In shimmering fits of self-loathing I'll sometimes do stuff like watch a rerun of "Friends." There's a character Ross on that show. He's a white guy. Maybe Jewish -- is he Jewish? Jewish adds a little color. But he's a white guy, Ross, and one season he ends up dating a black girl. A black girl couldn't have been a Friend, I don't think. Because the Friends shared a demographic: educated, single, middle-class. White. But a Friend could date a black girl, and the "Friends" way to play that was to make no mention of race. The actress was a match for Friend women in many ways: she was educated, thin, beautiful; she spoke without recognizable accent. So Ross dated her. If there was any message on race in all of this, it was the now familiar one, about color-blindness: in the 90s, we were hip enough to move beyond race, to shed it like an outmoded style. It's all about the content of your character, right? Ross was a modern white. He was pathetic and lame and totally insecure, but he somehow never said to himself, Damn, I'm dating a black girl! Has she ever dated a white guy? What's she going to think when she looks me in the eye when we're...?
As a vision, that was probably better than what it replaced in white people's stories. Spike Lee still talks about Hollywood's 'Super Duper Magical Negro': the Will Smith character, for example, in Bagger Vance, who's more interested, as Lee says, in Matt Damon's golf swing than he is in bettering his own circumstances. In Richard Ford's eighties stories, there's something more subtle but akin: black people are always 'the other': they're there as mysterious tokens of meaning in stories that aren't their own. (Colson Whitehead touches on this in his review of Ford's 2002 collection, "A Multitude of Sins." There's a great gossipy story about this review and its aftermath. Google it if you're interested. But definitely read the review itself, which is easily the most entertaining thing I've ever read in the NY Times Bk Review.)
Here's why I'm thinking about all of this, I guess: I've been rereading Liesl Jobson's "Flaw," which is just up in Wigleaf. This is an important story, as Wigleaf's sometimes reader, R, said when we were discussing it. Jobson is a white South African. In this story, she's writing about race in a way I wish more white people would: by looking at white people, at how white people negotiate the construct of race -- whose effects Jobson's character is too honest to pretend to be blind to.
It's a fascinating read!