When Heroism is Ignorance
Malcolm Gladwell – in an article on the over-hyped role of new media in social protest movements – includes one unsourced quote, buried in his description of the first Woolworth's lunch counter sit-in, in Greensboro, NC, in 1960, that transfixed me.
When four teenage students sat in the whites-only section of the counter and politely ordered coffee, the white waiter refused them service, and an angry crowd quickly gathered. At the same time, Gladwell reports, "[a]nother employee, a black woman who worked at the steam table, approached the students and tried to warn them away. 'You're acting stupid, ignorant!' she said."
What could she have meant by that?
The incident, and her phrasing, fascinate me. I think there's a volume packed into those four words, but it's a book I don't know how to read.
Was she, in fact, "warning" them – encouraging them away for their own safety? Her words hardly sound like it. Was she angry at them for inflaming racial tensions? That would be understandable, and seems to make more sense in light of the words quoted. Even so, would she not have had at least a little pride in their boldness and determination? (As Gladwell notes, the protest grew to over 30 participants the next morning, and hundreds within a few days – why was this woman so quick to disapprove, when others were quick to join in?) Was she so assimilated into Jim Crow that she feared change in general?
The word "ignorance" carries a lot of freight here. I have frequently heard it used – almost always by blacks – as a dismissal of racism and prejudice: "Oh, that's just ignorance!" It took me a very long time to understand what that meant.
Obviously, people who are racist are deeply wrong in their basic beliefs, but wrong in a way that had never seemed to me to proceed from ignorance, exactly. Racism was not the kind of thing you could counter by providing more information. Racism is not the product of, but the cause of, the false beliefs that characterize it: racists don't hate blacks because they believe them to be inferior, but believe blacks are inferior because they hate them.
After a long time of being puzzled by this, I began dimly to see what it meant to say that racism is "ignorance". It is literally so, in the sense of being characterized by false beliefs (or the kind of disordered thinking that ignorant people engage in). But naming it thus is not a prescription for resolution – saying "he's just ignorant" about a racist is not the same as saying "he needs better information". It is a cognitive and moral categorization that assigns racist statements or beliefs their proper status as negligible.
We don't take ignorant people seriously, and we don't accept their declarations of fact as determinative. To name racism as ignorance is to make it one of the things not to be taken seriously – and, not insignificantly, to put the speaker in the place of judging the bigot. "That's just ignorance" elevates the speaker and denigrates the bigotry, by (accurately) categorizing it as a thing so wrongheaded as to be treated with contemptuous dismissal.
But in what way can you characterize someone fighting bigotry – a member of the oppressed class themselves – as "ignorant"? What is it that person is doing that is contemptible, or negligible? What are they wrong about that negates their claim to be taken seriously?
It is possible to imagine that what this woman meant by "ignorant" was not "false and deluded", in the way of a racist bigot, but perhaps "misguided", in the sense of someone doing something uncomprehendingly reckless or dangerous. That could make sense: she was telling them that they didn't know what they were getting into, they were unaware of the possible consequences, they were naive. Was this her warning to them?
It would not be an unreasonable warning. Surely no black person in Greensboro, NC, in 1960, would have been likely to dismiss the dangers of publicly defying Jim Crow – the students themselves are quoted as saying they were so scared they almost fell off their stools. But they were very young, and a bit emboldened by their knowledge of previous successful civil rights protests, and one of them had challenged the others the night before, saying "Are you guys chicken, or not?". Maybe they hadn't really thought it through carefully enough, or maybe it at least seemed that way to the woman behind the counter, older, wearier, and caught in the crossfire. Maybe, to blacks of her generation, in that town, stupidity and ignorance were the only likely explanations for committing suicide at a coffee bar out of sheer pigheadedness on an otherwise normal afternoon.
But still there is more here.
As with the racist, it is not clear that "ignorant" behavior by black people is the product of lack of information in the ordinary sense. But as with the naive it may be the result of a failure to consider consequences – to recognize that other people are affected by the impression you create through behavior you choose for yourself. Perhaps the failure of due consideration by these impulsive youngsters was not of the possible consequences to themselves, which in fact they had considered at length and made a brave and deliberate decision to face, but of the possible consequences to the broader black community. By creating an impression of a militancy that other blacks may not have shared, by heightening tensions in the community in which other blacks had to live (and for longer than a four-year college term), by possibly provoking a backlash, by inflaming violence that might be visited upon random non-participants, they may have acted in an unmindful manner. Perhaps that was what she was trying to say to them.
In the end, I don't know. I can't tell what she was trying to say to those four so very young and frightened men who, as they could not have known at the time, were kicking off, with one simple act, the wave of civil disobedience actions that became a central part of the Civil Rights Movement. I don't know why her words were so harsh, or why she chose to apply a term often used to deflect racist attacks on black people to black people who were themselves flouting racism.
I don't know why she couldn't see them as heroes, as many in their community did, at that very moment – or did she know heroism when she saw it, and know it was often tragic? Had she seen what happened to young black men too full of their own righteousness, and was she trying to tell them what pride amounted to in that time and place?
No one today would apply her words to those heroes, beautiful in their youth and reckless bravery, brilliant in the simplicity and truth of the moral authority in their nation-shattering request: "I'd like a cup of coffee, please". But no one today is a middle-aged black woman working a segregated lunch counter in Jim Crow Dixie.
"I'd like a cup of coffee, please."
"Stupid"? "Ignorant"? How could it be so? I wish I understood.