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`You Just Wouldn't Understand'

By Juliette N. Kayyem

YOU just wouldn't understand, they tell me. You're white, unsympathetic. You couldn't relate. It's all about color. You just wouldn't understand.

It's a Black Thing--you just wouldn't understand. I saw that shirt this summer on a New York street, where, in the dialogue between the races, baseball bats and bullets have replaced words, where a white female jogger became an anonymous victim and where the trial of her aggressors became daily feed for flashy headlines. It was a summer when judges replaced parents, dishing out punishment to teens too young to even drive a car.

And now it is a winter when Blacks are more willing to believe that there is a capital "C" Conspiracy against them, a conspiracy in which "white America" unleashes AIDS, drugs, crime--you name it--to keep Blacks in their place. We think it is foolish. But, of course, we couldn't understand.

I AM white. No mystery there. So telling me I wouldn't understand is a pretty flimsy intellectual argument. And emotional arguments, to which this belongs, only have their place at political rallies and in the bedroom.

But the worst part is that these emotional appeals to ethnocentrism--to the belief that only those of the same race and creed have the ability to relate--are now becoming a part of academic discourse.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an American literature professor at Duke University, is well-known for a series of editorial pieces he wrote concerning the lyrics of 2 Live Crew, a rap band recently acquitted of obscenty charges in Florida. Their album, "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" tells of the unnatural sexual prowess of the band's members and the irrepressible urge of every "bitch" to throw off all inhibition and consent. (This is the PG-13 exposition of their lyrics; if you want the "Henry and June" mix, buy the album.)

Gates' main claim is that 2 Live Crew, like other rap bands, speaks in a dialogue unappreciated by and unapproachable to white, middle-class America. He says, for example, that the group's dialogue about their Herculean sexual abilities is a spoof of what white America thinks of a Black man in bed. It is a lampoon of the jibe that "once you go Black, you'll never go back."

Gates was asked to testify at the 2 Live Crew hearing in front of a six-member jury. Gates, in effect, was asking the jury to decide based on their inability to understand. Your ignorance, the defense claimed, is immutable. Trust us, because you can't know. It is a Black thing. (Only one Black served on the jury, and she is 61.)

Fortunately, the jury did not take Gates' argument at face value. In fact, they seem to have rejected his major claim. David Garsow, a white 24-year-old Presbyterian who headed the jury, stated that, "We agreed with what he said about this being like Archie Bunker making fun of racism. But Gates was saying that in order to understand the lyrics you had to be young and Black. We didn't buy that."

THEY couldn't buy that.

Ethnocentricism based on claims of superior understanding is a pretty daunting turn in race relations, sexual-orientation relations, gender relations. I have no doubt that being white keeps me from knowing exactly, and personally, what's going on in Black culture. But can you imagine how unconvincing the argument for upholding Roe v. Wade would be if all that was said to men is that "It's a woman's thing. You wouldn't understand."

All we can do is try.

Langston Hughes once wrote:

You are white--

yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. That's American.

Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.

Nor do I often want to be a part of you. But we are, that's true.

That's true. Deconstructionism attempts to unveil the myths which surround our traditional notions of literature, government and economics. We should reclaim them. We should because we need to buy into the myth that we can speak the same language. I'm too inexperienced to know if we can, but if we agree up front that we can't, then it's over. We're better off living a myth than living apart.

To those who say I can't understand, I say, "Maybe I can't. But pretend, just for the sake of argument, that I'm not as white as you think I am."

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