They Can Smell Snakes
While I was living in Athens, Georgia in the early to mid-1990s, a friend told me of a bizarre experience she had just had in a local bookstore. She had been browsing the books when another customer, who happened to be a black man, entered the store, looked around for a few things, and then left. As the man was exiting the store, an older white woman leaned over to my friend and whispered conspiratorially, “You know, they can smell snakes.”
Over ten years later, I’m still not quite sure how to take the comment. It’s in no way typical (at least not in the specific claim) – I grew up in the U.S. Southeast, and over the years I’ve heard white people say plenty of things about black people that I would just as soon have not heard, but never anything else quite like that. The ability to smell snakes might even be useful and worthy of envy in a region with a variety of poisonous snakes. As my partner, Reginald Shepherd, who is a black man, commented when I told him about this story, “I’m not sure if I’m offended by that or not.” I’m reminded of a particular comic strip of Aaron Magruder’s Boondocks from a few years ago, right after then Mexican president Vicente Fox’s comment that Mexican immigrants were important to the U.S. because they would take jobs that even blacks wouldn’t. The strip’s main character, Huey, responds something to the effect, “Any minute now I’m going to figure out why I’m offended by that.”
The woman’s specific claim is simply strange, and as I said above not typical. At the same time, though, it is an example of a more general phenomenon. It involves imputing a sort of “animal” or “savage” quality to black people. This, of course, is an all too common component of racist thinking whenever it occurs, the association of the “other” with less than human animal qualities or lesser human savage qualities. In the Americas, this has been particularly the case with racism directed towards people of African descent, and is intimately connected with the intertwined history of slavery, with its actually savage and bestial working conditions, and Enlightenment thinking, with clear ideas of inherent inferiority associated with carefully delineated human groups arising from the attempt to reconcile slavery and abject inequality with new ideals of freedom and equality. (There is a large body of scholarship on this topic of race, racism, slavery, and the Enlightenment. I have found particularly clear and useful, George Fredrickson’s book, Racism: A Short History. On her blog, Nicolette Bethel has written several recent engaging posts on race and the imagery of savagery.)
At some point in my late teens or early twenties, I was looking through a field guide to reptiles with a friend. (I have no real recollection of which friend it was, nor why we were looking at the field guide in this particular context, but that’s not really important here.) We noticed that some species of snakes had distinct coloration patterns depending on the region in which they were found. My friend remarked that it seemed strange that within the same species, one could encounter distinct color patterns.
This was, I think, a momentary lapse in thinking on his part (I could certainly think of at least one other species with distinct patterns of color), but it’s symptomatic of a type of thinking I’ve encountered from time to time over the years among white people. Specifically when they’re among only other white people, some whites seem to forget that people who aren’t white exist. (Let me also emphasis the word “some” in the previous sentence – I’m not saying all white people think this way even part of the time, just that enough do that it’s something I’ve encountered numerous times over the years.) Whiteness is not only naturalized (think about the old Crayola color, “flesh”), but taken as identical with the species – unless non-white people are present.
Two Patterns of Race Thinking
There are then at least two patterns of race/racist thinking that can be occasionally encountered on the part of white people, one pattern when non-white and white people are present together, when animal or savage qualities might be imputed to non-whites in the case of racist thinkers, another pattern when only white people are present, when whiteness might be taken not only as natural, but as so natural that others are temporarily forgotten about.
These are straightforwardly complementary pairs of ways of thinking, but it’s also important to point out that one can exist without the other. Plenty of white people are prone to the second pattern, taking whiteness for granted in the absence of anything clearly different, without necessarily being prone, at least explicitly, to the grotesque racism of the first pattern. (There is a milder variation on the first pattern, where racial difference is marked solely for the sake of distinction, but without imputing qualities of inferiority, e.g. when individuals are remarked on specifically as “black girl” or “Asian man,” even where the individual’s race/ethnicity is irrelevant to the matter at hand. In my own experience, I’ve encountered this sort of race marking very frequently among whites, even among those I wouldn’t generally label as racists.) Likewise, the first pattern, perhaps especially in its most extreme forms, might not be accompanied by the second, i.e. the most virulent racists are probably less prone to take whiteness for granted or momentarily forget the existence of non-whites.