Excerpted from his book:
One by One from the Inside Out : Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility
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within a couple of years they had all been replaced by aspiring black families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
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,
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
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
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
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
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.