Twelve Years a Slave came in the mail from Netflix a while ago. It sat resolutely on the counter for a week or two collecting dust, and then I sent it back unwatched. I will probably never watch it, even though I have written some thoughts about it. The Kindle edition of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book Between the World and Me is sitting in my wish list. That I will certainly read some day. Just not today. I have read Black No More, by George S. Schuyler, and Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison; both provided to me years ago by my wife, who incidentally is usually identified as ‘black’ even though she is in actuality Panamanian by descent. I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People by Brit Bennett is very much worth the few minutes it takes to read it. I started reading The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois a while ago, but it has been languishing as of late. There are a couple of works about Malcolm X that I am currently reading, but more for my interests in civil disobedience and radicalism than in what they have to tell me about race and racism.
This does not mean that I am not sympathetic to the issues of racism that are pandemic in American society, or that I have no concern for those who are direct recipients of it. Nothing could be further from the truth! However, an event recently happened to me that has caused me to rethink my attitude and perspective on the subject.
A few days ago I had dinner with my wife and a friend of mine that ended in my wife storming out of the restaurant after a heated discussion about race turned ugly. My friend, who considers himself to be a ‘good’ white person was chagrined. As a good white person myself, I was also chagrined. This resulted in a heated discussion between my wife and I a couple of days later when she got around to talking to me again. After reflecting on this, I have had an epiphany of sorts about race and racism. For it occurs to me now that the central issue of racism in America and why it continues to resist resolution is not about what we know or don’t know. The central issue of racism is about what we can never know.
I have been on this earth for north of half a century. I have seen and experienced many things. I have read many things. I have written some things. In all of that, I have experienced racism both directly and indirectly. I thought I understood it. But I don’t really. Not because I haven’t tried, but because no matter how much I try, I will never know what it is like to be black. No matter how much I read about it; no matter how many movies I see about it; no matter how much I think or write about it; there is nothing other than actually being black that will ever make me fully understand what it means to be black.
What I do understand is this: if you are white and poor you can, with some luck, become white and not poor. If you are black and poor, you can never become white and not poor. The blackness will follow you no matter where you go or what you do. There is no escaping it, even if you are amongst other black people. To be born black in America is in some sense to be born cursed: cursed to be considered a menace; cursed to be sexually objectified; cursed to be considered less intelligent or capable; cursed to be considered a thief; cursed to still be worth only three-fifths as much, if at all; indeed, cursed pervasively in innumerable ways. And the most insidious curse of all is that there is nowhere to go to escape it.
Good white people can choose not to cross the street when a black man strolls their way, but the urge to jump is still there, embedded by brainwashing since birth. Good white people can treat black people as if they are equals without being sanctimonious about it, although it requires some effort and they have to think about it. Good white people may even understand that black people do not naturally know how to dance or sing, even though the media likes to reinforce endlessly that trope. Or the shucking and the jiving, as the not-so-good white people and the media types call it amongst themselves. Indeed, the white people, good and bad, who make up the vast majority of our entertainment media complex have written and produced many stories about what it means to be black. But then these are not really stories about what it means to be black personally, but stories about the place that good black people should inhabit in white society. After all, black people have no need for these stories because they already know what it means to be black. They were born that way. Black people in America learn their place early if they want to survive.
So what are good white people to do if we can never understand what it means to be black? Do we need to watch more movies about the atrocities that white folk have inflicted on blacks so that we tut-tut more indignantly about it? Or to read more books about the experience of being black so that we can pretend to understand, even though we really can’t? Given that the voices of the oppressed have always been missing in history, then we do need those things. But they have to be stories written by those who experience it directly, using their voice, in the ways they need to relay it. Stories about the oppressed edited for delicate white sensibilities do not interest me. Stories about the oppressed written by and for the oppressed do.
So as a good white person you do need to open your eyes to all the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which American society reinforces racial codes and stereotypes. And the best way to do that is to listen objectively and non-defensively to their stories. But at the end of the day all you simply need to understand this: to be black in America is to strive endlessly for the one and only thing that white people inherently take for granted. To be not born cursed. It is as simple as that. Blacks are not trying to steal white power, or steal anything at all. They are not asking for handouts or special advantages. They are not seeking a favored status or for their lives to matter more than others. They merely want to inhabit the same space that the white community inhabits: the space to be judged solely on that which they can change. Nothing more, and nothing less.