In 1997, President Clinton launched One America, an ambitious initiative to begin dialogues toward bridging the racial divide. Several town hall meetings on racial issues convened across the nation. The initiative also produced the "One America Dialogue Guide," outlining how citizens can hold forums on race in their homes or communities. According to the guide, such dialogues should explore who we are, where we are, where we want to go and what we - groups and individuals - can do to effect change.
The same year that Clinton launched his One America initiative, New York Times reporter Lena Williams wrote an article entitled "The Little Things." The article provoked a strong reaction from readers and later won the New York Association of Black Journalists award for feature writing. Now, Williams has expanded the article into a book, "It's the Little Things: The Everyday Interactions that Get Under the Skin of Blacks and Whites."
In Houston, Chicago, Birmingham, Ala., Washington, D.C., and Betterton, Md., she facilitated focus groups of blacks, whites, and members of other ethnic groups. The participants discussed what divides us as a nation - the small behaviors and shades of difference that create big walls between blacks and whites at home, school, and work. The participants held little back. And in true journalistic fashion, Williams captured countless slights, stereotypes, and idiosyncrasies.
Some are familiar; other offenses will be news to many readers. Among the little things that black focus-group participants cited were white women who shake their long hair near other people; white sales clerks who serve black patrons last or suspect them of being shoplifters; taxi drivers who won't pick up black fares; white co-workers who fail to acknowledge black colleagues outside the workplace; whites who think all blacks are on welfare and live in squalor; workplaces that offer few mentors for blacks; strangers who presume to call them by the first name or an abbreviated name; and whites who can't get over the O.J. Simpson verdict.
The black focus-group participants also bemoaned larger issues, such as white flight, racial profiling, the fate of affirmative action, and negative media images of blacks.
Williams explores myths on both sides of the racial divide. Her focus-group participants disputed several misconceptions: White men can't jump. Black men have more machismo. Whites lack rhythm. Blacks are inarticulate. Black hair feels rough. White hair stinks. Blacks who use hair relaxers want to be white. Suntanned whites want to be black. Such myths persist, says Williams, because although blacks and whites work together, they rarely mix outside the workplace and seldom enter each others' homes.
The author aptly analyzes the historical contexts - slavery, Jim Crow laws, the Tuskeegee syphilis study - that shaped racial perceptions.
Understandably, African-American perspectives dominate the book. That's probably intentional. Williams, an African-American, explains, "Blacks have been forced to be observant of white society - their ways and habits - and see life, including our own, through the whites' racial prism."
To her credit, Williams also engages Latinos and Asian-Americans in the discussion. Further, she examines the complex social and identity issues confronting bi-racial children, and black children who grow up in majority white environments.
Williams also shares personal experiences. She admits her reluctance to date white men. Blacks who date outside their race risk being ostracized, she says. She differentiates between white parties, essentially early evening talk-fests, and black parties, which include late-night dancing. Williams also defends her decision not to live in Harlem. Her Upper West Side apartment is walking distance from her office.
Sassy and informative, "It's the Little Things" lets blacks and whites walk a mile in each others' shoes. The book's revelations won't erase the color line but might help sensitize blacks and whites about how their actions are viewed by others.
Carole Boston Weatherford is the author of 'The African-American Struggle for Legal Equality in American History' (Enslow).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society