By David Myles Robinson
I recently read (listened to) The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, which I consider to be one of the most important, entertaining, humorous, poignant, and enlightening novels I’ve read in years. It is a hard look into the psyche of black people in America, dressed up in some outrageous satire and wit. It should be mandated reading for all white people in America, but I imagine it will be like so many insightful novels, movies, television shows, and well-researched news stories—which is that The Sellout’s readers will probably be the proverbial choir.
As I told my black friend who prompted me to read the book, white people should read it and learn from it and then mostly shut the fuck up about it in terms of trying to articulate their new-found understanding of how our black neighbors view and react to the world around them. But to me, there is a takeaway we can all talk about, which is that the premise of The Sellout can be applied to all races, ethnic groups, and religions, in America.
Just as the black narrator sees the world through the lens of his blackness, so do Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and whites. Latinos know all too well how they have been and are stereotyped, even before Trump call Mexicans rapists and even before he called for a wall along the only border we share with people of color. A Latino friend of mine in Taos, NM, whose family is multi-generational American, told me that since Trump became President he actually felt uneasy and even somewhat fearful driving across Arizona, where he saw confederate flags for sale at the side of a highway he’d driven innumerable times before. A rational fear? It doesn’t really matter, does it? The fact is that this was the lens through which my Latino friend was viewing his experience.
How many times have I heard white people try to claim that there was no more racism in America before Obama made the country so divisive, as if it was a racial irrelevancy that Trump and so many others maintained that Obama was not even an American? How many times have I heard white people maintain that race doesn’t matter if one simply works hard to achieve, as if there are no racial impediments to achievement?
I don’t expect myself to be able to view the world through the eyes of people who are constantly aware of how they are being viewed. The first black woman State Attorney for the State of Florida was recently pulled over by a policeman who, when pressed as to why he pulled her over, struggled to find a reasonable explanation. How can I or any other white person pretend to understand that kind of event and the countless other, more subtle reminders of one’s race?
What must it be like to be a Muslim-American now, particularly while traveling? Is fair for those looking at them through the lens of their righteous whiteness to shrug and argue that their Imams and other Muslim leaders must do more to stamp out the ideology of the extremists? As if we white people in America should do more to stop the white nationalist extremists/terrorists who have actually killed more Americans in America than Muslims? But that’s not what many white people see through their particular lens.
Obviously there is some generalization here, which in itself may be prejudiced or racist or even what some call reverse racism. Fuck that. The point I’m trying to make is that for whatever reason, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for people to truly see and understand the world through the eyes of people whose day-to-day, if not minute by minute, experiences are framed by who they are and what they look like.
Perhaps someday the color of our skin, or our ethnicity, or our religion will all be irrelevant. I am confident that will not happen in my lifetime. For now, I think all we can really strive for is a realistic level of understanding and empathy.
And in the meantime, read The Sellout. Perhaps it will modify the view through your particular lens.
David Myles Robinson
As will become readily apparent, my blogs will not just be about my books or even writing in general. They will be about whatever suits my fancy--and yes, I'm sorry, but that may include politics from time to time. We live in an interestingly tempestuous time and as a writer I find it impossible to ignore the worldwide psycho-drama (and, at times, psycho-comedy) being played out before us on a virtual daily basis.