Nell Irvin Painter

"Reparations: Be Black Like Me," The Nation, 270:20, p. 2.
Reproduced with permission of The Nation.

By Nell Irvin Painter

Randall Robinson is absolutely right about the need for reparations for the unpaid labor extorted from the enslaved before 1865 [“America’s Debt to Blacks,” March 13]. But I have two further suggestions along reparations lines, which are meant to address the continuing racism of American culture. First every black person should have his or her own therapist for life, because dealing with this society is enough to make you crazy. Second, every white person should have to live two months as black. (No less, because you’d have to experience it fully; no more, because not having been brought up with the necessary protective strategies, too many of you would lose your minds.) How can a white person live as a black person? It’s more or less simple: (1) By taking a leaf from the 1947 classic about anti-Semitism, Gentleman’s Agreement, and letting drop a hint about race. Once a doubt is planted, one’s physical appearance need not change. (2) If one is ambitious, one can apply dark makeup and not accept the way out as offered, e.g., accepting the assignment of South Asian background. (3) By carrying about a black periodical, book or other talisman, listening to black music, wearing a T-shirt from a black college or otherwise engaging in black-identified behavior. Just being interested in black stuff. (4) By being seen on a regular basis with a black person. (5) By protesting against racism out loud, without the disclaimer, “I’m not black, but…” (6) This is absolutely necessary: Read everything pertaining to black people you can get your hands on. While one of the privileges of whiteness is that of “unknowing” (to quote Eve Kosofshy Sedgwick), finding out what goes on in this country with regard to race changes a person of any racial persuasion.

So there. It is possible and has been done. Remember Black Like Me and Soul Sister, form the sixties. Maybe it’s time someone tried that again.

Nell Irving Painter
Princeton, N.J.

Nell Irvin Painter, The Nation, 22 May 2000.

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