MAXWELL:  From a wrong, many rights

2/8/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I must publicly acknowledge that I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of letters, telephone calls and e-mail messages I am receiving in response to my recent column describing a racist encounter that a white female colleague and I had at a Sarasota restaurant.

The sheer volume of correspondence aside, I am awed by the caring expressed by most of the readers _ who are white.

In the column, I wrote of how I, along with my companion, was humiliated by the restaurant’s serving staff. I tried to capture the personal nature of the racist act: how the victim carries a deep, private hurt and a sense of hopelessness hidden from public view; how an assault on the sense of self can even devastate a worldly-wise black male.

At last count, three days after the column was published, I have received more than 300 messages. One reason for writing this follow-up, therefore, is to tell my readers that I do not have the time to return all of their calls and reply to their letters and e-mails. I want everyone who contacted me to accept this column as my heart-felt thanks for his or her concern.

But my real purpose is to say that much of my faith in the goodness of most white people has been renewed.

And I do not think that I am being naive.

A black friend cautioned that what I am witnessing is the “gushing of white guilt,” belated acknowledgement of generations of inhuman treatment of African-Americans.

Perhaps. But I do not care if what I am getting is an expression of guilt. The fact remains that these readers, unlike many pundits and conservative politicians, understand that race is an enduring problem in America, that untold numbers of black individuals _ so inured to poor treatment _ suffer in silence.

Doubtless, though, the first step toward racial understanding is acknowledging that racism exists in the first place and that it matters. My readers are doing just that.

A cynical colleague said that my celebrity as a columnist, not the incident per se, has caused the outpouring of responses. I will not argue this point, either. I will say, however, that if most white people are to respond appropriately to acts of racism, they must identify with the victim in a personal way.

In my case, people feel that they know me because I have shared parts of my life with them in other columns and speak at many social functions. The column in question gives white readers a vicarious experience real enough to touch them where they are most human and honest _ and most vulnerable.

I am appreciative and I feel fortunate to know that so many strangers care about me. I am one person with modest celebrity who has been able to elicit widespread empathy for me as an individual. I think, however, that few of the readers who took the time and spent the money to contact me will look at race in the same way again.

I suspect that they have changed fundamentally, having been a avenue by which they can empathize with other black people describing similar encounters.

One letter writer expresses my point better than I can:

“You made the awful incident into a shattering reminder of just what we put black males through, what patience they have shown, and how slow we whites ought to be in lecturing black men on their excuse of victimhood. With whites like these (those in the restaurant), who can blame them? You are victims, still and constantly.”