Academic journal article et Cetera

Fifty Years Ago in ETC: Retrospect

Academic journal article et Cetera

Fifty Years Ago in ETC: Retrospect

Article excerpt

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: It would seem the utmost effrontery on my part to speak to you on the subject of the psychological problems of being Negro. I am not a Negro, and never have been. Hence, if any of you want to raise loudly the question, "What do you know about being a Negro?" all I could do is to answer meekly, "Nothing." Then I could sit down and you could go home.

But perhaps it is the temerity of a non-Negro offering to speak on the subject of being Negro that arouses your curiosity. So, since you are polite enough to continue sitting there expectantly, I shall present my credentials and explain why I venture to speak on a subject about which you know so much more than I.

While I am not a Negro, I am a member of a minority group - one that has been the victim of a certain amount of discrimination and prejudice sometimes even persecution. I personally have led a sufficiently sheltered life so that I have encountered no persecution - and, compared to the Negro population of the United States, little discrimination. Nevertheless, I have had to wrestle with some of the same problems the Negro must confront, although no doubt in attenuated form. I was advised in my youth, for example, that there were many jobs and careers I could not hope to aspire to because of my race. Especially during the sensitive years of late adolescence, I met social rebuffs (or imagined rebuffs) which caused me at least some of the inward torture that Negroes in a mixed society must suffer. In later years, after I had decided to be trained as a writer and a teacher of English, I saw what I thought were dozens of people with smaller abilities than my own getting jobs while I cooled my heels in the graduate school waiting for an opening, and wondering if I was being discriminated against. So, I can lay claim to some first-hand acquaintance with minority group psychology; and even though I was not sent to a Japanese relocation center during the war years, I felt intensely and personally the meaning of that relocation....

I believe that what we call courage is nothing more than what general semanticists call being "extensional." Being extensional means constantly being on the lookout for changes and differences in events and things and people that we would otherwise evaluate as unchanged. The basic principles of extensionality are extremely simple: they are called "indexing" and "dating." Indexing means being aware of differences concealed by similarities of name; hence the rule, chair-I is not chair-2 is not chair-3 ... teacher-1 is not teacher-2 is not teacher-3 ... corporation-1 is not corporation-2 is not corporation-3. This rule reminds us that generalizations about chairs, teachers, or corporations may or may not be true of a particular chair, a particular teacher, a particular corporation. The person who indexes is always on the alert for these sometimes important differences. Dating means being aware of the differences that occur in time: Mr. Jones (1940) is not Mr. Jones (1942) is not Mr. Jones (1944); Kirksville (1948) is not Kirksville (1949) is not Kirksville (1950); Supreme Court (1950) is not Supreme Court (1952) is not Supreme Court (1954). The person who maintains this fluidity of concept in terms of time is always on the alert for altered conditions, which may mean altered opportunities. He is also aware that he himself is changing from day to day, month to month, and year to year, so that he has constantly to re-assess his own strengths, abilities, and attitudes.

The extensional person is relatively courageous, then, not because he has more bravado, but because he knows that the things he has been afraid of have changed, that he himself has changed, so that the future is always in some respects, for better or worse, different from the past. Therefore past fears inevitably have less meaning for the extensional person than curiosity about the future. Adjusted to change and difference, the extensional person seems often to walk in where angels fear to tread, not because he is a fool, but because he has been curious enough to investigate what it was the angels were afraid of - and has discovered that whatever it was, it isn't there any more. …

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