The History Place - Points of View

Race and Identity in America
A Personal Perspective

Professor Loury
by Glenn C. Loury

Excerpted from his book:
One by One from the Inside Out : Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America

Then Peter opened his mouth and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. - Acts 10:34-35.

A formative experience of my growing-up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s occurred during one of those heated, earnest political rallies so typical of the period. I was about eighteen at the time. Woody, who had been my best friend since Little League, suggested that we attend. Being political neophytes, neither of us knew many of the participants. The rally was called to galvanize our community's response to some pending infringement by the white power structure, the exact nature of which I no longer remember. But I can still vividly recall how very agitated about it we all were, determined to fight the good fight, even to the point of being arrested if it came to that. judging by his demeanor, Woody was among the most zealous of those present.

Despite this zeal, it took courage for Woody to attend that meeting. Though he often proclaimed his blackness, and though he had a Negro grandparent on each side of his family, he nevertheless looked to all the world like your typical white boy. Everyone, on first meeting him, assumed as much. I did, too, when we began to play together nearly a decade earlier, just after I had moved into the middle-class neighborhood called Park Manor, where Woody's family had been living for some time.

There were a number of white families on our block when we first arrived; within a couple of years they had all been replaced by aspiring black families like our own. I often wondered why Woody's parents never moved. Then I overheard his mother declare to one of her new neighbors, "We just wouldn't run from our own kind," a comment that befuddled me at the time. Somewhat later, while we were watching the movie Imitation of Life on television, my mother explained how someone could be black though he or she looked white. She told me about people like that in our own family -- second cousins living in a fashionable suburb on whom one would never dare simply to drop in, because they were "passing for white." This was my earliest glimpse of the truth that racial identity in America is inherently a social and cultural, not simply a biological construct that it necessarily involves an irreducible element of choice.

From the moment I learned of it I was at once intrigued and troubled by this idea of passing. I enjoyed imagining my racial brethren surreptitiously infiltrating the citadels of white exclusivity. It allowed me to believe that, despite appearances and the white man's best efforts to the contrary, we blacks were nevertheless present, if unannounced, everywhere in American society. But I was disturbed by an evident implication of the practice of passing -- that denial of one's genuine self is a necessary concomitant of a black person's making it in this society. What "passing" seemed to say about the world was that if one were both black and ambitious it was necessary to choose between racial authenticity and personal success. Also, and ironically, it seemed grossly unfair to my adolescent mind that, however problematic it might be, this passing option was, because of my relatively dark complexion, not available to me!

It dawned on me after this conversation with my mother that Woody's parents must have been passing for white in preintegration Park Manor. The neighborhood's changing racial composition had confronted them with a moment of truth. They had elected to stay and to raise their children among "their own kind." This was a fateful decision for Woody, who, as he matured, became determined not simply to live among blacks but, perhaps in atonement for his parents' sins, unambiguously to become one. The young men in the neighborhood did not make this easy. Many delighted in picking fights with him, teasing him about being a "white boy," and refusing to credit his insistent, often repeated claim: "I'm a brother, too!"

The fact that some of his relatives were passing made Woody's racial identity claims more urgent for him, but less compelling to others. He desperately wanted to be black, but his peers in the neighborhood would not let him. Because he had the option to be white -- an option he radically rejected at the time -- those without the option could not accept his claim to a shared racial experience. I knew Woody well. We became good friends, and I wanted to accept him on his own terms. But even I found myself doubting that he fully grasped the pain, frustration, anger, and self-doubt many of us felt upon encountering the intractability of American racism. However much he sympathized with our plight, he seemed to experience it only vicariously.

So there we were, at this boisterous, angry political rally. A critical moment came when the leaders interrupted their speech making to solicit input from "the people." Woody had an idea, and enthusiastically raised his voice above the murmur to be heard. He was cut short before finishing his first sentence by one of the dashiki-clad brothers-in-charge, who demanded to know how a "white boy" got the authority to have an opinion about what black people should be doing. That was one of our problems, the brother said, we were always letting white people "peep our hole card," while we were never privy to their deliberations in the same way.

A silence then fell over the room. The indignant brother asked if anyone could "vouch for this white boy." More excruciating silence ensued. Now was my moment of truth; Woody turned plaintively toward me, but I would not meet his eyes. To my eternal disgrace, I refused to speak up for him. He was asked to leave the meeting, and did so without uttering a word in his own defense. Subsequently, neither of us could bear to discuss the incident. I offered no apology or explanation, and he asked for none. However, though we continued to be friendly, our relationship was forever changed. I was never again to hear Woody exclaim: "I'm a brother, too."

I recall this story about Woody because his dilemma, and mine, tell us something important about race and personal identity in American society. His situation was made so difficult by the fact that he embraced a self-definition dramatically inconsistent with the identity reflexively and stubbornly imputed to him by others. This lack of social confirmation for his subjective sense of self left him uncertain, at a deep level, about who he really was. Ultimately there seemed to be no way for him to avoid living fraudulently -- either as a black passing for white, or as a white trying (too hard) to be black. As his close friend and frequent companion I had become familiar with, and occasionally shared in, the pitfalls of this situation. People would assume when they saw us together both that he was white, and that I was "the kind of Negro who hangs out with white boys." I resented that assumption.

Since then, as a black intellectual making my living in the academic establishment during a period of growing racial conflict in our society, I have often experienced this dissonance between my self-concept and the socially imputed definition of who I am supposed to be. I have had to confront the problem of balancing my desire not to disappoint the expectations of others -- both whites and blacks, but more especially blacks -- with my conviction that one should strive to live life with integrity. This does not make me a heroic figure; I eschew the libertarian ideologue's rhetoric about the glorious individual who, though put upon by society, blazes his own path. I acknowledge that this opposition between individual and society is ambiguous, in view of the fact that the self is inevitably shaped by the objective world, and by other selves. I know that what one is being faithful to when resisting the temptation to conform to others' expectations by "living life with integrity" is always a socially determined, if subjectively experienced, vision of the self.

Still, I see this incident of a quarter-century ago as a kind of private metaphor for the ongoing problem of living in good faith, particularly as it relates to my personal identity as a black American. I have since lost contact with Woody. I suspect that, having tired of his struggle against society's presumptions about him, he is now passing. But that moment of truth in that South Side church basement, and my failure in the face of it, have helped me understand the depth of my own need to be seen by others as "black enough."

Upon reflection, my refusal to stand up for Woody exposed the tenuous quality of my personal sense of racial authenticity. The fact is, I willingly betrayed someone I had known for a decade, since we began to play stickball together in the alley that ran between our homes, a person whom I loved and who loved me, in order to avoid the risk of being rejected by strangers. In a way, at that moment and often again later in my life, I was "passing" too -- hoping to be mistaken for something I was not. I had feared that to proclaim before the black radicals in the audience that this "white boy" at my side was in fact our "brother" would have compromised my own chance of being received among them as a genuine colleague, too. Who, after all, was there to vouch for me, had I been dismissed by one of the "brothers" as an Uncle Tom?

This was not an unfounded concern, for at that meeting, as at so many others of the period, people with insufficiently militant views were berated as self-hating, shuffle-along, "house nigger" types, complicit with whites in the perpetuation of racial oppression. Then, as now, blacks who befriended (or, heaven forbid, married) whites, who dressed or talked or wore their hair a certain way, who listened to certain kinds of music, read certain books, or expressed certain opinions were laughed at, ostracized and generally demeaned as inauthentic by other, more righteous (as in "self-righteous") blacks. The indignant brother who challenged Woody's right to speak at that rally was not merely imposing a racial test (only blacks are welcome here), he was mainly applying a loyalty rest (are you truly with us or against us?) and this was a test that anyone present could fail through a lack of conformity to the collective definition of what it meant to be genuinely black. I feared that speaking up for Woody would have marked me as a disloyal Tom among the blacker-than-thou crowd. This was a fate, in those years, the thought of which I could not bear.

I now understand how this desire to be regarded as genuinely black, to be seen as a "regular brother," has dramatically altered my life. It narrowed the range of my earliest intellectual pursuits, distorted my relationships with other people, censored my political thought and expression, informed the way I dressed and spoke, and shaped my cultural interests. Some of this was inevitable and not all of it was bad, but in my experience the need to be affirmed by one's racial peers can take on a pathological dimension. Growing into intellectual maturity has been, for me, largely a process of becoming free of the need to have my choices validated by "the brothers." After many years I have come to understand that until I became willing to risk the derision of the crowd I had no chance to discover the most important truths about myself or about life -- to know and accept my "calling," to perceive what I really value, what goals are most worth striving toward. In a perverse extension of the lesson from Imitation of Life, I have learned that one does not have to live surreptitiously as a Negro among whites in order to be engaged in a denial of one's genuine self for the sake of gaining social acceptance. This is a price that blacks often demand of each other as well.

I used to think about the irony in the idea of some blacks seeking to excommunicate others for crimes against the race, given that the external factors that affect us all are unaffected by the distinctions that so exercised the blacker-than-thou crowd. I would relish the seeming contradiction: I was still a "nigger" to the working-class toughs waiting to punish with their fists my trespass onto their white turf, yet I could not be a "brother" to the middle-class radicals with whom I shared so much history and circumstance. My racial identity in the larger white society was in no way conditional upon the espousal of particular beliefs or values (whatever my political views or cultural interests, I would always be black in white America), yet my standing among other blacks could be made conditional upon my fidelity to the prevailing party line of the moment. I would ponder this paradox, chafing at the restraint of an imposed racial uniformity, bemoaning the unfairness that I should have to face a threat of potential ostracism as punishment for the sin of being truthful to myself. In short, I would wallow in self-pity, which is always a waste of time. These days I am less given to, if not entirely free of, such inclinations.

Underlying my obsession with this paradox was a premise which I now believe to be mistaken -- that being an authentic black person involves in some elemental way seeing oneself as an object of mistreatment by white people, while participating in a collective consciousness of that mistreatment with other black people. As long as I believed that my personal identity as a black American was necessarily connected to our country's history of racial violation, and derived much of its content from my sharing with other blacks in a recollection of and struggle against this violation, I was destined to be in a bind. For, as my evolving understanding of our history began to clash with the black consensus, and my definition of the struggle took on a different, more conservative form from that popular among other black intellectuals, I found myself cut off from the group, my racial bona fides in question. I was therefore forced to choose between my intellectual integrity and my access to that collective consciousness of racial violation and shared experience of struggle which I saw as essential to my black identity. Like Woody, lacking social confirmation of my subjective sense of self, I was left uncertain about who I really was.

I no longer believe that the camaraderie engendered among blacks by our collective experience of racism constitutes an adequate basis for any person's self-definition. Even if I restrict attention to the question "Who am I as a black American at the end of the twentieth century?," these considerations of historical victimization and struggle against injustice do not take me very far toward finding an answer. I am made "black" only in the most superficial way by virtue of being the object of a white racist's hate. The empathetic exchange of survivors' tales among "brothers," even the collective struggle against the clear wrong of racism, does not provide a tapestry sufficiently rich to give meaning and definition to the totality of my life. I am so much more than the one wronged, misunderstood, underestimated, derided, or ignored by whites. I am more than the one who has struggled against this oppression and indifference; more than a descendant of slaves now claiming freedom; more, that is, than either a "colored person" (as seen by the racist) or a "person of color" (as seen by the antiracist.)

Who am I, then? Foremost, I am a child of God, created in his image, imbued with his spirit, endowed with his gifts, set free by his grace. The most important challenges and opportunities that confront me derive not from my racial condition, but rather from my human condition. I am a husband, a father, a son, a teacher, an intellectual, a Christian, a citizen. In none of these roles is my race irrelevant, but neither can racial identity alone provide much guidance for my quest to adequately discharge these responsibilities. The particular features of my social condition, the external givens, merely set the stage of my life, they do not provide a script. That script must be internally generated, it must be a product of a reflective deliberation about the meaning of this existence for which no political or ethnic program could ever substitute.

Or, to shift the metaphor slightly, the socially contingent features of my situation -- my racial heritage and family background, the prevailing attitudes about race and class of those with whom I share this society -- these are the building blocks, the raw materials, out of which I must construct the edifice of my life. The expression of my individual personality is to be found in the blueprint that I employ to guide this project of construction. The problem of devising such a plan for one's life is a universal problem, which confronts all people, whatever their race, class, or ethnicity. By facing and solving this problem we grow as human beings, and give meaning and substance to our lives. In my view, a personal identity wholly dependent on racial contingency falls tragically short of its potential because it embraces too parochial a conception of what is possible, and of what is desirable.

Thus, and ironically, to the extent that we individual blacks see ourselves primarily, through a racial lens, we sacrifice possibilities for the kind of personal development that would ultimately further our collective, racial interests. We cannot be truly free men and women while laboring under a definition of self derived from the perceptual view of our oppressor, confined to the contingent facts of our oppression. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce says of Irish nationalism: "When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by these nets. . . . Do you know what Ireland is? . . . Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow." It seems to me that, too often, a search for some mythic authentic blackness works similarly to hold back young black souls from flight into the open skies of American society. Of course there is the constraint of racism also holding us back. But the trick, as Joyce knew, is to turn such "nets" into wings, and thus to fly by them. One cannot do that if one refuses to see that ultimately it is neither external constraint nor expanded opportunity but rather an indwelling spirit that makes this flight possible.

Last winter, on a clear, cold Sunday afternoon, my three-year-old son and I were walking in the woods near our New England home. We happened upon a small pond, which, having frozen solid, made an ideal skating rink. Dozens of men, ranging in age from late teens to early thirties were distributed across the ice in clusters of ten or so, playing, or preparing to play hockey. They glided over the pond's surface effortlessly, skillfully passing and defending, stopping and turning on a dime, moving with such power, speed, and grace that we were spellbound as we watched them. Little Glenn would occasionally squeal with delight as he marveled at one astounding feat after another, straining against my grip, which alone prevented him from running out onto the ice to join in the fun.

All of these men were white -- every last one of them. Few took notice of us at the pond's edge, and those who did were not particularly generous with their smiles, or so, at least, it seemed to me. I sensed that we were interlopers, that if we had come with sticks and skates we would not necessarily have been welcome. But this may be wrong; I do not really know what they thought of our presence; no words were exchanged. I do know that my son very much enjoyed watching the game, and I thought to myself at the time that he would, someday too soon, come asking for a pair of skates, and for his dad to teach him how to use them. I found myself consciously dreading that day.

The thought of my son's playing hockey on that frozen pond did not sit well with me. I much preferred to think of him on a basketball court. Hockey, we all know, is a white man's game. Who was the last "brother" to play in the NHL? Of course, I immediately sensed that this thought was silly and illegitimate, and attempted to banish it from my mind. But it kept coming back. I could not avoid the feeling that something important was at stake here. So I decided to discuss it with my wife, Linda.

We had carefully considered the implications for our children of our decision to buy a house in a predominantly white suburb. We joined and became active in a church with many black families like our own, in part so that our boys would be provided with suitable racial peers. We are committed to ensuring that their proper education about black history and culture, including their family history, is not left to chance. We are ever vigilant concerning the effect on their developing psyches of racial messages that come across on television, in their books, at their nursery school, and so on. On all of this Linda and I are in full accord. But she thought my concerns about hockey were taking things a bit too far.

I now believe that she was right, and I think I have learned something important from our conversations about this issue. My aversion to the idea of my son's involvement in that Sunday-afternoon ritual we witnessed was rooted in my own sense of identity, as a black American man who grew up when and where I did, who has had the experiences I have had. Because I would not have felt comfortable there, I began to think that he should not want to be a part of that scene either. I was inclined to impose upon my son, in the name of preserving his authentic blackness, a limitation of his pursuits deriving from my life but not really relevant to his. It is as if I were to insist that he study Swahili instead of Swedish because I could not imagine myself being interested in speaking Swedish!

The fact is that, given the class background of our children and the community in which we have chosen to make our lives, it is inevitable that their racial sensibilities will be quite different from ours. Moreover, it is impossible to predict just what self-definition they will settle upon. This can be disquieting to contemplate for those of our generation concerned about retaining a "genuinely black" identity in the face of the social mobility we have experienced within our lifetimes. But it is not, I think, to be feared.

The alternative seems much more frightening to me -- stifling the development of our children's personalities by imposing upon them an invented ethnicity. I have no doubt that my sons will be black men of the twenty-first century, but not by their singing of racial anthems peculiar to our time. Theirs will be a blackness constructed yet again, out of the external givens of their lives, not mine, shaped by a cultural inheritance that I am responsible to transmit but expressed in their own voices, animated by a Spirit whose basis lies deeper than the color of any man's skin, and whose source is "no respecter of persons."

Copyright © 1997 by Glenn C. Loury All Rights Reserved

Glenn C. Loury, a Professor of Economics, is Director of the Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston University. He has been an advisor and consultant with state and federal government agencies and private business organizations. His essays and commentaries have been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Public Interest, Commentary, The New Republic and many other publications.

One by One from the Inside Out : Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America by Glenn C. Loury - Reconsiders the problem of racial inequality, rejects the liberal-conservative dichotomy as an obstacle to real progress, and argues that racial problems require a greater willingness for people to hold themselves accountable for what they make of their lives. Purchase from

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