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Myth of Post-Racial America

Biracial novelist says America still has a long way to go

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March 8, 2010 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- In a speech titled "The Myth of Post-Racial America," writer Danzy Senna warned members of the packed audience in Fisk Hall against the urge to view America as having moved past issues of privilege, race and class.

Delivering the annual Leon Forrest Lecture last week, Senna, who is biracial, called such thinking "a dangerous impulse" that seeks to "stop conversation" about racism and genocide that are at the very heart of American history and culture.

"It looked like we were living out Martin Luther King's dreams in primetime," Senna said of the jubilation after President Obama's election and inauguration. "Finally, all those little white boys and little white girls were holding hands with those little black boys and little black girls. We weren't just seeing the mountaintop. We were sitting on top of it."

Senna, whose novels and memoirs address biracial and multiracial identity, is the daughter of a Boston blue-blood mother and a black father who grew up "dirt-poor" in the Deep South. She won acclaim for her debut novel, "Caucasia," which told the story of biracial sisters growing up in the 1970s in racially charged Boston.

In discussing the myth of post-racial America, Senna pointed to differences in the extensive media play given to Tiger Woods and his sexual indiscretions and to Amy Bishop, the Alabama professor charged with gunning down three of her faculty colleagues at a departmental meeting.

February's Vanity Fair magazine cover featured Woods as America had never before seen him. Gone was the "successful crossover guy who had literally beat the white man at his own game." Instead, said Senna, the photo depicted Woods with "burly naked chest" and "angry expression" looking more like mudered rapper Tupac Shakur than preppy athlete. Tiger was "caught" and "blackened."

How very different was the "narrative of white middle class privilege" that emerged about Bishop. Senna said she began wondering what it would take for Bishop - who fatally shot her brother, was a suspect in a pipe bomb incident and had hit a woman at an IHOP in an argument about a booster seat - to be caught.

Senna asked the audience to re-imagine the scenario about Bishop's shooting of her brother. Picture a black man running down the street with a gun and trying to hijack a car. Imagine police "delicately" handcuffing him so as not to hurt him. Imagine the police waiting 11 days to interview him "because he seemed too emotional" and then eventually intervening on the black man's behalf.

Before her lecture, Senna invited audience members to stand up if they could answer yes to her inquiries. Are you multiracial? Are your parents of two ethnicities? Two religions? Are any family members a different race from you? Are your children a different race? Have you ever passed as something, intentionally or otherwise, that you are not?

By the end, a majority of the audience was standing. "I probably could have gotten the rest of you to stand if I'd asked a few more questions," she joked. The results of the exercise were evidence of America's changing racial identity.

Emphasizing that she is a novelist and not a sociologist, Senna read passages from her writing, including her latest book, "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" That book reconstructs a long-buried mystery that sheds light not only on Senna's enigmatic writer/father but also on her own childhood and the failure of her parents' marriage.

"I understand the world through intimate stories," Senna said. "When I think about the damage of racism on our history, I am interested in the way it affects our psyches, the damage it has had on our families and the legacies of trauma that are passed down through the genes."

Presented annually by the African American studies department in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the Forrest Lecture honors acclaimed novelist and scholar Leon Forest who taught at Northwestern for more than two decades.

Topics: Campus Life