I’d like to take a moment to speak to the white person who thinks a conversation on race is some kind of goal. And while I have your ear, I’d like to say something to your cousin, White Person Who Wants Me To Explain Racism To Them On The Fly.
No, and definitely not.
Now, unlike all of the other people who piss on your heads when you try to have (or achieve?) these conversations, I will explain, at great length, why you’re wrong. Usually when I write something like this, it’s about going on the record for future reference, a “Break In Case of Racial Emergency” fallback. Not today. Today, I’m going to officially share…so I can stop sharing.
Matt Damon did this thing a couple of months ago and we all get why that was a problem. I got exhausted just typing about that again, so forgive me for acting like you know what I’m referring to. To me, his act was laughable, but not infuriating. I doubt it was infuriating to Effie Brown. She’s heard that kind of thing her entire career, maybe even her life, and what did she have to be mad about? Unlike every other time a movie executive said something racist to her, this one was going to go out into the world because either the editors weren’t savvy enough to cut it or Matt Damon really thought what he said held water. Either way, the infuriating part of these situations for me is usually in the almost-but-not-quite-an-apology that always follows these situations, and on this count Damon did not disappoint. He mentioned being glad that his comments “started a conversation about diversity in Hollywood. That is an ongoing conversation that we all should be having.”
There are already a lot of articles floating around explaining why that’s a ridiculous statement, so I’ll just point out that this is something that a lot of white people say all of the time, and it’s time we got clear on the value of this conversation you keep mentioning.
A conversation about race in 2015 is not a goal.
It is not a good goal, it is not a reasonable goal, and it is not an equitable goal. In fact, treating the conversation like a goal is offensive to thinking people who have been having these conversations longer than you or your daddy or your grandfather have been alive, let alone the people forced to live as the subjects of your well-meaning conversations. It is offensive for you to ask me to repeat myself, and depending on how that conversation goes – you know, the one I didn’t ask to have – it is even more offensive that whatever pain I associate with the subject be served up like this week’s food for thought. It’s why some of you are arguing with Black people right now about the reporter who got (wrongly) shoved away by the well-meaning (now resigned from an appointment but still employed by U of M) professor while trying to capture the protesting at the University of Missouri that’s happening now: because you refuse to empathize. And that is racist.
Not to mention that most of you are horrible conversationalists. You come to the dialogue with tons of cultural determinist baggage. You assume the expanse of my knowledge based on a profile picture. You stereotype. You only think about racism when the issue makes you boil over here and there, while I have to contend with it – think, deal, confront, navigate, process, argue about, swallow it – all of the time. You have the luxury of not having to concern yourself with the worst parts of racism entirely, and the uncomfortable parts only as long as you wish to stay in the room. The minute you step outside reality bends to your values, protects your body, distracts you from your sins. Considering the topic of conversation, you don’t have a lot of skin in the game.
And here’s the saddest part: Black people are used to it.
We’re used to every side of this. We’re used to the arguing, we’re used to the dismissal of our suffering, we’re used to the stone cold straight-up bigots on Twitter and Facebook, we’re used to constantly having our pain scrutinized for validity…we’re even used to the actual racist acts that started this whole scenario. And let me tell you something else that’s going unheralded: what happened at UofM is kind of mild-to-medium racism and it is unerringly consistent with the general Black experience on and off campuses nationwide. None of this is news to Black people. The only newsworthy aspect of any of this is that the news has deigned to cover it. But the racist things that happened? Typical. The reaction by students? Not new. The reaction of administration to the students’ reaction to racism? Completely by the book. All of this is happening all of the time on some campus in this country. If there was a website where students could record incidents, protests and responses from across the country, there wouldn’t be a day when schools are in session that such a site wouldn’t be updated. The only news here is how powerful a football player is, and if we’re honest that’s also not a new concept. We’re just not used to seeing it applied. My point is that these conversations are beyond repetitive; they’re mundane. Which means my history and my feelings about it have been relegated to banal.
Hey, that’s my life, we’re talking about here.
So I have to budget for my time when it comes to racism. It’s pretty entrenched, so I have to keep moving like a Great White Shark, except I’m not fishing for chum; I’m fishing for time. Time to live, time to experience good things, time to learn new things that aren’t for cultural self-defense, but knowing in the back of my mind that whatever I’m into that week will have to navigate the fact that I am the one doing it. I can’t just take a knitting class and just worry about my Reverse I-cord. I get to live in a constant state of dreading the moment when someone is going to remind me that knitting clubs are just, you know, an odd place to find a random Black person. It’s exhausting, all of these good intentions. I don’t have time for that. I’ve got life to live. I’m already five years more wore out than my white counterpart. I have to keep it moving if I’m going to find some semblance of solace in this life. Time is important. Everybody thinks so. Time is the way we measure life in concrete amounts. Time is the gauge of what life is.
But you? You have the luxury of time that a political conversation about race requires. Statistically speaking, I’ll either be incarcerated or killed by police brutality by the end of this essay. Figuratively speaking, I don’t have time to keep talking about racism with people who got it in their head that day to question its authenticity or reach. That is time better spent dealing with people who already have some basic functional understanding of not only racism, but of the many ancillary issues associated with it (or at least the tools to determine what those issues might be). Or better spent getting on with the business of fending off the many micro- and macroaggressions society loves to Space Invader over my head every day. Pew pew pew, I got you, passive-aggressive customer who thinks I will render unto them negligent service only to discover I give really good Frasier voice. Pew pew pew, well-meaning hippie child who assures me he understands my plight because he’s 1/16th Navajo.
In short, I’m pretty much done teaching freshman level racism to random white people who read headlines and get riled up. And honestly, more people should be done with those conversations too, and here’s why: because it’s 2015.
Despite my boyish looks and puckish demeanor, when I graduated high school and entered the storied gates of THE Ohio State University, there was no internet. I don’t mean the wifi was down. I mean it didn’t exist. There was no computer lab to type up your papers. We were still rocking beepers, if you could afford one (I could not). The many university libraries were what you had to work with, and God help you if you lost a book. To this day I can’t get my transcripts from OSU because they think I didn’t return The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor back in 1989 (I did). The first pro-Black book I ever encountered was Message to the Blackman by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad after a meeting of Black students – my first ever, anywhere. I bought that with the twenty dollar bill I was supposed to spend throughout the week because that’s what you did back then when you wanted to know something: you went to the library and prayed they had it or you bought it where you found it. You couldn’t even borrow that stuff from your hotep friends because everybody knew that when you passed around your Ivan Van Sertima or your Marimba Ani or your Tony Browder you weren’t going to get those books back. Mind you, this was in Columbus, Ohio, which, while large, is only now beginning to creep into the major metropolitan city consideration. Back then, there were two Black owned bookstores and neither of them was near campus. I would get kicked out of Ohio State after two quarters before I knew they even existed, and they were on a side of town I grew up near. And why did I get kicked out? Because I pretty much stopped going to classes. And what was I doing when I wasn’t chasing after a girl? Reading about Black history and using that to impress a girl I might be chasing. When I dropped out of school altogether and began working for the public library that was pretty much it for me: I was on a course of self-determination. No more classes for me, but years of plowing through books and their references: Molefi Asante, Pearl Cleage, bell hooks, Chancellor Williams, Cheikh Anta Diop, George G.M. James, the venerable John Henrik Clarke…I can run that list out to just under a hundred books comprising an almost mandatory Black revolutionary and Africentric curriculum, and that was back in the early 1990s. Every week there was a new book to read, to process, to break down with my friends while we tried to implement their lessons into our lives. And survive (which is how it all fell apart, but that’s another story for another public cultural breakdown). Everything I know about racism in an academic sense came from those books and the debates and conversations that followed a reading of them. If you hadn’t read the book you needed for that day’s conversation or its equivalent (or, if you differed on the matter, its intellectual and equally researched opposite), that meant you had homework to do. You tapped out of that conversation and relinquished your right to an uninformed opinion. You hadn’t met the chip count to sit at that particular poker game that day. You thought about how you were going to have to drive to a library or scrape together the money for a trip to the bookstore (no discounts, brother. Support Black business!). You sat back, listened, learned, and you came back to think another day.
Now all you have to do is rub your thumbs across a phone that fits in your pocket and download Assata Shakur’s recommended books list while you’re waiting for a table in a gastropub.
There is nothing magical about what I know or how I know it, and outside of the actual experience of being Black and surviving as such as a lifestyle, religion and hobby, there isn’t anything you can’t know that I don’t if you apply a little thumb grease.
But look: have we worn out the bottom line on “getting it”?
What I mean is, are we past the point of needing to make sure people know the deal, or can we leave them behind? What I mean is, if you’re really struggling to see racism in the twenty-first century, should anyone bother engaging you on the matter? If you know what slavery was and you know what civil rights activists were fighting for, and you think that’s pretty much the end of the story – and you aren’t in fifth grade – why should you be engaged? Or if you have a grasp on those things and why they were problematic, and you agree that there’s still a problem but that Black people bear the burden of writing those wrongs, why should you be allowed to enter spaces where people have made it clear that they not only have a completely different view on the issues, but that they still suffer under the weight of those issues while in those spaces? Who are you to enter that space and demand time, attention or instruction? Or worse, an equal platform? I disagree with the KKK and conversely, I don’t seek out their forums to engage. Too extreme an example? Fine: I disagree with modern feminism regarding their success rate on racial intersectionality. Conversely, I don’t seek out their forums to engage people on racial issues.
Please understand: I get why you feel compelled to comment on things, especially if you have even a cursory registration with the person in question (you’re Facebook “friends” or you’re a Twitter “follower”). I get it. But now that we’re alone, you and I, and we’re just talking about this one thing, I feel the need to point out that it’s not an actual need. You don’t have to say anything. Better, you can do the thing we can’t do: enjoy your anti-racial-debate life.
If you disagree with something some Black person is saying on race, I encourage you to focus on a real goal, the only goal that truly matters in the end: a fruitful existence. Focus on the physical outcome of the debate, which will almost always result in little to no change. Just sit back and wait for it to all die down and then you can go back to having your feed fill up with pictures of food. You may not win that online debate about a Missouri student protest or black church burnings or the true nature of American terrorism in the digital age, but dammit, you’re a winner where it counts: in the real world. You’re society’s main squeeze! America loves you and your anti-race debate life. Your life matters in the real world. You don’t need a hashtag because America has your back by design. All you have to do is unplug from the conversation and you win the battle without firing a single shot.
You get to live.
See, we don’t get to do that. We don’t get to turn that off or ignore it or set it aside while we’re at work. For you, the right thing is optional. For us, the right thing is very often a dream. Where’s the point in a conversation between someone who isn’t invested in the outcome and someone who can’t affect the outcome? That’s a privilege even the poorest white person has.
A conversation is a horrible goal. I’m not interested in having your version of a race conversation. I want your race solutions. I want your race activism. I want your race scholarship. I don’t want to have any more conversations as goals. All of the necessary conversations have been happening. We published the conversations. We recorded the conversations on video. We turned the conversations into poems and memes and songs and TV shows. We gave the conversations away for free. We put the conversations in all of your libraries, and whatever library doesn’t have it can get the conversations for you at no cost. We codified the conversations and made them classes and presentations and conferences. The conversations are old and easy to find. We already had them for you. All you got to do is sit down and listen. Or don’t, and enjoy the spoils of war some other people won on your behalf a long time ago. Just stop asking us to help you feel better about being on the winning team.
25 thoughts on “A Conversation On Race Is A Horrible Goal”
I debated on writing this to you privately, but considering the trust you have for your readers, sharing so much of yourself with us, I felt it more appropriate to say this publicly. Today in class I asked my students who they look up to and who they believe are those modern day heroes who are making a difference through their art. You are one of those people for me. I don’t have words (yet) to articulate my experience reading this piece, but I wanted you to know that reading this (aloud – like I used to read poetry in college) reminds me how little I really know. ❤
Just a quick correction and this isn’t to take away from the message or importance of the piece. The University of Missouri professor who shoved the student away is not unemployed. She resigned from her courtesy appointment with the university’s school of journalism. She is still employed as a professor of communications at the University of Missouri.
This is the kind of reply I like. Thanks for the clarification!
I wonder why the professor is still employed. It looks to me as if she called for a crowd of people to help her “strong arm” a student and remove him from a place he had every right to be. She attempted to incite the crowd to physically control a minority student and force him to leave the premises. Is it OK to do that because he’s Asian?
OK, I’m saving this for rereading because so much is in it, so many buttons pushed and bells rung that I need to reconsider this. I’m saving it for my grandson who wants to do social justice work, whatever that means to a 17-year old African American man in the 21st Century, and I want him to keep thinking, and I want him to see that somebody is articulating things he feels and experiences, as he heads off to college next fall.
Racism in this day and age is getting out of hand. People won’t hestitate to play the “Race card” before seeing any evidence contradicting what they assume to be true,
Oh dang! You NAILED THE HELL OUT OF IT SIR! Required reading for everyone I know! Black, white and otherwise. You have put into words the things that so many of us have tried to articulate but weren’t as pointed, sorted out and pithy as you! Well done, bravo, here here! And you can surely get an Amen!
I’m curious what your operating theory of change is if it doesn’t involve engaging with people who disagree with you.
Or am I mistaken to assume that social change is one of your objectives?
I think (and someone please correct me if I’m wrong) Mr. Woods is saying that, having spent his whole life explaining racism to white people, he’s giving up on the unilateral approach; since any white people who expect him to do all the teaching won’t learn anyway.
Daniel Gatti, Scott Woods and other black authors and bloggers have been spending way too much of their lives ALREADY engaging with people who disagree with him. The questions have already been asked and answered either by Scott or by other black authors. Your expectation that Scott specifically engage with YOU (or with any other readers who might disagree) is self-serving in the extreme
Why do you expect him to engage people who won’t do the work to educate themselves?
In this one post alone Scott has given you multiple references for reading in order to educate yourself on the intellectual and historical background for his thinking. Throughout his blog there are many more.
There is not ONE question you could possibly ask Scott that he hasn’t heard before and written about.
Black people have been answering these questions over and over and over and over and over and over…ad infinitum and ad nauseam, for years. The problem is, most white people refuse to accept the answers.
Tim Wise, a white book author and blogger (check him out on Facebook and google him as well), has written extensively trying to explain racism to white people. Funny thing. More white people listen to Tim. Why do you suppose that is the case? Because most white people, consciously or unconsciously, refuse to grant black people authority over their own experiences.
“It can’t be all that bad; you’re exaggerating; why are you making a big deal over nothing; are you saying I’m a racist? I am NOT a racist! You can’t tell me I’m a racist!” (fingers go in ears, and the refrain “nyah nyah nyah nyayh I can’t hear you!” emerges…metaphorically at least).
White people who think that black people are exaggerating what it’s like to live black in a white world do so because recognizing the truth is too discomfiting, too difficult to hear, and definitely too hard to accept whatever role you might have played in it. But you WILL survive. And if you actually listen, you WILL be changed.
READ what black people have had to say. Start with the names Scott has given you. Go to the library. Get paper and audio books. READ blogs without arguing. THINK about what you have read. Don’t whine about all the work you have to do when you’d rather just argue with someone on the internet. Black people have been reading and listening to what white people have to say for hundreds of years.
I guarantee you that if you do that — even for a little while — you will find answers to whatever arguments you might have now already written by someone.
I read the part where they say they are frustrated with discussing race with people who disagree with them, but what about discussions with people who agree with them, or at the very least are genuinely curious to learn more? Do you think that there is a short explanation that could be circulated to help people get on board the movement?
It is as if you found a way into my mind, late at night, when I am wondering the halls of my brain, angry, frustrated, and sobbing, and wrote it all down. Thank you.
(P.S. I was delighted to discover you are a librarian and a writer. I’m not alone 🙂 )
There is no SHORT explanation. Racism is complex and it has a very long history — too long and complex for anyone, no matter how knowledgeable, to offer you a short explanation. And asking for a “short explanation” is itself profound evidence of cluelessness. You want someone else to do the work for you that you need to do for yourself.
If you are sympathetic and truly want to know more…begin to teach yourself more.
You know nothing. Absolutely nothing. Your life as a white person has left you completely clueless about what it means to be a person of color in the United States (and many other places in the world).
ADD: history matters. The legacy of slavery didn’t just poof! disappear with the 13th, 14th, & 15th Amendments. Nor did its racist legacy, carried on through Jim Crow in the South and de facto discrimination and segregation in the North just poof! disappear with Brown v. Board of Education. Nor did that racism just poof! disappear with the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s and 1970s, federal, state, or local.
So if you’ve never taken a course in the history of racism and how it has impacted every area of life — visibly, for people of color; invisibly for white people — start now. You cannot understand current conditions unless and until you understand how we got here.
AND: Racism is about POWER and PRIVILEGE. It is not about using bad words or causing hurt feelings. A person of color can use all the hateful words they can possibly think of against a white person and those words will not change one iota of the white person’s life. In contrast, hateful and passive aggressive words spoken by white people to black people reinforce the existing power structure.
A white baby is born into a world where whiteness represents goodness — where whatever else she might be, a white baby is preferred to a dark baby, and that continues through childhood and adulthood, represented in media imagery so profound and extensive it is very cultural air we breathe. A black baby is born into a world where she has to fight daily, from the moment she encounters any part of the white world, to hold onto a sense of herself as a being of worth in spite of all that cultural air she breathes telling her otherwise. She must do this even among kindly white elementary school teachers who believe they have her best interests at heart. Never mind the obvious racists.
Thus racial slurs as well as passive aggressive micro aggressions strike deep into the heart of the black person’s sense of herself AS a person. Whereas “cracker” and “whitey” and even “hate Whitey” barely scratch the surface. Whoop-ti-doo. Someone said they hate you because you are white. Will that make you feel like a piece of shit unworthy of life? Will that make you terrified you will lose your job? That a cop will kill you for no reason? That your children will go to prison for normal misbehavior? Or no misbehavior at all?
There is no structure of power that reinforces hatred of white people. Someone using white racial epithets will never be able to deny a white person a place to live, a job to work, a street to walk or drive on without fear of being arrested, a store to shop in, a school to go to, a fair trial, or freedom from the school to prison pipeline. White people don’t have to face all black juries, predominately black prosecutors, predominately black education systems, predominately black social service representatives, predominately black realtors, predominately black mortgage officers, predominately black hiring managers, predominately black…pretty much anything. The only predominately black groups that white people are likely to encounter will be people at the bottom — the service people making minimum wage.
When racial insults had no power structure to back them up, they are insults, nothing more. They can be dealt with. When systemic power reinforces them, those insults become profoundly dangerous, life-altering weapons.
Even in “polite society” where overtly racist words are rarely spoken, there are the thousand pricks of a pin struck daily in micro aggressions (“you are beautiful…for a black girl”; you are so articulate! [spoken with a tone of surprise]; “I like you — you aren’t like those “thugs” on the street”…ad nauseam), where any one of them is truly no big deal, but a thousand pricks might as well be the slash of a machete).
Words reinforced by power = weapons of mass emotional and physical destruction. Paying attention to language is not about being “politically correct.” It’s about words being the means by which power is created and reinforced. And lurking behind those words is the long arm of the law, which can turn a verbal confrontation into a death sentence for a black person.
UNDERSTAND: an exception or two or three does not immediately negate or destroy systemic racism. One black man becoming president does not mean therefore that we now suddenly live in a post racial society. One black person who has been able to “pull himself up by his own bootstraps” (never mind how that’s impossible, and it only appears to happen when the help has been hidden from view) doesn’t mean that every black person can do the same thing. If anything, exceptions prove the rule. Systemic racism thrives on the existence of exceptions to hide the fact that they ARE exceptions…that is, violations of the rule that governs everyone else.
I haven’t even scratched the surface above. Now. Your. Turn. BEGIN. Do the work.
I mentioned Tim Wise above. Did you even bother to google Wise? If not, why not? Was googling the name and reading a few bits about him too much work for you?
These essays are a great starting point for a white person:
Note: the audience for these essays is white people. For black people, these essays would be “white-splaining.” Why? Because black people ALREADY know this stuff. They have LIVED it. (The Ben Carsons and Herman Cains of the world have been so busy trying to please white people so they can be in the “in crowd” that they have deliberately shoved their life experiences down into deep subconsciousness, from which emerges their insanity.)
Wise is “safe” for a white person — not because he says anything different from what black activist authors might say, but because white people are extremely uncomfortable recognizing examples of their own racism when pointed out by black people. White people are slightly less defensive when they hear the same thing from a white person.
Another good starting or continuing point is Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Bonilla-Silva is a professor of sociology who runs the Center on Race and Social Problems at Duke. His ground-breaking “Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States” (2004, currently in 4th edition, revised and expanded in 2014 to include analysis of the racism phenomena that sprang up with the election of Barack Obama) goes a long way toward explaining:
1) why and how people who believe they aren’t racist really, really, really ARE…or at the very least, do and say racist things;
2) why and how systemic racism exists and is perpetuated daily even by people who believe racism is a terrible thing and who desperately do NOT want to be seen as racist;
3) why and how claiming to be “color blind” is just another insidious form of racism — even more insidious than open racism; why saying “I don’t see color” actually means you don’t see racism and your own participation in it.
There is a PDF version of the book online, but I will leave you to find it.
And oh, BTW, nobody is blaming you for what has happened in the past. Nobody is thinking you are a total asshole for committing what you did not realize were racist acts or thinking racist thoughts. Nobody is saying all white people are shits because of slavery or the racial genocide of Native Americans.
You need to KNOW history in order to know how and why we got here, and to understand your location of privilege (which is there even if you are a poor white person).
You don’t have to BE history.
What matters is what you do NOW. What matters is your willingness to listen and not to impose your own presumed authority on what people of color have experienced and continue to experience. What matters is your being prepared to accept it when someone points out the racism underneath something you just said or did, and not get defensive about it. Like, hey. It’s part of the cultural air we breathe. So take note of it, resolve not to do it again, and move on! Don’t expect people of color to make you feel better about what you just did. Just: “Thank you for explaining that to me.” And then shut up about it!
BTW, I am white. I have slaveholders in my ancestry, Leighton, Alabama. I don’t feel guilty about that. It wasn’t my choice. I *DO* recognize the privileges that accrue to me as a white person — privileges I did not choose but that nonetheless I have. And so it is my obligation to:
1) Use my privileges to counter my privileges whenever I can. So that, for instance, I use my white privilege to explain white privilege to white people who refuse to grant authority to black people talking about their lives. So that, when I observe a racist act, I speak up.
2) Keep myself informed of what is going on in the world re: racism, and speak up and out when I encounter ignorance from white people. Read. Listen. Hear. Speak truth to power.
3) Constantly surveil myself for racist thoughts and feelings. Yes, I do still have them. It is not possible to NOT have them, because what is most insidious about racism is how it lurks in the corners of semi- and subconsciousness.
So get started. You have much to do. It won’t be easy. It will take a lot of time and work and thought. But it’s not like the issues are going to go away any time soon. The effort will be well worth it.
Well said and thank you
It’s 2015, for heaven’s sake. Shouldn’t this all be a moot point by now? Shouldn’t we all just be a blended humanity sharing out struggles and our victories? Shouldn’t I not have to be crying while reading this? But I am, because it is all breaking my heart again.
I was a kid in the 60’s, glued to the nightly news watching the inexplicable; people having to fight and sacrifice for what they deserved all along. I believed then, albeit optimistically, that the dream would be realized in my lifetime.
Well, I’m not dead yet.
I don’t want to have discussions on race. What if, instead, we all put our focus on ridding this society of inequality and prejudice?
One human being at a time.