Later, when I was alone, I would try to untangle these difficult thoughts. It was obvious that certain whites could be exempted from the general category of our distrust: Ray was always telling me how cool my grandparents were. The term white was simply a shorthand for him, I decided, a tag for what my mother would call a bigot. And although I recognised the risks in his terminology – Ray assured me that we would never talk about whites as whites in front of whites without knowing exactly what we were doing. Without knowing that there might be a price to pay. But was that right? Was there still a price to pay? That was the complicated part, the thing that Ray and I never could seem to agree on.
Here, for those who haven't, are some of the representatives paragraphs from "Dreams of My Father."
At least on the basketball court I could find a community of sorts, with an inner life all its own. It was there that I would make my closest white friends, on turf where blackness couldn’t be a disadvantage. And it was there that I would meet Ray and the other blacks close to my age who had begun to trickle into the islands, teenagers whose confusion and anger would help shape my own.
“That’s just how white folks will do you,” one of them might say when we were alone. Everybody would chuckle, and my mind would run down a ledger of slights: the first boy, in seventh grade, who called me a coon; his tears of surprise (“Why’dya do that?”) when I gave him a bloody nose. The tennis pro who told me that I shouldn’t touch the schedule of matches pinned to the bulletin board because my colour might rub off; his thin-lipped, red-faced smile – “Can’t you take a joke?” – when I threatened to report him.
That’s just how white folks will do you. It wasn’t merely the cruelty involved; I was learning that black people could be mean and then some. It was a particular brand of arrogance, an obtuseness in otherwise sane people that brought forth our bitter laughter. It was as if whites didn’t know that they were being cruel in the first place. Or at least thought you deserving of their scorn. White folks. The term itself was uncomfortable in my mouth at first; I felt like a nonnative speaker tripping over a difficult phrase. Sometimes I would find myself talking to Ray about white folks this or white folks that, and I would suddenly remember my mother’s smile and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false. Or I would be helping Gramps dry the dishes after dinner and Toot [his grandmother] would come in to say that she was going to sleep, and those same words – white folks – would flash in my head like a bright neon sign, and I would suddenly grow quiet, as if I had secrets to keep.