Perhaps one reason that conversations about race are so often doomed to frustration is that the notion of whiteness as "race" is almost never implicated. One of the more difficult legacies of slavery and of colonialism is the degree to which racism's tenacious hold is manifested not merely in the divided demographics of neighbourhood or education or class, but also in the process of what media expert John Fiske calls the ex-nomination of whiteness as racial identity.
Whiteness is unnamed, suppressed, beyond the realm of race. Exnomination permits whites to entertain the notion that race lives "over there" on the other side of the tracks, in black bodies in inner-city neighbourhoods, in a dark netherworld where whites are not involved.
At this level, the creation of a sense of community is a lifelong negotiation of endless subtlety. One morning, when my son was three, I took him to his pre-school. My son ran straight to a pile of Lego and proceeded to work. I crossed the room and put his lunch box in the refrigerator, where I encountered a little girl sitting at a table beating a mound of clay into submission with a plastic rolling pin.
"I see a mommy," she said to me cheerfully. "That must mean your little boy is here somewhere too."
"Yes, he's here," I answered, thinking how sweetly precocious she was, "there, he's over by the Lego".
She strained to see around the bookcases. "Oh yes," she said, "now I see that black face of his."
I walked away, without responding, enraged - and how can one be so enraged at an innocent child? - yet, not knowing what to say just then, rushing to get the jaggedly dangerous broken glass of my emotions out of the room.
I remember being three so well. Three was the age when I learnt that I was black, the coloured kid, monkey child, different. What made me so angry and wordless in this encounter 40 years later was the realisation that none of the little white children who taught me to see my blackness as a mark probably ever learnt to see themselves as white. In our culture, whiteness is rarely marked in the indicative - there! there! - sense of my bracketed blackness. And that majoritarian privilege of never noticing oneself was the beginning of an imbalance from which so much, so much else flowed.
But that is hard to talk about, even now, this insight acquired before I had the words to sort it out. Yet, it is imperative to think about this phenomenon of closeting race - which I believe is a good deal more widespread than these small examples. In a sense, race matters are resented and repressed in much the same way as matters of sex and scandal. The subject is considered a rude and transgressive one in mixed company - a matter whose observation is sometimes inevitable, but about which, once seen, little should be heard nonetheless. Race thus tends to be treated as though it were in a specially delicate category of social infirmity, so called, like extreme obesity or disfigurement. Every parent knows a little of this dynamic, if in other contexts.
"Why doesn't that lady have any teeth?" comes the child's piping voice. "Why doesn't that gentleman have any hair?" and "Why is that little boy so black?"
"Sshhh," comes the anxious parental remonstrance, "the poor thing can't help it. We must all pretend that nothing's wrong."
And thus we are coached, upon pain of punishment, not to see a thing. Better be sure the parent faces an ethical dilemma in that moment of childish vision unrestrained by social nicety. On the one hand we rush to place a limit on what can be said to strangers and what must be withheld for fear of imposition, or of hurting someone's feelings. As members of a broad society, we respect one another by learning not to inflict every last intimate prying curiosity we may harbour upon everyone we meet.
That said, there remains the problem of how or whether we ever answer the question, and that is the dimension of this dynamic that is considerably more troubling.
"Why is that man wearing no clothes, mummy?" pipes the childish voice once more. And the parent panics at the complication of trying to explain.
The naked man may be a nudist or a psychotic, or perhaps the emperor of the realm, but the silencing that is passed from parent to child is not only about the teaching of restraint, it is calculated to circumnavigate the question as though it had never been asked.
"Stop asking such silly questions."
A wall begins to grow around the forbidden gaze. For we all know - and children best of all - when someone wants to change the subject, and for ever, and so the child is left to the monstrous creativity of ignorance and wild imagination.
Again, I do believe that this unfortunate negotiation of social difference has much in common with discussions about race. Race is treated as though it were some sort of genetic leprosy or a biological train wreck. Those who privilege themselves as "unraced" - usually, but not always, those who are white - are always anxiously maintaining that it doesn't matter, even as they are quite busy feeling pity, no less, and thankful to God for their great good luck in having been spared so intolerable an affliction.
Meanwhile, those marked as "having race" are ground down by the pendular stresses of having to explain what it feels like to be you - why are you black? why are you black? why are you black? - over and over again. Or alternatively, placed in a kind of conversational quarantine of muteness in which any mention of racial circumstance reduces all sides to tears, fears, fisticuffs and other paroxysms of unseemly anguish.
This sad habitual paralysis in the face of the foreign and the anxiety producing. It is as though we were all skating across a pond that is not quite thoroughly frozen. Two centuries ago, or perhaps only a few decades ago, the lake was solidly frozen. And if, for those skating across the surface, things seemed much more secure. It was a much more dismal lot for those whose fates were frozen at the bottom of the pond.
Over time, the weather of race relations has warmed somewhat and some few of those at the bottom have found their way to the surface. We no longer hold our breath and we have even learnt to skate. The noisy racial chasm still yawns darkly beneath us all but we few brave souls glide gingerly above upon a skim of hope. Our bodies made light with denial. The black pond so dangerously and thinly iced with conviction that talking about it will only make things worse.
The Reith Lectures, `The Genealogy of Race: Towards a Theory of Grace'. The next talk is `The Pantomime of Race', on Radio 4, Tuesday, 8.30pmReuse content