Grace under pressure

February 7, 1997

What the papers said of Patricia Williams: "She is the great great grand-daughter of a slave impregnated by her white owner, a fact she refers to often in her writing as if it makes her better qualified to assess the black condition."

Daily Mail

"What she says: 'My concern is one of daily negotiation of what it means really to live as a certain kind of cookie-cutter stereotype.' What does she mean? Suggestions on a postcard to I"

Daily Telegraph

Nicola Lacey meets this year's Reith lecturer, Patricia Williams, and finds that her work scarcely deserves the opprobrium the British press has heaped on it.

In the European Year against Racism, a well-known American law professor came to this country with the modest ambition of contributing to a civilised public conversation about "the persistence of prejudice", in the words of the subtitle of her latest book. Since she came from one of the top US law schools, equipped with a reputation as both writer and broadcaster, and in response to an invitation to speak from one of the most prestigious platforms in the world - the BBC's Reith Lectures - she might reasonably have disembarked from the plane in a cautiously optimistic frame of mind. Her optimism, however, was to be short-lived. Within a matter of days - and before a single word of her lectures had been broadcast - a storm of invective was unleashed from those unwilling to listen to her arguments.

The professor might well have comforted herself with the thought that this noise was eloquent, if ugly, testimony to the veracity of some of her central claims - notably that contemporary social discourse is marked by a denial of the relevance of race and by hysterical reactions to attempts to make race visible. She might have found solace also in the thought that the press reaction, led by the Daily Mail and its headline "She's a militant black feminist who thinks all whites are racist", underlined the importance of her commitment to asking whether a different sort of conversation about race could be had. There was, however, little to console those "people of good will" whom she sought to address, and they were left to reflect upon the distance yet to be travelled in their country towards the state of "grace" evoked in the title of the professor's lectures: "A genealogy of race: towards a theory of grace".

Meeting Patricia Williams, professor of law at Columbia University, one is immediately aware that she is too wise to have been very optimistic about her likely reception as the 1997 Reith lecturer. She is also too gracious, and too deeply committed both to the principle of civilised communication and to the vision of racial justice, to have taken any comfort from how the reaction to her presence in some sections of the press confirms her own hypotheses. Elegant and softly spoken, Williams personifies her project of "talking about race quietly".

In the midst of a punishing schedule of writing, recording, giving interviews and attending receptions, even her great politeness cannot disguise the fact that she is physically tired and - though she is philosophical about it - dispirited by her treatment at the hands of the media. Her time is limited, and she has the slightly bemused air of someone who is being shepherded in a kindly but determined way from one commitment to another. But as soon as she gathers that I am genuinely interested in her ideas, she relaxes, and the articulacy with which she responds makes me reflect that her halting performance on Radio Four's Start the Week programme last week was more a product of presenter Melvyn Bragg's impatient interruptions than of any lack of clarity in her ideas.

As a law teacher, I am already familiar with the published work which has made Williams one of the best known of the American "critical race theorists". Her first book, The Alchemy of Race and Rights, employs the techniques of allegory and metaphor to prompt its readers to meditate on the continuing echoes of the history of American racism in contemporary law and society. Its intensely personal style (the subtitle is "Diary of a Law Professor") speaks very powerfully, in my experience, to students. Williams is a scholar who has not only made an important contribution to legal theory but also carved out a genre of rhetoric all her own. For these reasons I am keen to ask her about the interplay between her intellectual and political commitments and the narrative form in which she typically expresses them.

We begin by discussing the lectures and their relationship to her books. She explains that her project is to illuminate the "social negotiation of race in small encounters". She aims to reveal the role of race as an unconscious but powerful element in everyday life, creating misunderstandings and enacting "micro-aggressions". Using her literary skills, she seeks to expose the "gaps in perception of the importance of race in the lives of black and white people". Though she is wary of the potentially repressive implications of fixed utopian visions, Williams sees the filling of these gaps in perception as central to the broader project of working towards a fairer society. She emphasises that her aim is not to provide a "grand" theory of racial injustice or oppression; nor does she want to focus on obvious cases of bigotry and violence. Rather, her approach in these lectures is one of ambitious modesty: it is to reveal the texture of race in the everyday encounters of people of good will, with a view to making a "real, reasoned and nuanced discussion of race" possible.

In view of the more extreme reactions to Williams, it is worth mentioning that the politics of this enterprise are, essentially, an inclusive version of the liberalism that underpinned the American civil rights movement. Williams continues to see ideals such as "colour-blindness" as a motivating horizon - recalling the importance of the ideal in dismantling segregation. Nonetheless, she emphasises the need to distinguish between a commitment to the ideal of colour-blindness and a realisation that the literal application of colour-blind policies may reinforce patterns shaped by a history of prejudice. A strict application of colour-blind legislation would, for instance, rule out the use of job quotas favouring African-Americans.

Williams's traditional civil rights politics are tempered by a recognition of the need to extend a critical analysis to both unconscious and micro-levels of racism. She believes not only that the personal is political, but, further, that that which is repressed within the personal is doubly so. The sorts of political and legal strategies which she advocates - widened access to the media, expanded forms of public discussion, acceptance of multiple voices in political institutions and popular culture, policies of affirmative action - could hardly be said to be revolutionary. Unlike many white feminists, Williams is a steadfast optimist about the power of law reform, at least in the American context. What is quietly revolutionary in her thought is the belief that small-scale stories, personal experiences, can serve to make the reality of racism, in Williams's words, "intimately apparent". This apparition, in turn, may undermine the accusations - for example, that affirmative action leads to a lowering of standards rather than a diversification of values - which have underpinned the backlash against civil rights in the US.

Far from being a "militant black feminist who thinks that all whites are racist", then, Williams's dream is the dream of Martin Luther King. The "grace" evoked in her lectures derives from another dream - that of her small son, who awoke one morning to tell her that he had seen a miracle, in waking to find his dream all around him. Williams's conversation is laced with stories such as this. As in her writing, this creates a heady rhetoric in which the insights of everyday life, the lessons of history and the commitments of tradition are woven together. When we move on to discuss the role of storytelling, I ask how she selects her anecdotes and how she views this aspect of her method. She points out that what is controversial about her work is not so much her use of narrative style as the forms of story which she tells: "We all tell stories all the time: but it's controversial when it crosses disciplines." Were she an essayist rather than a law professor, her style, which challenges the analytic canon of the western academy, would be less remarkable; and in her days as a trial lawyer, her persuasive argument framed around reasoning by hypotheticals was structurally related to storytelling.

But Williams is also wary of her reputation as a storyteller - "gathering you all", she says wryly, "around my skirts" - resonant as it is with stereotypical images of black women's role in the oral tradition of African-American communities. This is partly her general caution about a too-ready romanticism about "different" traditions, and her astuteness to the risk that an emphasis on the need to respect "difference" can lead to a refixing of those marked by difference into stereotyped roles. Hence, paradoxically, the politics of difference may obscure the fact that the capacity to move between a variety of roles has always been a function of social privilege. She is keen to emphasise that her work is "not just storytelling", and that her stories are designed to prompt a certain line of thought, to elicit a response, to open a mental window. As such, both the substance and the structure of her stories are, of course, informed by analysis, and any supposed clash between the narrative and the analytic collapses.

Our final point of discussion is the tricky issue - much debated under the leaky umbrella of "political correctness" - of teaching questions of race in a white-dominated academy. Here, the Daily Mail will probably be disappointed to learn that Williams declares herself an unambiguous "critic of the notion that white people cannot teach issues of race in the academy".

Part of her power lies in the modesty of her method. As I read her latest book, The Rooster's Egg, I felt ambivalent. I was engaged by the stories, amused by the wit, struck by the images, but uncertain about the conclusions to be drawn. Still musing on the book, I spent last Monday evening watching television. Within minutes, I was wincing as Ruby Wax and Sharon Stone joked about mistaking the name of their Chinese hotel waiter (they all look the same ...). Half an hour later, I was wincing again - this time at a dialogue in which Jeremy Paxman suggested to the home secretary that a decisive criticism of the police bill was that, as reported in a Turkish newspaper, it instituted surveillance measures more draconian than those in Turkey. To this, Michael Howard unhesitatingly retorted that he did not suppose a Turkish paper understood anything about the proposed legislation. Maybe I would have noticed these things even had The Rooster's Egg not been fresh in my mind: then again, maybe I would not.

Williams undoubtedly meets her ambition of revealing the racially nuanced texture of everyday life. Though the political upshot of her work may as yet be unclear, in a world in which the British prime minister feels able to veto the establishment of a European Union centre to monitor racism and xenophobia, we cannot afford to be deaf to one of the most eloquent voices in the struggle against racism.

Nicola Lacey is professor of law at Birkbeck College. Patricia Williams's lectures begin on February 25 on Radio 4 at 8.30 pm.

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