Benjamin T. Bartlett
1 February 2018
I’m Black, You’re White, Who’s Innocent
The essay, “I’m Black, You’re White, Who’s Innocent”, written by Shelby Steele, is a piece of work that ponders the relationship between innocence and race relations. He uses stories from his past, as well as his own thoughts, to make sense of how white people and black people related in the mid-20th century. He begins with a story from her past that relates to the uncomfortableness of racism, after which he thinks about why this happens and how it relates to racism. He then continues with a childhood story that relates to the stereotypes that are placed on black people. Lastly, he speaks on how innocence, guilt and power play a part in how racism is seen in America. Steele goes into the subjects of celebrities and their role they play in racism.
Steele wrote this for an audience of anyone who has felt uncomfortable talking about race, anyone who has questioned how or why racism came to be, or anyone who wants to know what goes on in someone’s life who has experienced racism first hand. Steele wants her audience to learn what is believed to be the root cause of racism through personal experiences that personify the views he presents. The reader is put in her shoes in order to see first-hand what he is trying to represent.
In the first portion of the essay, to represent the uncomfortableness, the topic of race creates, Steele recites a memory from her past. Imagery is used to create a warm, peaceful, California evening he shares with eight friends. A point is made that throughout many heavy topics the group remained fairly comfortable conversing. All up until the topic of race was “sprung awkwardly upon us”. At this point, perhaps feeling more comfortable after the past conversations, the black engineer makes a comment about race. To put it into more detail, a comment about how he is bothered by his daughter going to a white school. As a result of this, a still silence comes over the group as many become scared to speak on the subject. Eventually, all but the author and the engineer remain. The purpose of this first-hand experience was to show how quickly “an abrupt and lethal injection of the American race issue” has on a previously wonderful party. This is written to relate with people who have perhaps experienced this in their own lives, and to get them interested in what Steele will have to say.
In his next point, Steele again presents a situation first hand, this time during a literature class he teaches. This situation is presented to show the relationship between black and white students in the classroom, to introduce a black stereotype that induces them to call the white students on their racist comments, and to present the tough truth that nobody can escape the ever-existing topic of racism. This is written to sympathize with a student that has found his or herself in the same situation as his students in the classroom. During this portion, the ease of conversation about race between whites is compared to the fear a white student would feel talking about the same subject in the presence of a black student. Without the black student, the white students are free to say anything they please, but when there’s a black student, he or she will inevitably become a “kind of monitor”: increasing the caution the entire class holds. Steele also comments on this type of black student that provokes these harsh racial talks as a sort of “power move” against the white students. In which the white students have to stand their ground and respond with a powerful silence, holding their ground against the provoking student. This relates to a white student that has had to deal with this situation or even a black student who has done this themselves. Steele questions the reasoning behind these actions by presenting the cold fact that no matter what anyone does or tries in order to escape it, racism will always exist everywhere.
Steele relates to every human’s deep-seated want for power and its relation to modern racism through a contemplation on how this power game turns into racism. He can relate to everyone’s instinct to judge one another whether it be the clothes they wear, the color of their skin, the church they go to, or the house they live in. This judgement becomes a problem when people become afraid of others’ differences and as a result of that fear, a need for power over them arises. Steele tries to stress this to his audience as anyone can fall victim to this ideology, and how the simplest thoughts can become something as serious as racism.
This idea is built into an even more serious topic relating a person’s feeling of innocence to another’s guilt: and that inevitable feeling of power. Everyone wants to be innocent and for someone to be innocent somebody else has to be guilty of something. This stems off the idea of power and all human’s want of it. To want power over another means that the other has to be guilty of something that they have done to (indirectly or directly) to the one in request of the power. Everyone wants to be innocent, nobody wants the weight on their shoulders of being guilty of something, so in that quest for power, people try to transfer that weight onto whoever’s shoulders they can: and that’s where it gets dangerous. Nobody is racist without a reason. Steele makes this apparent through this steady progression from harmless thoughts mixed in with a need for power and innocence: and without even realizing it, one becomes racist. For those reading the article who wondered where racism found it’s beginning, it is brought upon through the progression of simple yet inescapable basic human thought.
In closing, Steele, through his own first-hand encounters and analyzation, tackles the problem of racism in America. The causes of racism are explained, such as how it can accumulate from human emotions such as how it relates to guilt, innocence, power, and judgement. He relates to the reader who wants to learn about how racism came to be, and how it has become such a great problem in society. Anyone who has judged somebody because of their looks or demeanor could connect with Steele and how he feels. Steele relates his emotions to the feelings of the readers, and consoles them in telling them that they are not alone in their thoughts.