‘I felt white’: finding meaning in black and white voices

The authors admit they were surprised by the disparity in confidence of white and black contributors when they first sat down to do the research for The Good: Conversations About Race Following a school…

‘I felt white’: finding meaning in black and white voices

The authors admit they were surprised by the disparity in confidence of white and black contributors when they first sat down to do the research for The Good: Conversations About Race

Following a school discussion on racism, two friends decided to try to change the conversation, gathering black and white people for a conversation that would never be seen again.

They would record the conversation for posterity, recording voices and feelings instead of voices on paper.

In 2008, Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers, and Caryn James, author of The Year of Magical Thinking, had spent a long summer training with Christopher Palu, a university lecturer at McGill in Montreal.

Palu would soon move on to create Project 500, a public art space in his university neighbourhood, where conversations could be recorded.

“We had met in McGill’s summer centre for two weeks of psychoeducation and built up an incredibly close and nice friendship. As we were listening to conversations from other groups, we thought we had to do this for ourselves,” Kushner says.

While reading a critique of her book on racism at an event in Toronto, she turned to James. “Caryn, can you talk to me for like 30 minutes about your racism?” she asked.

“Oh my god, you mean it’s that painful?” James thought. “I’m such a low-hanging fruit. I feel white, I feel privileged. I have gone through some kind of thing in my life where I’ve white-washed myself.”

The two became friends, talking for hours – “24/7”, James says – until they had not only collected a thousand recordings but also a road map for conversation. “We wanted to add to the world of spoken word and culture with audio and video, so that anyone could listen to the conversations and feel like they were participating and able to look at a microcosm of their own country or their own individual world,” James says.

The result is The Good, a book published by Random House UK, which collects the recordings of 120 people of all races and from across the world.

The book aims to give voice to “those often unheard voices who want to tell their own stories” and was a cathartic process for the writers.

Kushner recounts how listening to conversations felt like she was experiencing “white political paralysis in the time of Barack Obama. Her own white fantasy of a nation without problems saw itself as a patriarchal place.

“It became very interesting to me,” she says, “to actually feel what it’s like to be in this room and actually hear someone’s response to the fact that, like, that things are still so complicated in this country.”

Kushner says the results, from their initial conversation to the hundreds of recordings to the book, can help people who have no voices.

“I think that what is maybe so important about the book is it’s making people want to share their thoughts, and at a point in which we have a heightened expectation of white liberal discourse, we have a heightened expectation of nuance in discussions. This book really does assert, ‘No, you know, you’re not supposed to be thinking this nuanced conversation and you can see some people who are afraid to come forward’. It’s all these young black people at the bottom of the gap between everyday reality and white representation.”

The work, Kushner says, was “the first of its kind” and created a dialogue that improved people’s understanding of one another.

“It makes it easy to say something when it’s delivered to you with a chip on your shoulder,” James says. “When you hear a black person’s point of view you are hearing one, not a mirror image.”

One person, the US-based novelist, Americanah author and journalist Azania James, told Kushner and James she had worried she might be a racist because she was angry.

“Instead of condemning her, it made her realise how angry she was and … empowered her and made her think. She was listening to a truth that came in from someone else.”

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