Born-and-raised Americans don’t realize how extraterrestrially peculiar our country’s racial protocols seem to a foreigner encountering them for the first time.
This applies to black foreigners just as much as to nonblacks. The current (April 2013) issue of Literary Review includes a review of a new novel, Americanah, by Nigerian authoress Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The review (it is by Malcolm Forbes) opens thus:
There is a scene early in Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s superb new novel, that perfectly captures the tortuous, squeamish lengths white, liberal America will go to avoid causing offence in matters of race. Ifemelu, Adichie’s female protagonist, has recently traded her native Nigeria for the U.S.A. A friend, Ginika, takes her to a clothing store in Philadelphia, and when they proceed to the checkout the cashier asks which assistant helped them, Chelcy or Jennifer. The girls admit to not having caught her name. The cashier enquires whether she had long hair. They both did. Did she have dark hair? They both did. “Why didn’t she just ask ‘was it the black girl or the white girl?’” Ifemelu says when they finally leave. Ginika laughs at her naivety. “Because this is America. You’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things.”
10(r) While it is important for your physical survival to take blackness into account when encountering black individuals or finding yourself in a black neighborhood or at a beach or amusement park with many blacks, when it comes to your social survival you should pretend to be unconscious of blackness. If someone says, “There are a lot of blacks in the park today,” the safest response is, “Really? I hadn’t noticed.” Being aware of race, in any context outside of fulsome praise, is tantamount to racism.
It makes the same point Ms. Adichie’s character makes. Pretend not to notice!
There is a case for pretending not to notice when nothing but good manners is in play. In most social situations, we pretend not to notice if someone is lame or disfigured.
In some other situations, pretending not to notice may be a deliberate social strategy. Skillful players of “game” apparently (I wouldn’t know) pretend not to notice a woman’s beauty.
When there is useful information to be transmitted, however, as in Ms. Adichie’s story, not noticing is just silly.
In other circumstances it might actually be dangerous, as when news outlets pretend not to notice that a crime suspect on the loose is black, for fear (I suppose) that we’d run out and burn a cross on someone’s lawn.