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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Michael Chabon discusses his inspiration for "Telegraph Avenue"

And on that morning of the Simpson verdict, I discovered, to my shame, to my absolute wonder and horror, that in the course of that journey I had, somehow, become a racist. To qualify as a racist you don’t have to go to the extreme of slurring, stereotyping or discriminating against people of another race. All you have to do, as I realized on that autumn morning in 1995, is feel completely disconnected from them.
--Michael Chabon, NY Times, "O.J. Simpson, Racial Utopia and the Moment That Inspired My Novel"
There is something, I think, very compelling about the sentiment above. What I really find interesting about the rest of the article is that he talks about the problem of standing back and observing the other, not connecting as real people, but doesn't seem to realize that he's doing it, right there, in the rest of the piece. The fetishization of the pigment line on his classmate's hand? His sadness over lost "connection," while brushing aside any actual engagement with the reasons for that disconnect? His romanticization of non-existent racial utopia? It's highly problematic and, if not quite racist, then somehow dismissive, patronizing, condescending, glib -- I can't quite put my finger on the term I want here, to describe the way in which the attitude is "off." But it sits wrong with me, somehow, like a wistful paean to his own privileged distance.


  1. I definitely see your point. It's interesting that he mentions the Simpson verdict, though - I have a vivid memory of watching it on tv with a bunch of other college students (I would guess mostly white, but honestly I couldn't tell you at this point, which probably says something) and my dorm advisor, and being vaguely disappointed and surprised by the result.

    Then I walked to the dining hall for lunch to discover that the dining hall workers (mostly townies, mostly African-American) had, in the _twenty minutes_ since the verdict, decorated the entire hall with Buffalo Bills colors and posters and were celebrating. It was a moment of profound disconnection and discomfort - to which I responded by going and asking African-American student friends what they thought, but, not, to my current regret, actually engaging much with the dining hall workers themselves or their perspectives. Which is to say, one of the issues here is that Chabon also seems blind to class differentials and how the kids in Columbia, MD in the 1970s might have little in common with those in South Central in the 1990s.

  2. Yes, Anise -- I think that's part of what feels off about it, to me. It's like he's sad about being out of touch with "Black People," without realizing that the different sets of actual human beings he's talking about are not all the same, and that he's not disconnected from them *just* because they're Black.