Monday, January 6, 2014

It's the Little Things

  It's the Little Things: Everyday Interactions that Get Under the Skin of Blacks and Whites
© 2002 Lena Williams
304 pages

It’s the Little Things is an account of Lena Williams and her family’s grievances with white people, which are legion. Its full title, poorly chosen, teases the reader with a prospect of being a fascinating look into racial or cultural behavior that we are unaware of. The author delivers, however, nothing but a series of complaints, drawn from a data sample of herself, her family, and her friends   It seemed so promising; imagine a book based on interviews in which people were honest  about their observations or questions about the ‘other side’;  this is more like a book of white-people jokes pretending to be one of social inquiry.

The majority of the ‘little things’ are not unique to black/white dynamics in the United States, but are common symptoms of ethnic tension,  with biological or cultural roots. She mentions that both sides complain the other ‘smelling’ funny,  which is an in-group sensitivity.  There are a few  genuinely helpful insights scattered throughout, like the bait-story that enticed me into reading it. There, the author bristles with resentment as she stands in an elevator and witnesses a white woman combing her fingers through her hair.  Because ‘black’ hair looks, grows, and behaves so differently from ‘white’ hair, which is considered the standard of beauty in America, many black women like the author have gone to great expense and bother to force their hair to  look like ‘white’ hair, implementing relaxers and weaves. The woman’s innocent hair-combing was seen as a flaunting of white privilege.  The book often demonstrates how ordinary tension between people can take on racial undertones: although the liberties telemarketers take in using people's first names to effect an air of friendliness are obnoxious to everyone, the presumption can strike blacks (according to Williams) as offensive given America's racial history.  As the privileged hair example illustrates, however, ascribing racist motivations to some behaviors is simply preposterous.

The work also makes clear that regardless of claims of equality, people remain different;  even if they are equal before the law, populations still have their own cultures and values, some of which rub against one another. For instance, the author declares that there's a difference between the black notion of a party, which consists of plentiful food and lots of dancing, and the white version, which consists of finger food, wine, and subtle music serving as a background conversation.    That is indeed two different notions of a party,  but to say they're black and white versions of a party is bizarrely simplistic.  Anyone with friends or relations in different economic classes can bear witness to the fact that not everyone's idea of a good time is the same, regardless of skin color. This book's greatest fault is the limited experience the author draws on to reach her conclusions;  her childhood background and experience are used to describe everyone's, and that is decidedly not the case. In her world, black people beat their children at the slightest hint of public misbehavior, and feel pressure, when going into town, to dress their best.  She cannot possibly believe this is the case today.  Perhaps she's drawing merely on her memory alone, but in the world of the mid-20th century, such behavior (dressing for town and stern discipline) would have been the rule among 'whites' as well.  The too-personal anecdotes, and the sweeping conclusions based on them, make me think this is a book with an identity crisis; it's written as a playful riff, but wants to be  taken seriously.

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