Thursday, January 30, 2014

Patricia Williams: The Alchemy of Race and Rights


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Patricia Williams has written a very strange book. A series of essays, or maybe a book chronicling a who-knows-what time period teaching law as a black woman in the late '80s, early '90s. There are glimmers of brilliance and glimmers of madness. Part of me tells me that it is not madness but personal experience included in a book we normally expect to be dry and "neutral" with the author absent and that I should be glad that Williams is practicing what feminists and womanists preach: centering the self and the lived experience. But part of me found this a difficult book to read and not just because Williams shares how difficult it is to be a black woman law professor. It is a difficult book to read because it is, well, difficult.

The brilliance lies in paragraphs like these that are also the most traditionally written:
The great paradox of democratic freedom is that it involves some measure of enforced equality for all. The worst dictatorships in history have always given some freedom: freedom for a privileged some at the expense of the rest is usually what makes oppression so attractively cost-effective to begin with. Is freedom really such a narrowly pluralistic concept that, so long as we can find some slaves to say they're happy with the status quo, things are fine and free? Are they or the rest of the slaves less enslaved by calling enslavement freedom? (101)
Other moments of truth call out: Williams points out that she and others are often the "first" something- the "first black female" to do something, and wonders when that will stop happening as it's a belittling form of tokenism in a way: "I wonder when I and the millions of other people of color who have done great and noble things or small and courageous things or creative and scientific things- when our achievements will become generalizations about our races and seen as contributions to the larger culture, rather than exceptions to the rule, isolated abnormalities." It's true and it's harsh: the longer that we see an achievement by an (insert ethnic or gender difference here) person as the "first," it serves to diminish the rest of the (insert ethnic or gender difference) population in the name of honoring the individual. Is Williams really the first black female law professor? Is that all she is? Will she always be the first black female law professor? Is it enough that she has done that- does it let institutions off of the hook for hiring others, for making black law professors a norm?

Many of Williams' pieces include harsh truths like this, but not all of them are encased in such readable, understandable language. There are pages and pages about polar bears and I was unable to pull meaning out of this. Williams is bold and brave in her discussions with colleagues and it appears she is isolated because of this. Part of me wonders if being slightly more conciliatory would be more effective while part of me thinks that that would be conceding- Williams wins because she is who she is and doesn't compromise, whether she wins the battles or not. In a long discussion of rights, Williams wins me over that the discussion of needs is a bad one- people have rights, not needs. But she discusses inanimate objects as having rights and her logic confuses me. I'm confused, and I'm writing like her. The book is strange and confusing. Though I wouldn't recommend it, I am better for having read it.

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