“I thought if that knowledge became as widespread as could possibly be managed or imagined we might finally reach some kind of herd immunity. I don’t think that anymore” (83).
In a searing finale, Smith merges her thoughts on racism and the pandemic to provide her theory on what’s really plaguing America. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.
Today we’ll cover the last two sections of the essay “Screengrabs,” as well as the final titular essay in Intimations by Zadie Smith.
Last week we talked about the first five sections of “Screengrabs.” They present images of the man who provides her regular massages, whose work was most definity in jeopardy during the pandemic; a man in a wheelchair who mocks all of the New Yorkers fleeing the city, saying that he won’t be convinced to leave the place he calls home; a brash and outspoken older woman who softens just a little when she assures those in the neighborhood that they’ll get through the crisis together, as a community; an IT Guy named Cy who, like many other young adults, will see his career prospects be cut short before he’s even had a chance to begin; and thoughts on video conferences with her mother. We also talked about what inspired Smith to write these portraits, and we considered some statistics that showed that many more businesses closed during 2020 than usual and that the effects of this recession will likely continue to affect graduating students for another 10-15 years. Let’s finish hearing Smith’s thoughts on our current times.
A PROVOCATION IN THE PARK
Smith describes an Asian man in a park holding a sign that reads “I am a self-hating Asian. Let’s talk!” She finds herself playing what she calls “that pointless city game of tic-tac-diag-nosis,” a play on a childhood game called Tic-Tac-Toe. Does the man have a mental illness? Is the sign ironic? Is it about a TV show? Is he just trying to provoke a reaction from someone? Is he expressing a political ideology?
On the subject of ideology, Smith writes that she can be very dumb about things that seem obvious to others. For example, she knows that she’s meant to see Sayfullo Saipov as an ideological terrorist. In 2017, Saipov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, drove a pickup truck into a crowded bike path in Manhattan, and then ran down the highway with pellet and paintball guns while shouting “Allahu akbar,” which is “God is great” in Arabic.1 He killed eight people. On the other hand, Stephen Craig Paddock, the man who killed more than fifty people while shooting into a concert from the 32nd floor of a hotel in Las Vegas, also in 2017, is simply called crazy.2 Instead of comprehending these arbitrary divisions, she sees what she calls “the imposition of toxic narrative over phenomena.” The way we talk about crime changes depending on who commits the crime, even while the crime itself remains the same. This is largely influenced by demographics, like race, religion, gender, and citizenship status. Saipov, an immigrant, was branded a terrorist. Paddock, a white American, was spoken of as a “lone-gunman.”
Smith writes that the term “hate crime” when applied to murder is a difficult one for her to understand. The importance given to hate crimes gives it a certain amount of unwarranted power, as if it’s worse than an “ordinary” murder. Instead, Smith argues that the hatred of an entire group is actually the most unoriginal sort of hate. It shouldn’t get extra attention, for that’s what the murderer actually wants: to believe that he’s special, not that he’s just any other killer who walks into a church and takes the lives of innocent people, as Dylan Roof, another White American, did in 2015 when he walked into South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and shot nine African-American congregants in bible study.3 (He, too, was called a “gunman” and not a “terrorist.”)
The term “ideology” only disguises what, at its root, Smith calls a “result of a hopeless inadequacy, both personal and social.” She writes that we continue to see, particularly in young men, a conflation of the thought “I hate X people” with thoughts of personal failings. However, Smith writes that she understands the instinct to confuse simple hate with an ideological motive, for the crimes are so horrific that we have a need to believe they’re the result of something much stronger.
Smith returns to wondering what the Asian man in the park means with his sign. She says that the deep inability to understand reality is what we used to call “madness.” In a time when the entire world is incomprehensible, what effect might that have on those who have never maintained a smooth relationship between the world and their own minds? While the man later sent an email to the university faculty explaining that he had a condition called “ethno-racial dysphoria”—”dysphoria” meaning a “state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life” and “ethno-racial” referring to both ethnicity and race—, Smith can’t help but wonder what life must be like for those who are mentally unwell.4 Does the world seem even further away, or does it finally feel as though it matches the concept in your own mind?
POSTSCRIPT: CONTEMPT AS A VIRUS
In my opinion, this is the most hard-hitting of the essays in this collection. Here, Smith creates a metaphor between two of the greatest crises we were suffering in 2020, racial unrest and the pandemic, and she shows how they’re not all that different from each other in theory. She says that contempt can be thought of as a virus, as it starts by infecting individuals and then quickly spreads through entire communities, power structures, and nations. It’s less obvious than hate, but it’s deadlier because it’s more common and less visible. Like a virus, contempt doesn’t need a motive to kill. It simply doesn’t care about you. Smith writes that before reaching the level of contempt, you’re thought of as less than an entire person, perhaps “three fifths of the whole.”
When Smith uses this phrase, she’s referring to the Three-Fifths Compromise, which was a clause in US Constitution that stated that representatives and taxes would be proportionate to the “whole Number of free Persons” and “three fifths of all other Persons.”5 Those “other Persons” were slaves. This allowed slaveholding states to gain more representation and power in the government without granting that same representation and power to the slaves who were forced to live there. It was repealed in 1868 with the 14th Amendment, which states that all people born or naturalized in the US are citizens of the country and of the state in which they live.6
Smith continues by discussing the way the pandemic was being handled in England. She says that for Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s advisor, the idea of the “categorical imperative” doesn’t exist. “Categorical imperative” is a term used by the philosopher Immanuel Kant that refers to “an unconditional moral obligation which is binding in all circumstances and is not dependent on a person’s inclination or purpose.”7 While the entire country was being told not to travel, Cummings was seen in the city of Durham, which is 264 miles from where he lives in London. This was even after he began showing COVID-19 symptoms. There was a public outcry and calls for his resignation in response. Cummings stepped down from his role in the government in December 2020, reportedly over other issues.8
Smith writes of this belief as a particularly “British strain” of the contempt virus. She says that when you have this strain, “you believe that people are there to be ruled.” Smith writes that when Cummings was questioned about his actions, he appeared bored, annoyed, and impatient. His manners implied that he didn’t understand why he was being bothered with all of this. The term “herd immunity” refers to the idea that when a large portion of the population is immune to the virus, the entire population is less likely to be infected with the virus. It’s what we’re trying to achieve with the COVID-19 vaccines. However, Smith uses this term in a different way regarding Cummings and those who follow his line of thinking. Here, “herd immunity” is being immune to the rules by which everyone else has to abide.
From here, Smith transitions back to the US, where she says a “sadistic version of the same face” appeared when former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, despite Floyd saying that he couldn’t breathe. Smith says that a person would have to either hate a man a lot to do this, especially in the middle of a crowd holding cameras, or they’d have to be pretty sure of their immunity from the herd, that consequences would not apply to them. She says this is the virus at its deadliest.
Smith goes on to explain the circular logic that often surrounds slavery and racism. She paints an image of a person on a slave ship—”Patient zero,” she calls him—who looks down on the humans he has put in chains and thinks, they’re exactly the sort of people who were likely to be in chains. They’re so dissimilar to him. When they’re beaten in the cotton fields and go back to work, he believes they must not feel pain. He thinks of them as he does an animal, and the irony is that an animal can be both under the power of man and a threat to him at the same time.
Smith writes that the principles of slavery were, theoretically, eradicated from our laws long ago. In practice, however, they continue to infect people like a virus, reaching them through schools, churches, movies, books, and the law enforcement system. Like a virus, it’s invisible until you start to show symptoms, and some people might not realize they have the virus at all until they find themselves using race to amplify the threat they felt from someone who was just minding their own business. She says a peculiarity of this virus is that it makes people think “the symptom is the cause,” that Black people committing crimes, living in poverty, being imprisoned at higher rates than other races, is a result of something inherent to Black people. In truth, it’s an outward manifestation of the racist practices that ensure they are given less power than others.
This way of thinking causes people to look at others and see what Smith calls a plague, primarily of poverty. They fear that if they or their child gets too close to it, they will be infected by it. She says that it’s reasonable to fear poverty, but to vote for policies that guarantee the continuation of an underclass is structural racism. The cure of true equality would necessarily result in some losses on both sides in the beginning, for “a long-preserved isolation,” as she calls it, is difficult to leave. However, the truth is that not enough people infected with contempt have been willing to risk this loss to find out what might happen when the country is truly desegregated. They are happy to perform anti-racism, such as blacking out social media profiles for a day, but they aren’t willing to go so far as to work for true integration.
The question is, are we still capable of change? Or, have we lived with this virus so long that we don’t even fear it anymore? Smith says that to achieve a cure, we first have to understand that the base of the virus is economic. It exists so that some people can amass wealth by exploiting another group of people. Overcoming that wouldn’t just require individuals to understand their part in it, but the uprooting of entire power structures that encourage even minorities to hold racist beliefs about other minorities. Smith ends the essay by saying that she used to think there would be a vaccine one day, that if enough people named the virus of racism and explained how it worked, proved its existence with video footage, protested peacefully, it could be managed and we would achieve real herd immunity. In the quote we heard at the beginning of the episode, she no longer believes this to be true.
The final essay is a sort of an acknowledgments section to those who have had an influence on Smith’s life, whether positive or negative. While some of them are personal, such as her parents, others carry a cultural significance. The sixth “intimation” is titled “Darren,” and it says that prejudice is most dangerous when it lives within a system. Here, I believe she’s referring to Darren Wilson, a White police officer who shot the unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. The shooting sparked a number of protests, and it brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront of national attention. She mentions the boxer Muhammad Ali who lost his championship titles when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War, saying no Vietnamese person ever referred to him with a racial slur. She includes playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the author of A Raisin in the Sun, which focuses on a Black family in Chicago who struggles in their attempt to rise from poverty. She thanks Zora Neale Hurston, another Black author who is most known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. In her last entry, she indicates “contingency.” This is where she acknowledges her own privileges that have allowed her to live the life that she leads. These include being born in one country and not another and during a time when culture was changing. She thanks authors, musicians, and civil rights activists for their work. She thanks the fact that she was never subjected to sexual abuse. She thanks the fact that her father was not an alcoholic and she hasn’t grown up to be one either. She thanks the fact that her mother did not hate her own body and that her family was largely ruled by the women in it. She thanks the fact that her grandfathers, one of whom was an alcoholic and the other of whom was violent toward women, were never a part of her life. She ends the essay thanking the fact that she has never really been tested in her life, saying that her life has been easy up until this point, and she recognizes that this has not been true for everyone.
IN THE AUTHOR’S WORDS
In her interview with Boston radio station WBUR, Smith describes a barbecue she attended in England where the differences in societal structures, compared to those in America, were readily apparent.9 She says, “I’m not actually particularly interested in personal morality. I’m interested in structures that are strong enough to keep us from behaving the way we tend to behave. And I was very struck when I got to England. I went to my little brother’s birthday barbecue, and I was standing in this very small garden with about forty people all standing separately two meters from each other…and they were of many different races, religions, classes…and what I noted about it is it’s not that England is such a multicultural, happy-go-lucky post-racial society. It’s none of those things. But that garden represented structures that have been put in place that allow people to live near each other, to go to school together, to expect the same health care at the same point for free, that allowed full relations of perfect equity….It’s not an accident. Structures allow them to live in such a way that a party like that was far more likely than I’d ever experienced in New York.”
She continues this line of thought by responding to the idea of the current push to remove cultural symbols, such as Confederate statues that inherently celebrate racism. She says that she has no strong feelings about these types of symbols. For her, the symbols are not nearly as important as having equitable economic and social structures.
In “Postscript: Contempt as a Virus,” Smith says that Black people’s complaints of pain can’t be taken seriously, as they’re known to be able to withstand pain far greater than other races. Let’s discuss that for a moment. In Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi explains that the idea of polygenesis, which is that there are multiple species of humans who came from different origins, was a common belief that was used to justify slavery.10 Because they were throught to be a different type of human, Africans were considered biologically more suited to hard labor and better able to withstand pain. A notable example of this can be seen in the practice of Dr. J. Marion Sims. In 1845, Sims began experimenting on enslaved women to develop a procedure to heal a complication from childbirth called vesicovaginal fistula. Sims deemed the experiments not painful enough to administer anesthesia to his test subjects, one of whom endured thirty such operations, but once he started treating White women, anesthesia became part of the practice. Sim was credited for the start of modern American gynecology, and a statue stood in his honor in New York until controversy over his use of enslaved women led to its removal in 2018.11
The practice of race norming is defined as the process of statistically adjusting the scores on job-qualification tests of applicants from minority ethnic groups by rating each test-taker’s score against the results of others in his or her ethnic group.12 Even though it was banned in the Civil Rights Act of 1991, it continues in broad forms today when those those of different ethnic groups are measured using different standards.13 A study about racial bias in pain assessment published in 2016 found that beliefs about biological differences between Black and White people influenced medical professionals’ perception and treatment of pain.14 And, in June of this year, the National Football League, made headlines when it was revealed that they conducted their evaluations based on the belief that Black players started out with lower cognitive function than non-Black players.15 This made it significantly more difficult for Black players to receive monetary compensation and treatment for their sports-related brain injuries. This news was astounding.
We’ll end there with our discussion of Zadie Smith’s Intimations. In the first week of September, we’ll talk about The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, from the opening story of “January 2030: Rocket Summer” through “April 2031: The Third Expedition.” Stay tuned next week for a special free episode of the Patreon-only podcast From the Page to the Screen. In this episode, I discuss two modern classics: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley, and Spike Lee’s epic film Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington. Patrons will also be able to access the latest episode of the podcast, which talks about Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” the 1932 film version starring Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, and Leslie Banks, and the 2020 serialized version starring Christoph Waltz and Liam Hemsworth.
Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, subscribe and leave a rating and review in your favorite podcast app. I would really appreciate it, and it helps other book-loving English learners find the podcast. As always, I’m eager to know your thoughts on today’s book and any of the issues it raises. Leave a comment at theenglishchronicles.com, where you can also find a transcript of each episode, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Instagram @theenglishchronicles. Until then, keep reading.
- Holly Yan and Dakin Adone, “Who Is New York Terror Suspect Sayfullo Saipov?” CNN, November 2, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/01/us/sayfullo-saipov-new-york-attack/index.html.
- Andrew Blankstein, Pete Williams, Rachel Elbaum, and Elizabeth Chuck, “Las Vegas Shooting: 59 Killed and More Than 500 Hurt Near Mandalay Bay,” NBC News, October 1, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/las-vegas-shooting/las-vegas-police-investigating-shooting-mandalay-bay-n806461.
- Benjy Sarlin, “Nine Dead in Charleston Church Massacre,” MSNBC, June 17, 2015, https://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/charleston-police-church-shooting-msna620681.
- Oxford Dictionary, s.v. “Dysphoria,” https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/dysphoria.
- U.S. Const. art I, §2 (repealed 1868), https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript#toc-section-2–2.
- U.S. Const. amend. XIV, https://constitution.congress.gov/browse/amendment-14/.
- Oxford Dictionary, s.v. “Categorical Imperative,” https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/categorical_imperative.
- Matthew Weaver, “Pressure on Dominic Cummings to Quit over Lockdown Breach,” The Guardian, May 22, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/may/22/dominic-cummings-durham-trip-coronavirus-lockdown.
- Zadie Smith, “Writer Zadie Smith Reflects on Pandemic, Black Lives Matter Movement in ‘Intimations,’” interview by Robin Young, WBUR, July 27, 2020, https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2020/07/27/zadie-smith-essay-collection-blm.
- Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, (New York: Hachette, 2016).
- Olivia B. Waxman, “New York City Just Removed a Statue of Surgeon J. Marion Sims from Central Park. Here’s Why,” Time, April 17, 2018, https://time.com/5243443/nyc-statue-marion-sims/.
- Collins Dictionary, s.v. “Race Norming,” https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/race-norming.
- “Civil Rights Act of 1991,” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accessed June 5, 2021, https://www.eeoc.gov/civil-rights-act-1991-original-text.
- Kelly M. Hoffman, Sophie Trawalter, Jordan R. Axt, and M. Norman Oliver, “Racial Bias in Pain Assessment and Treatment Recommendations, and False Beliefs about Biological Differences between Blacks and Whites,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113, no. 16 (April 4, 2016), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4843483/.
- MaryClaire Dale, “NFL Pledges to Halt ‘Race-Norming,’ Review Black Claims,” AP News, June 2, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/pa-state-wire-race-and-ethnicity-health-nfl-sports-205b304c0c3724532d74fc54e58b4d1d.