Ian Williams on “Disorientation: Being Black in the World”


On the bookshelf

Disorientation: being black in the world

By Ian Williams
Europe: 224 pages, $ 20

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Whenever Ian Williams walks to his car, the novelist and poet makes sure to have his keys handy, repeatedly unlocking the door remotely with the remote. This, Williams notes in “Disorientation,” his collection of essays on race and the often-overlooked record of persistent racism, is simply what a black man must do in order not to be mistaken for a thief.

“The worst would be to reach the door unprepared, looking for my keys while the whites look suspiciously over their shoulders at me,” Williams writes. In a recent video interview, he gave a concrete example: Two nights earlier, in a Home Depot parking lot, “I got behind this other person so I didn’t feel like I was stalking her until to his car ”.

Born in Trinidad and raised largely in Canada, where he still lives, Williams is thoughtful and provocative in his writing, but far from a fire-breathing polemicist. He’s also happy (perhaps happier) to spend half an hour discussing tennis as he explains the psychological and emotional damage of constantly having to negotiate. safe passage into a white world.

“Disorientation” does not delve deeply into events like the murder of George Floyd (although they did help inspire the book), instead focusing on the daily traumas faced by black people, and not just in the United States. but in all whites. dominated culture. In fact, Williams fears that the headline-grabbing violence against people like Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery will allow whites to downplay the impact of, say, a professor mocked by white students or a man arrested – and humiliated. – by the police without physical injury.

“I want to demystify sensationalism and say that there are degrees to racism – and it happens at different levels, not just in the way the media is interested in,” he says. “There is a lot of work to be done in terms of national activism, but there is also work to be done at the kitchen table.” His interview with The Times has been edited for length and clarity.

What made you switch, as a writer of fiction and poetry, towards these essays?

I was living in Vancouver last year, working on a novel and making good progress. But the pandemic [took] hold on, and there were all these fires, where there was so much smoke that you couldn’t open your windows. And then, of course, the social justice movement around the murder of blacks. I really felt like the world was coming to an end and I thought to myself, “If there is one more book I have to write in my life, would it be this novel?” ” No. I had been pretty quiet for a long time, and it was no longer time to be quiet-slash- “good”. It was time to be honest.

Was this a challenge for you?

I don’t see myself as a political person; I am not leading the parade in terms of activism. I approach this as a literary writer. Black people are often seen as either a calm and good person who doesn’t move – people compliment you and say you look white – or you are a loud and angry activist and people can’t help you. speak. Neither one suits me. The first essay in the book deals with racial and political awareness, trying to find where you are at. I want the really big middleman to find ways to talk about his experiences.

You write: “It is not that I find race in everything, but this race finds me. So many white people complain that people of color do a lot of little things. Is it possible to open your mind to the results of micro-aggressions combined with systemic racism?

Not everyone wants to deal. There is an automatic defensive attitude to the idea that whites are bad and blacks are victimized. The question seems to be, “What are you going to do to make up for the horrible things you have done as white people?” Who wants to be part of it?

I’m not giving white people a pass, but on a human level, who wants to enter an intellectual space where you are seen as a fake and an enemy? It is this erasure of nuances that people reject. They think, “I’m not mean so it’s okay, the laws are there to protect everyone, so why are you making such a big deal about it?” With this book, my question to them is, “What are you afraid of?” Don’t give me platitudes. What do you think is unfair about the way we operate?

When you write “disorientation blocks the momentum of your life,” is it the pain of each individual affront or the idea that, as you say, you have to put on armor every day to prepare for the next?

It is the accumulation over a lifetime. I’m 42 and it’s very different from 22, when there was still resilience and buoyancy. Now I feel the wear and tear that my parents and other black people felt when they reached this age.

I am exhausted because I constantly have to put on armor to defend myself. It’s this disorienting movement – the preparation and then the recovery – that adds an extra layer to the simple act of living.

Your niece and nephew are biracial. Does this make it harder for others to stereotype them?

If they can stay in that middle space and refuse to move to one side or the other, then that will help. I tend to be hopeful, but I also think racism will just find new forms. My niece and nephew will not have to deal with the irritations I have been facing as they are from a generation that cannot stand it. But I think there will be other racist foundations that will appear differently.

You rarely meet other teachers of color when teaching. How much would it help to change attitudes if there was more diversity in education?

I think some parents would be nervous in an all-white classroom if there was a black teacher. There would be an unconscious bias, a nervousness in wondering if she is as smart and skilled as the other teachers. But I think it would be wonderful and I think it is essential to see people of color in various roles in society. This is especially true in those formative moments in elementary school where you spend a year with a teacher and bond with him.

When something is going on in the world, having a black, Latin or Asian teacher in front of the room saying, “Today we are not going to do our math lesson because we have to talk about something” goes deeper than any book and will stay with the kids as they get older.

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