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Racism doesn't disappear with a new set of laws or diversity efforts or, most likely, even with a promising new president. In "Notes From No Man's Land," Eula Biss, winner of the 2008 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, explores ways that racism lingers, subtly or behind the scenes, despite apparent progress.
She writes of the "sickening realization" that the plumber who painted her apartment and found her a refrigerator helped her because she is white. She recalls a black woman she knew, a former teacher's aide, who was denied custody of her grandchildren on flimsy grounds. She juxtaposes the condemnation of black looters in post-Katrina New Orleans with the mild shrugs for white looters in a flooded Iowa college town.
The essays combine personal experiences with scraps of history, literature, current events and sociological studies. Biss' prose is strong and colorful, her techniques for teasing out flaws in our casual assumptions often inventive. The observation about looters came after Biss decided "to think of students in the way other minority groups are commonly regarded -- as a homogenous, potentially dangerous, downtrodden and victimized, but nevertheless threatening element."
Her shame on behalf of white America is palpable. In an essay about apologies -- particularly official apologies offered for past racial wrongdoings, such as the U.S. government's 1988 apology for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II -- Biss steps up to take personal responsibility for slavery.
"Some of us learn as children that it is often better to apologize for something we did not do than to try to maintain our innocence," she writes.
Those who prefer to see the glass of U.S. race relations as half full may find Biss' attitude off-putting. It's hard to admit this without getting defensive, because optimism about race relations is sometimes confused with tolerance for racism. But I would come across a sentence like, "I felt sick with hatred for my own people," Biss' reaction to some loud, drunk Americans in a Mexican cantina, and think, "Oh, come on," even while understanding the discomfort such an identification can cause. She tends to cast ambiguous situations in their worst possible light:
"[I] concluded that I deserved to be hated," Biss writes of her time in Mexico. "I knew that my body and my presence there meant something, spoke something to everyone who saw me, but I did not know what. And I still do not know, but I suspect it was something about everything America was stealing from Mexico."
Still, optimism untested can melt into complacency. If we're to keep prodding progress along, Biss' grim observations suggest that we have a ways to go.
Katy Read is a Minneapolis writer whose work has appeared in Salon, More, Brain Child and other publications.