When I was an undergrad at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, I was in an often-rancorous class called Race Relations in American Society. This nontraditional course was taught on Thursday evenings by a Black former military officer, Jim Vance, then a tester at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
Tall, slim and mild mannered, Mr. Vance repeated the phrase “Justice is Just Us,” as if he had coined it, punctuating his speech with a short, cough-like laugh. He encouraged the university students and staff, who were Black, white and Latino, to go where it is hard, examining our preconceptions about race, using this safe space as a place of personal growth. The sessions sometimes devolved into shouting matches, though, and Mr. Vance, always dressed formally in a suit and tie, would sit back and observe us, expressionless. He often put on soft music as a sign that we had gone too far, though, and like naughty toddlers being led to time out, we took his cue and piped down.
During one class on colorism, a few weeks after Mr. Vance had assigned us to shadow and interview a classmate from a different background than ours, a white student admitted in a slow, measured voice, her eyes darting nervously around the room, that she felt more comfortable with lighter-skin Blacks than ones with dark skin. People like me. Defying the ground rules, I cackled cruelly at her admission and snarled to her reddening face, “So what else is new?”
Raised privileged in international communities in four Black countries, I was initially unprepared for America’s racial codes and mores. After a year or so at college, armed with a sizable group of African diasporic friends (a community that I didn’t have in boarding school here), I was reeling from the discovery of an America of inequality and a larger world in which how you look often determined your opportunity. I had lived as a majority, and never had to define myself by race (or gender) until I came to the US. In this class I went from leaving the butcher paper with the question, “Who Are You?” blank to filling in the words “Proud Black Woman!”
I knew instinctively that my classmate’s admission was not a sign of her trying to evolve as a person, but rather of her wanting attention and ultimately, absolution. As if the Black students in the class could wave a wand and wipe her prejudices away. As if. I just did not have the maturity to appropriately address her, but I saw this then, and even now, as her problem to solve. On her own time. Or not.
I felt the same way about Liam Neeson’s recent admission that he stalked Black neighborhoods in Ireland looking for a fight in which he could vanquish any random Black man because a Black man had raped his friend. I squirmed as Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts, a product of segregated, violent Mississippi, sat with her arms folded across her body and tried to impugn Neeson during a recent interview.
Roberts asked Neeson if he would have had the same reaction were the assailant white, and he said yes, which negated the whole discussion about buried racial instincts. The actor dug in, contextualizing his faux vigilante moment by saying that he is an Irishman who grew up during the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth “troubles,” when a bombed Protestant bar one day was answered with a bombed Catholic bar the next.
I cringed as Neeson plugged the film at the end of the segment, and attempted to squeeze Roberts’ hand (which she awkwardly pushed away) as if they were old friends sharing sweet family photos.
Neeson’s admission, 40 years after the fact, rang with false piety, just as my classmate’s had so many years ago. His was an arrogant act of an arrogant man. Neeson has been in the public eye long enough to know how such a story would play out on the Twitterverse, and in other courts of public opinion. As the face of his new movie, he flushed down the toilet years of behind-the-scenes work by hundreds of people just so that he could ruminate on how evolved he is. From Cro Magnon to actual man.
As the panelists on The View, my guilty pleasure, dissected this gaffe, Joy (“So what, who cares?”) Behar got it right. She noted that we live in a time when people feel that they can spew any sentiment, any idea that comes to mind. “I don’t want to hear it. Keep it to yourself.” She noted that there are trained experts who know how to handle race—a tricky subject—nimbly and thoughtfully, and those are the people who should be leading such discussions. People like Mr. Vance.
That evening in Race Awareness in American Society, as my classmate turned bruise-purple at my scorn, Mr. Vance loped over to his boombox, plugged it in with one swift motion and pressed play with his long, elegant index finger.
Did you say I’ve got a lot to learn?
Well, don’t think, I’m tryin’ not to learn
Since this is the perfect spot to learn
Oh, teach me tonight