travel abroad: to grasp a sense of how unlike the rest of the world we are, and to understand what Americans, as the culturally imperial power, look like to the rest of the world. I don’t say that in the conventional political sense — I mean, in the way that American undergraduates traveling in Europe tend to fall all over themselves to put their country down. I mean it in the sense of understanding what it is like to be a true outsider. That sense of powerlessness is humiliating, but in a character-building way.
When I was living in Paris for that month last fall, I usually felt joy and pleasure being surrounded by the French language, and its otherness. But sometimes I felt a little panicky. I’m someone who makes his living with words, and who navigates the world by language. To live in a place where I have only a rudimentary command of the language, and almost no insight into the language of culture and manners — that made me feel very small at times. But I’m grateful for that, because it taught me something about how much I, as an American, take for granted. That is, how much what seems normative about life to me is actually highly relative to the place and time in which I was raised, and in which I live.
This is not a eureka discovery, granted. But it’s meaningful to discover it yourself, from personal experience. And it’s a useful mental exercise to imagine yourself thrown into this foreign world, having to make your way in a language you don’t know, in a culture you don’t understand — especially if you have a family. You would be almost completely at the mercy of strangers. All the skills and knowledge you acquired in your previous context mean little or nothing here. What do you do? How do you cope? How do you succeed? How do you succeed in avoiding being crushed by those who know how to work this environment, and who know where the land mines are buried?
I think TNC overestimates the code-switching thing regarding white people. This:
The phrase “code-switching” is overdone, but there is no cultural code from which all white people can “switch” from. It’s not even a code. It’s just the world.
… is not really true, or at least only partially true. There is no such thing as “white people” in the generic sense. There are worlds of cultural differences among whites. A white kid from a working-class background who earned a law degree and established a legal practice would have learned how to code-switch expertly over the course of his journey. I come from a tiny south Louisiana town, and have worked in Washington DC, New York City, and other places like that. Believe me, I know from code switching.
I remember living on Capitol Hill in the fall of 1988, when I was working on a college internship, and walking towards some sort of mixer for college students and young adults working on the Hill. As I approached the building where the party was — Eastern Market — I was consumed by social and cultural anxiety. They’re all going to think I’m a hick. I don’t belong here. They’ll be able to see right through me. I approached the door of the building, all but trembling. I put my hand on it then, ashamed of everything about myself, turned and walked back to my basement apartment, crushed. Now, it would have been easy for me to have blamed all those uppity Capitol Hill people for making me feel that way, but the truth was, I didn’t even give them a chance to reject me. I felt so oppressed by my own outsiderness that I sabotaged my own chance at success. The truth was that nobody would have judged me a fraud, and nobody would have judged me at all. I, who was so confident back home on campus, felt like a complete outsider there. The weird thing is I had just spent six weeks that summer backpacking around Europe, having a great time. I was much more of an outsider there, but I was the kind of outsider who had fun being an outsider. This, my Washington internship, was something different.
Anyway, back to TNC’s point: in France, among the French, he experiences the loss of his distinctiveness, and is simply an American. He writes:
I am an aspect of the great power. There is no “nigger” for me, no private language, no private way of being all my own. And with that comes a great feeling of weakness and shame. I feel exposed. People tell jokes that I can’t understand, and I am sure they are laughing at me. They are not. But it doesn’t matter.
Yes, this. Nobody at the party at Eastern Market would have laughed at me. They probably wouldn’t have noticed me, and if they had, they would have been welcoming. I know that now. I probably knew it then, but I didn’t feel it. My own weakness and shame and sense of exposure overwhelmed me. Many white people have this experience all the time, though it’s probably invisible to TNC, understandably so. He makes me understand that it is profoundly more true for black Americans, living in a majority white society, and I appreciate that insight. In my small way, being a social conservative working in the mainstream media for most of my career has given me a particular perspective on the value and the burden of outsiderness. I remember once at one of my former newspapers, we conservatives, who were in a tiny minority, developed a shorthand of communicating with each other when we’d be in social situations in the office. By just locking eyes in certain situations, we could convey, “Can you believe this crap? Can you believe how clueless and self-righteous these liberals are?” We knew they had absolutely no idea, because, to use TNC’s phrase, liberalism was so dominant in that office culture that its ways had “become the air.”
This must be what it’s like for black people in mainstream American society. Or gay people. I get that. The thing is, having moved from the conquered to becoming the conqueror, they will prove no more open to or understanding of those they have vanquished than the previous dominant culture was of them. And they won’t understand what they’re doing, because what they do will seem right and natural to them, plain as day. Just like American assumptions about the way the world works are the air in which we breathe … until you go to Paris, or Jerusalem, or Johannesburg, or Seoul, or Kiev, and discover for yourself that it’s not true. If you are morally aware, you take that shocking experience back home with you, and try to incorporate it into the way you live your everyday life. But it’s very hard to do; nobody walks around with that sense of relativity and otherness front to mind, because you just can’t. There’s too much coming at you to stay ironically distanced from it all the time. So you slip back into epistemic closure, paying attention only to what you need to pay attention to in order to get through the day successfully. Eventually the culture you find yourself in — the newsroom, the corporation, the church, the political party, the family system, the ghetto, the suburb, etc. — becomes the air you breathe.
And yet, outsiderness is no guarantee that you’ll better understand reality. My status as a newcomer and outsider in Washington that fall did not help me understand my situation better, but rather, given the status anxiety that overwhelmed me, made my situation more opaque and hard to read. One of the great pleasures of Terry Pratchett’s Bromeliad Trilogy, which I’m reading to my younger kids now, is how the nomes so often misread the human world because they’ve made plausible but incorrect interpretations of the language humans use. In these cases, the nomes are certain they’ve got a correct read on the dominant culture, but in fact they’ve misunderstood, at times consequentially. Just as we have to be careful to check our own conclusions if we are insiders (= members of the dominant culture), we also have to be careful to check our own conclusions if we are outsiders. Both kinds of subjectivity are no guarantee of objectivity.