Categorical Kindness

The hidden racism of polite condescension

Tobias Zils/Flickr
Tobias Zils/Flickr

Recently, at the English Theatre in Berlin, I read from my ongoing work on the way we construct racial identity. Afterward, during the Q&A period, a high school-aged German girl posed a question that both caught me off guard and confirmed one of my worst abiding suspicions. What do I think, she asked, of the fact that white Germans like herself are conditioned—taught explicitly by ostensibly well-meaning adults—to regard blacks and other immigrants with unadulterated pity? To bring, she emphasized, to every interaction with a nonwhite person the ambient awareness that they have likely suffered in some way that is inconceivable to a European, especially a German, and to treat such people with a magnanimous gentleness that they might otherwise withhold from another white person. A person, that is, who can handle it. She then likened the idea to “the way one is supposed to interact with old ladies.”

I responded that I found this one of the most patronizing things I’d ever heard in my life. I told her that few things are more dehumanizing than perceiving a person as nothing more than a category. But also that I fear this is the world we are all too happily creating and have been for some time now. This, it seems to me, is one of the many exorbitant hidden costs attached to the nonstop discourse around white supremacy and post-colonialism (even within the European nations that were not colonial powers)—compassion tinged with condescension.

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Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.


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