Read paper and answer the prompt
Temple University Press
Chapter Title: The Death of the Profane: (a commentary on the genre of legal writing)
Chapter Author(s): Patricia J. Williams
Book Title: Feminism and Community
Book Editor(s): Penny A. Weiss, Marilyn Friedman
Published by: Temple University Press. (1995)
Stable URL: https:// www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt14bs9ds.7
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The Death of the Profane (a commentary on the genre of legal writing)
Patricia J. Williams
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them as screening devices to reduce the incidence of robbery: if the face at the door looks desirable, the buzzer is pressed and the door is un-locked. If the face is that of an undesirable, the door stays locked.
Predictably, the issue of undesirability has revealed itself to be a racial determination. While controversial enough at first, even civil-rights organizations backed down eventually in the face of arguments that the buzzer system is a “necessary evil,” that it is a “mere inconvenience” in comparison to the risks of being murdered, that suffering discrimination is not as bad as being assaulted, and that in any event it is not all blacks who are barred, just “17-year-old black males wearing running shoes and hooded sweatshirts.”1
The installation of these buzzers happened swiftly in New York; stores that had always had their doors wide open suddenly became exclusive or received people by appointment only. I discovered them and their meaning one Saturday in 1986. I was shopping in Soho and saw in a store window a sweater that I wanted to buy for my mother. I pressed my round brown face to the window and my finger to the buzzer, seeking
Reprinted by permission of the publishers from The Alchemy of Race and Other Rights, by Patricia J. Williams (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press).
Copyright © 1991 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
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pit me against the limits of his social understanding. After about five seconds, he mouthed “We’re closed,” and blew pink rubber at me. It was two Saturdays before Christmas, at one o’clock in the afternoon; there were several white people in the store who appeared to be shopping for things for their mothers.
I was enraged. At that moment I literally wanted to break all the windows of the store and take lots of sweaters for my mother. In the flicker of his judgmental gray eyes, that saleschild had transformed my brightly sentimental, joy-to-the-world, pre-Christmas spree to a sham-bles. He snuffed my sense of humanitarian catholicity, and there was nothing I could do to snuff his, without making a spectacle of myself.
I am still struck by the structure of power that drove me into such a blizzard of rage. There was almost nothing I could do, short of physically intruding upon him, that would humiliate him the way he humiliated me. No words, no gestures, no prejudices of my own would make a bit of difference to him; his refusal to let me into the store – it was Benetton’s, whose colorfully punnish ad campaign is premised on wrapping every one of the world’s peoples in its cottons and woolens — was an outward manifestation of his never having let someone like me into the realm of his reality. He had no compassion, no remorse, no reference to me; and no desire to acknowledge me even at the estranged level of arm’s-length transactor. He saw me only as one who would take his money and therefore could not conceive that I was there to give him money.
In this weird ontological imbalance, I realized that buying something in that store was like bestowing a gift, the gift of my commerce, the lucre of my patronage. In the wake of my outrage, I wanted to take back the gift of appreciation that my peering in the window must have appeared to be. I wanted to take it back in the form of unappreciation, disrespect, defilement. I wanted to work so hard at wishing he could feel what I felt that he would never again mistake my hatred for some sort of plaintive wish to be included. I was quite willing to disenfranchise myself, in the heat of my need to revoke the flattery of my purchasing power. I was willing to boycott Benetton’s, random white-owned businesses, and anyone who ever blew bubble gum in my face again.
My rage was admittedly diffuse, even self-destructive, but it was symmetrical. The perhaps loose-ended but utter propriety of that rage is no doubt lost, not just to the young man who actually barred me, but to those who would appreciate my being barred only as an abstract precau tion, who approve of those who would bar even as they deny that they would bar me.
The violence of my desire to burst into Benetton’s is probably quite apparent. I often wonder if the violence, the exclusionary hatred, is equally apparent in the repeated public urgings that blacks understand the buzzer system by putting themselves in the shoes of white store-owners – that, in effect, blacks look into the mirror of frightened white faces for the reality of their undesirability; and that then blacks would
“just as surely conclude that [they] would not let [themselves) in under similar circumstances.” (That some blacks might agree merely shows that some of us have learned too well the lessons of privatized intimacies of self-hatred and rationalized away the fullness of our public, participatory selves.)
On the same day I was barred from Benetton’s, I went home and wrote the above impassioned account in my journal. On the day after that, I found I was still brooding, so I turned to a form of catharsis I have always found healing. I typed up as much of the story as I have just told, made a big poster of it, put a nice colorful border around it, and, after Benetton’s was truly closed, stuck it to their big sweater-filled window. I exercised my first-amendment right to place my business with them right out in the street.
So that was the first telling of this story. The second telling came a few months later, for a symposium on Excluded Voices sponsored by a law review. I wrote an essay summing up my feelings about being excluded from Benetton’s and analyzing “how the rhetoric of increased privatiza-tion, in response to racial issues, functions as the rationalizing agent of public unaccountability and, ultimately, irresponsibility.” Weeks later, I received the first edit. From the first page to the last, my fury had been carefully cut out. My rushing, run-on-rage had been reduced to simple declarative sentences. The active personal had been inverted in favor of the passive impersonal. My words were different; they spoke to me upsidedown. I was afraid to read too much of it at a time – meanings rose up at me oddly, stolen and strange.
A week and a half later, I received the second edit. All reference to Benetton’s had been deleted because, according to the editors and the faculty adviser, it was defamatory; they feared harassment and liability; they said printing it would be irresponsible. I called them and offered to supply a footnote attesting to this as my personal experience at one particular location and of a buzzer system not limited to Benetton’s; the editors told me that they were not in the habit of publishing things that were unverifiable. I could not but wonder, in this refusal even to let me file an affadavit, what it would take to make my experience verifiable.
The testimony of an independent white bystander? (a requirement in fact imposed in U.S. Supreme Court holdings through the first part of the century?)
Two days after the piece was sent to press, I received copies of the final page proofs. All reference to my race had been eliminated because it was against “editorial policy” to permit descriiptions of physiognomy. “I realize,” wrote one editor, “that this was a very personal experience, but any reader will know what you must have looked like when standing at that window.” In a telephone conversation to them, I ranted wildly about the significance of such an omission. “It’s irrelevant,” another editor explained in a voice gummy with soothing and patience; “It’s nice and poetic,” but it doesn’t “advance the discussion of any principle….
This is a law review, after all.” Frustrated, I accused him of censorship; calmly he assured me it was not. “This is just a matter of style,” he said with firmness and finality.
Ultimately I did convince the editors that mention of my race was central to the whole sense of the subsequent text; that my story became one of extreme paranoia without the information that I am black; or that it became one in which the reader had to fill in the gap by assumption, presumption, prejudgment, or prejudice. What was most interesting to me in this experience was how the blind application of principles of neutrality, through the device of omission, acted either to make me look crazy or to make the reader participate in old habits of cultural bias.
That was the second telling of my story. The third telling came last April, when I was invited to participate in a law-school conference on Equality and Difference. I retold my sad tale of exclusion from Soho’s most glitzy boutique, focusing in this version on the law-review editing process as a consequence of an ideology of style rooted in a social text of neutrality. I opined:
Law and legal writing aspire to formalized, color-blind, liberal ideals. Neutrality is the standard for assuring these ideals; yet the adherence to it is often determined by reference to an aesthetic of uniformity, in which difference is simply omitted. For example, when segregation was eradicated from the American lexicon, its omission led many to actually believe that racism therefore no longer existed. Race-neutrality in law has become the presumed antidote for race bias in real life. With the entrenchment of the notion of race-neutrality came attacks on the concept of affirmative action and the rise of reverse discrimination suits. Blacks, for so many generations deprived of jobs based on the color of our skin, are now told that we ought to find it demeaning to be hired, based on the color of our skin. Such is the silliness of simplistic either-or inversions as remedies to complex problems.
What is truly demeaning in this era of double-speak-no-evil is going on interviews and not getting hired because someone doesn’t think we’ll be comfortable. It is demeaning not to get promoted because we’re judged “too weak,” then putting in a lot of energy the next time and getting fired because we’re “too strong.” It is demeaning to be told what we find demeaning. It is very demeaning to stand on street corners unemployed and begging. It is downright demeaning to have to explain why we haven’t been employed for months and then watch the job go to someone who is “more experienced.” It is outrageously demeaning that none of this can be called racism, even if it happens only to, or to large numbers of, black people; as long as it’s done with a smile, a handshake and a shrug; as long as the phantom-word “race” is never used.
The image of race as a phantom-word came to me after I moved into my late godmother’s home. In an attempt to make it my own, I cleared the bedroom for painting. The following morning the room asserted itself, came rushing and raging at me through the emptiness, exactly as it had been for twenty-five years. One day filled with profuse and overwhelming complexity, the next day filled with persistently recurring memories. The shape of the past came to haunt me, the shape of the emptiness confronted me each time I was about to enter the room. The force of its spirit still drifts like an odor throughout the house.
The power of that room, I have thought since, is very like the power of racism as status quo: it is deep, angry, eradicated from view, but strong enough to make everyone who enters the room walk around the bed that isn’t there, avoiding the phantom as they did the substance, for fear of bodily harm. They do not even know they are avoiding; they defer to the unseen shapes of things with subtle responsiveness, guided by an impulsive awareness of nothingness, and the deep knowledge and denial of witchcraft at work. The phantom room is to me symbolic of the emptiness of formal equal opportunity, particularly as propounded by President Reagan, the Reagan Civil Rights Commission and the Reagan Supreme Court. Blindly formalized constructions of equal opportunity are the creation of a space that is filled in by a meandering stream of unguided hopes, dreams, fantasies, fears, recollections. They are the presence of the past in imaginary, imagistic form — the phantom-roomed exile of our longing.
It is thus that I strongly believe in the efficacy of programs and paradigms like affirmative action. Blacks are the objects of a constitutional omission which has been incorporated into a theory of neutrality. It is thus that omission is really a form of expression, as oxymoronic as that sounds: racial omission is a literal part of original intent; it is the fixed, reiterated prophecy of the Founding Fathers. It is thus that affirmative action is an affirmation; the affirmative act of hiring – or hearing – blacks is a recognition of individuality that re-places blacks as a social statistic, that is profoundly interconnective to the fate of blacks and whites either as sub-groups or as one group. In this sense, affirmative action is as mystical and beyond-the-self as an initiation ceremony. It is an act of verification and of vision. It is an act of social as well as professional responsibility.
The following morning I opened the local newspaper, to find that the event of my speech had commanded two columns on the front page of the Metro section. I quote only the opening lines: “Affirmative action promotes prejudice by denying the status of women and blacks, instead of affirming them as its name suggests. So said New York City attorney Patricia Williams to an audience Wednesday.”4
I clipped out the article and put it in my journal. In the margin there is a note to myself: eventually, it says, I should try to pull all these threads together into yet another law-review article. The problem, of course, will be that in the hierarchy of law-review citation, the article in the newspaper will have more authoritative weight about me, as a so-called primary resource, than I will have; it will take precedence over my own citation of the unverifiable testimony of my speech.
I have used the Benetton’s story a lot, in speaking engagements at various schools. I tell it whenever I am too tired to whip up an original speech from scratch. Here are some of the questions I have been asked in the wake of its telling:
Am I not privileging a racial perspective, by considering only the black point of view? Don’t I have an obligation to include the “sales-man’s side” of the story?
Am I not putting the salesman on trial and finding him guilty of racism without giving him a chance to respond to or cross-examine me?
Am I not using the store window as a “metaphorical fence” against the potential of his explanation in order to represent my side as “authen-tic”?
How can I be sure I’m right?
What makes my experience the real black one anyway?
Isn’t it possible that another black person would disagree with my experience? If so, doesn’t that render my story too unempirical and subjective to pay any attention to?
Always a major objection is to my having put the poster on Benetton’s window. As one law professor put it: “It’s one thing to publish this in a law review, where no one can take it personally, but it’s another thing altogether to put your own interpretation right out there, just like that, uncontested, I mean, with nothing to counter it.”S
I. “When ‘By Appointment’ Means Keep Out,” New York Times, December 17, 1986, p. Br. Letter to the Editor from Michael Levin and Mar-guerita Levin, New York Times, January 1I, 1987, p. E32.
2. New York Times, January 11, 1987, p. Ezz.
3. See generally Blyew v. U.S., 80 U.S. 581 (1871), upholding a state’s right to forbid blacks to testify against whites.
4. “Attorney Says Affirmative Action Denies Racism, Sexism,” Dominion Post (Morgantown, West Virginia), April 8, 1988, p. BI.
5. These questions put me on trial — an imaginary trial where it is I who have the burden of proof — and proof being nothing less than the testimony of the salesman actually confessing yes yes I am a racist. These questions question my own ability to know, to assess, to be objective. And of course, since anything that happens to me is inherently subjective, they take away my power to know what happens to me in the world. Others, by this standard, will always know better than I. And my insistence on recounting stories from my own perspective will be treated as presumption, slander, paranoid hallucination, or just plain lies. Recently I got an urgent call from Thomas Grey of Stanford Law School. He had used this piece in his jurisprudence class, and a rumor got started that the Benetton’s story wasn’t true, that I had made it up, that it was a fantasy, a lie that was probably the product of a diseased mind trying to make all white people feel guilty. At this point I realized it almost didn’t make any difference whether I was telling the truth or not — that the greater issue I had to face was the overwhelming weight of a disbelief that goes beyond mere disinclination to believe and becomes active suppression of anything I might have to say. The greater problem is a powerfully oppressive mechanism for denial of black self-knowledge and expression. And this denial cannot be separated from the simultaneously pathological willingness to believe certain things about blacks – not to believe them, but things about them.
When students in Grey’s class believed and then claimed that I had made it all up, they put me in a position like that of Tawana Brawley. I mean that specifi-cally: the social consequence of concluding that we are liars operates as a kind of public absolution of racism – the conclusion is not merely that we are troubled or that I am eccentric, but that we, as liars, are the norm. Therefore, the nonbelievers can believe, things of this sort really don’t happen (even in the face of statistics to the contrary). Racism or rape is all a big fantasy concocted by troublesome minorities and women. It is interesting to recall the outcry in every national medium, from the New York Post to the Times to the major networks, in the wake of the Brawley case: who will ever again believe a black woman who cries rape by a white man? Now shift the frame a bit, and imagine a white male facing a consensus that he lied. Would there be a difference? Consider Charles Stuart, for example, the white Bostonian who accused a black man of murdering his pregnant wife and whose brother later alleged that in fact the brothers had conspired to murder her. Most people and the media not only did not claim but actively resisted believing that Stuart represented any kind of “white male” norm. Instead he was written off as a troubled weirdo, a deviant -again even in the face of spousal-abuse statistics to the contrary. There was not a story I could find that carried on about “who will ever believe” the next white man who cries murder.
- Choose one of the following questions.
- Discuss the impacts of Physician-Assisted Suicide.
- How dose this reading to your experiences or the experiences of other individuals?
- List three types of goods that are classified as inventory.
- Discuss Diet related disease: high blood pressure.
- Discuss The differences of the Culture and Values between the United States and Spain.
- In “The Good Samaritan,” what steps did the Samaritan take to help the beaten man?
- Discuss African Americans in sports.
- Analyze the influence of cultural diversity when addressing global issues.
- Discuss Natural Language Processing for the Social Sciences.