Black Like Me at Cornell Law School

I wish that for a day, for just one day, I could make half of America’s Caucasian population experience American society as African-Americans experience it.

Twenty-four short hours would suffice.

What would they experience during those twenty-four hours?  They would experience the American culture from a perspective which for most would be shattering, shattering myths, stereotypes, pre-conceived ideas, shattering lies.

Within those brief twenty-four hours they would gain an awareness of the subtleties of racism of which they otherwise may have remained totally unaware.

They would experience, for example, being the fourth person in a supermarket check-out line, seeing all three people ahead of them receive a friendly, “hello” from the cashier and they, not a word; they would experience  assumptions that they are interested in only “black things”, which manifests itself, for example, in questions to them regarding for example, what they think about Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign or Dr. King’s birthday becoming a national holiday, or some other such “black concern”.

They would experience what it feels like to have Caucasian Americans tell them all about the African-American people whom they have known in the past.

They would experience what it feels like to be in a society in which the vast majority of its members harbor an entire set of often unconscious but nonetheless firmly entrenched beliefs and attitudes about them, all of which are based almost exclusively upon the color of their skin, i.e., that they are less intelligent, that they lack the full range of human emotion, sensitivity, and sensibilities which others, by their birthright, naturally possess – the ability to appreciate nature’s beauty, to be touched by a poem, to look up at the stars with awe.

In essence they would experience what it is like to be thought of and responded to as inferior, to lose their individuality, to be responded to as “a black person”, to lose their unique personhood, in essence, to be dehumanized.

They would no doubt see quite clearly that the majority of Caucasian-Americans are totally and utterly unconscious of their preconceived notions about African-Americans.

They would see the specific ways in which many Caucasian-Americans relate to African-Americans very differently from the way in which they relate to other Caucasians, and they would understand, no doubt with far more depth than “real” African-Americans, that the ways in which many Caucasian-Americans relate to them is the result solely of their social conditioning, in many instances the very same conditioning that they themselves received.

They would see clearly that most Caucasian people are not deliberately or maliciously racist, but they would nonetheless truly and experientially understand that that lack of deliberateness, that lack of malice, does not alleviate the pain of losing their individuality and thus a big piece of their humanity.

They would see clearly that it does not alleviate the pain of being objectified, of being constantly “racialized”, the pain of dehumanization.

On still another level, in addition to experiencing the feelings of being a member of a group which is consciously and unconsciously thought of and treated as inferior by the majority of society, they would also experience the reality of being a member of a group which is a numerical minority in our society – to walk into a movie theater, a restaurant, bookstore, classroom, one’s work environment, and be one of only a handful of brown faces, and possibly the only one; to look in the mirror, see dark eyes, hair and skin some shade of brown while simultaneously experiencing the American media and advertising industries with their images of white people everywhere and examples of beauty in the form of what is white and Anglo-Saxon.

I am convinced that it can be fairly safely assumed that most Caucasian-Americans, after only half of that day, would probably be driven to cry out, ” I’m white! I’m white!  This is going to wear off in twelve hours! I’m white!”

Most could simply not take being classified as and responded to by automatic impulse on the basis of the color of their skin, walking through city streets and just being in society in general with the knowledge that when many Caucasian-American people look at them, they see a black person first, their gender second, and not much else.

With their exclamations, they would in essence be proclaiming and reclaiming their full personhood, their dignity, their humanity.  They would be shouting to the world that they are really are a “regular person”.

After those twenty-four hours had elapsed and the “black/white” people had returned to their ordinary state, I would love to sit in on a discussion group in which the “black/white” people try to explain to the inexperienced half of the white persons present what it was like to be black for a day.

I would like to listen to them attempt to explain how differently they, the inexperienced half, responded to them, (when they responded to them at all), what it felt like to be denied the common courtesy of a “hello” from a supermarket cashier, to be spoken to so much about “black things”, obviously with the assumption not only that they are interested in nothing else, but also that they probably do not know much about anything other such things.

I’d like to listen to them try to explain what it felt like to walk into a movie theater, a bookstore, a restaurant, a classroom, one’s work environment, and be one of a very few or perhaps the only African-American present.

I would like to hear them describe what it was like to experience the American media and advertising industries as an African-American.  I would love to listen to that conversation.

My thirty years of experience as an African- American unequivocally informs me that the inexperienced Caucasian-Americans would respond to their comments and perceptions with total skepticism and even disbelief.

They would be utterly unable to hear, to really hear, to listen to the descriptions of the patronizing, rote manner in which the inexperienced white people related to the “black/whites”.

Without actually having lived a black American for a period of time, albeit a very short one, there is simply no way for the inexperienced Caucasian-Americans to understand the experience of being African-American.

Finally, the “black/white” people would for the very first time, truly understand that most Caucasian-American people simply do not see the racism in their interactions with African-American people.

My three years at Cornell Law School have not surprisingly, disproven that the law school reflects the racism in society-at-large, the kind of racism described above.  I wish that for just one day, I could make the entire white Cornell Law School student body truly understand what it is like to walk through Myron Taylor Hall as a black law student – to sit in those classrooms knowing that the majority of your white colleagues view you as a necessity of Affirmative Action, that they view you as less intelligent and less articulate than they solely because of your race, that you are incapable of thinking very well in the logical, coherent, comprehensive manner which is required of attorneys.

I wish I could for just a day make them know what it feels like to sit in a classroom on the first day of classes wondering if the reason the person sitting next to you is not speaking to you is that you are black, or whether it is attributable to shyness or something else.

I wish that I could make them really know what it feels like to live with the knowledge that not only are you viewed as a necessity of Affirmative Action in law school, but that that way of being seen will follow you out of Myron Taylor Hall into your career as an attorney, that as the only or one of a handful of black attorneys working for your employer, many of your white colleagues will assume that you were hired because you are black, or possibly both black and female, your Cornell law degree notwithstanding.

They would learn much from experiencing what it feels like to have your intelligence, you ability to think critically and analytically, your articulateness, your ability to be an excellent attorney, discounted, ignored, indeed, not even seen.

Obviously, one cannot magically transform white people into black people.  One cannot, through mental telepathy, make them suddenly aware of their unconscious racism.

How then does one make them understand the invidiousness of unconscious racism?  How can they be made aware of the all-pervasive extent and effects of that unconsciousness on those of whom they are unconscious?  How can they be made aware that their unconscious racism also adversely affects their own lives?  How does one open eyes?  Minds?  How does one force white people to grow, to identify, and subsequently eradicate their world view in which to be a white person is to be a person and to be a black person is to be a black person?  How does one give them the simple ability to see and respond to people who are racially different from themselves as intelligent, sensitive human beings?  How is that awesome feat accomplished?  How does one raise consciousness?

Do I go around the law school proclaiming that my favorite composers are Sibelius and Rachmanoff, that I write poetry and short stories, that I keep a journal, that I love orange sunsets and rocky beaches?  Do I go around explaining that I don’t spend every waking moment of my day wallowing in my oppression, that I enjoy skating, exercising, and writing letters to friends?  Do I yell out that my mother loved poetry and opera and that my father, a postman of thirty-five years was a science enthusiast and part-time mystic and Egyptologist?

I do not have the answers to those questions.  Freeing minds and changing solidly established behavior patterns is extremely difficult work.  That task requires generations.  I am greatly encouraged, however, by the good, serious anti-racism work which so many black and white feminists have recently done and are presently doing.

After six long years of working arduously in feminist organizations with Native American women, black women, Asian American women, WASP women and Jewish women on issues of racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ageism, and able-bodied people’s discrimination against the physically challenged, the past three years at Cornell Law School have been excruciatingly painful for me.

The following are but a few of the numerous racist incidents which have occurred during my tenure here:  A Law Practice Dynamics lecturer very clearly implied that all black people are thieves and hustlers; a judge and guest speaker addressing a group of students, referred to his Nigerian law clerk’s countrymen and women as running around in the woods throwing spears (for which he later apologized); a professor informed two black students whom he planned to call on the next day what their question was going to be on that day; placement office personnel continually informed a black student about opportunities in a District Attorney’s office despite her constant and adamant indications that she was not interested in prosecutorial work.

My years of work have shown me that the task of consciousness raising can indeed be done, but not without both a sincere desire and serious commitment on the part of white people to work on their racism.

It requires reading, consciousness-raising groups, an awareness in the moment of one’s reactions to a person-of-color, as well as the reasons which underlie them.  It requires a vision, a vision of what their life could be like if they were emotionally free to respond to every single person as an individual and a desire to have that life to the extent that it is possible.  It requires a vision of what the world should and can be.

Lauren NIle

About Lauren N. Nile, Esq

Lauren N. Nile is an attorney and international speaker who has worked as a consultant specializing in the prevention of sexual harassment and managing cultural diversity in the workplace. Ms. Nile has conducted Equal Employment Opportunity training for the EOP, which included members of the White House staff. Ms. Nile authored the nationally recognized Guide for Diversity Trainers Manual. As a consultant, she has worked with Fortune 500 corporations, governmental agencies and non-profit organizations.

Ms. Nile holds a B.A. degree in Philosophy from The University of New Orleans, an M.A. degree in Philosophy from The University of Connecticut and a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from Cornell University’s School of Law.

Comments

  1. Cornell hopeful says:

    The book “White Like Me” does a good job of explaining what you’re describing.

    - Cornell hopeful

  2. Hwood007 says:

    I think there are a lot more whites with black family members than you know.  I am white and have a black daughter-in-law.  I was arrested once for transporting a black across state lines.  That was some time ago as you know, it does not happen now.  I pulled up beside a stopped Texas state trooper around ten at night to ask directions.  He was friendly until the black man in the back of my car put his face between the two front seat white people. He then wanted to know “what” I had in the back seat.  He wanted all the dirver licenses of the three of us.  Walker, the man in the back had no license, his only ID was a us army id card.  The trooper took one look at that and then asked if the other two of us were also in the military.  We were and had to prove it with our military id cards.  I refered to my id card after that as my get out of jail free card.  Without those federal IDs, we would have had free logging that night, instead of sleeping a my aunt’s home in Loogview.  I have no problem taking the shopping cart of a black lady back to the store to save her the effort and do the same for white folk.  I know there are still white dummies out there, but you seem unable to find the black ones

  3. Lauren ;

    I have no glib answer for you but , as a white man living with a black woman in south central los angeles , I am hit in the face by the same sort of racisim daily on a reverse note , the possibly humorus thing is : most of the black folks I talk to about it , assure me it isn’t possible for black folks to be racist no matter how they act nor what incredibly rude and ignorant things they say , often to my face and when I’m there with my Foster boys , all of whom are black .

    I imagine this is why bussing was begun , to force people to mingle across cultural , ethnic and status lines to experiance we’re all pretty much the same .

    I’m a fair bit older than you so I can tell you , things are much better now than before even though we have so much further to go .

    Do not allow these iniquites to make you bitter in life or the bad people will have won , that’s all I can give you , that and the knowledge that more people than you think , really don’t care about race .

    -Nate

    • Why do white people always make this issue about them?

      • I try to let everyone be whom ever they want to be. I have lived in too many countries to think everyone should be like me. I do not even want them to think etc. like me. There are mixed race couples in my family and I spent 20 years in the Army and all races are everywhere.

      • It’s _NOT_ about me you idiot ~ try learning how to understand what you read .-Nate

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