"we are the only consistent black presence in their lives"
December 18, 2016 1:24 PM   Subscribe

3 journalists and a sociologist talk about the black person’s burden: once you have attained some level of visibility as a black writer, there are people who think you become a kind of MLK surrogate.

Demby: I want to have a conversation with you, but I need to first be assured that the conclusion of that conversation is broadly, unrealistically optimistic.
Bouie: Exactly. Which means it isn’t a conversation as much as it is a request for emotional validation.
McMillan Cottom: You’re the race whisperer!
More from McMillan Cottom: "I said on Twitter that I cannot recall a single black intellectual that was not condemned by white liberals for their paucity of hope."
posted by spamandkimchi (23 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Read this the other day and thought it was great.
posted by zokni at 1:54 PM on December 18, 2016

Knew Bouie would be involved in this from the title. He's one of the only people keeping me sane since November.
posted by saturday_morning at 2:04 PM on December 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

McMillan Cottom: Girl, she needed to be honest and silent.

Actual question: how do we do both? And how does this foster conversation?
posted by transient at 3:53 PM on December 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

There's so much going on in this conversation, but I really liked this point: these people think they are friends when they are really fans. Social media has collapsed the difference. And then this is refracted through racist assumptions about black people and black men specifically. and I like how it circles back to the point that too many white people are not doing the work of engaging with--then shutting up and listening to--and then just treating as human beings the people of color they could actually be friends with.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:57 PM on December 18, 2016 [14 favorites]

like at least 50% of this is down to Twitter's astonishing ability to empower dumbasses to reach out and touch someone
posted by indubitable at 4:06 PM on December 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

Honest statistic in here which predicates the pundits annoyance at feeling like they are somehow considered as "black friends." Most white people do not have any black friends. That is pretty indicative of the black/white divide in this country. Those many white people who wish for racial equality...most of them have no black friends. Through no fault of their own, it might be claimed, fairly, given the entrenched divide in neighborhoods (and churches). Workplace friendships might be the only hope of redeeming the black/white divide, and the arena of workplace friendships is fraught with difficulties, based on hiring/educational discrepancies and the dynamics of workplace friendships, which often do not result in off-work friendships.
posted by kozad at 4:24 PM on December 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

> Actual question: how do we do both? And how does this foster conversation?

Who is "we" in this question? I don't presume to know exactly what McMillan Cottom meant, but my take on it was that once the woman in question had stated her question, she needed to be silent and listen to the answer(s), and that those answers are not guaranteed to be comforting, comfortable, or safe. Especially when one is reaching out via twitter to a famous(ish) person as if they owe you their attention like that, on your schedule and your terms.

To me, that sounds like a kind of conversation. There are lots of kinds, and that can be one: you say what you need, you ask your question, then you shut up and listen to the answers. Not all dialogue around race, racism, and race relations need to be "conversations," anyway. Not everyone needs to participate at you-talk-now-I-talk etc. levels in order for the communication to happen.
posted by rtha at 4:24 PM on December 18, 2016 [8 favorites]

The black friends thing is something of great concern to me. Growing up I had black friends, black girl friends, black families that I knew. As recently as a few years back I had black acquaintances in the form of neighbors in a duplex I was living in. Now, except online (as I go into below) I don't know black people outside of work.

But I moved away from my black friends and fell out of touch with them as I did with everyone from that point in my life. Those black girlfriends fell by the wayside in the ordinary course of events that have caused most of my relationships to fall apart (me strongly not wanting kids, them wanting them, for those keeping track at home).

So now, I don't have black friends. As my criminal defense practice I meet a fair number of black people, but for the most part I don't try to befriend any of my clients. I haven't really hit it off with any of the black attorneys I know through my various bar organizations.

I would like some black friends, heck I would like more friends in general, but going out and "getting a black friend". I don't see a way to do that. I can't really just "go out and get friends" of any sort. Friendship is a rare flower. Deciding someone should be my friend just because they're black? Seems both racist and unworkable.

Most of my hobbies don't have many black people involved in them at least in the groups I'm involved with. Those that do are online. I have a bunch of black people I play an online video game with, but our conversations are generally of the, "Go left. Shoot. Oh fuck, I'm dead" type. Without physical proximity, these are pretty limited relationships and I can't see them maturing into real friendships.

Incidentally, that's how I learned the word "jig" has a racial slur meaning. One of the raid bosses in the game does a dodging dance move which I called was calling a jig one night, as in "Dang, I missed, he did his jig." On one particularly hard raid I got frustrated and said, "Fucking jig!"

The entire chat got quite for a moment and then everyone got back to killing the raid boss. A few days later someone filled me in on why, while I was obviously not meaning anything by it, I might want to use different language. Of course this was in a video game chat so they did so with a lot of laughing and calling me a dumbshit.
posted by bswinburn at 5:35 PM on December 18, 2016 [12 favorites]

The demographics of the situation are pretty bad in some ways - a lot of people in the US can reasonably expected to never have a black friend. Black people make up about 12.6% of the US population overall but there are a number of states where the percentage is closer to 1%. For better or worse I don't any black friends - at best I have black co-workers whom I'm friendly with.

Which isn't to excuse people from being weird and making black people with public lives into their unwilling black friends. So although I blame people for being weird, I don't necessarily blame them for not knowing many black people.
posted by GuyZero at 7:05 PM on December 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Which isn't to excuse people from being weird and making black people with public lives into their unwilling black friends. So although I blame people for being weird, I don't necessarily blame them for not knowing many black people.

The "Hey, Black Friend, tell me about The Black Experience" attitude miiight be part of why they don't.
posted by Etrigan at 7:16 PM on December 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

Who is "we" in this question? I don't presume to know exactly what McMillan Cottom meant, but my take on it was that once the woman in question had stated her question, she needed to be silent and listen to the answer(s), and that those answers are not guaranteed to be comforting, comfortable, or safe.

That, I get. Totally. I guess the "we" is "me" who is a hard-left wing white guy who teaches POC and grew up in Baltimore public schools, and I would like to be welcomed into the conversation, and I know I'm not the only voice. Listening is key.
posted by transient at 8:27 PM on December 18, 2016

I've had a lot of black friends, and have had a lot of white friends with black friends, and I really haven't seen the "Tell me about the Black Experience" thing, ever. According to the article, it IS a "thing." But in everyday life, the question of What it Means to be Black comes up only occasionally, and incidentally, not to say it is a casual conversation, but being friends with black people involves friendship first, race second. I say this as a white person; I'm sure race is more in the foreground with some of my black friends. Hell, I've had some black friends call my race the inventors of genocide. When racism becomes the subject of an honest conversation, things aren't always pretty. I've had workplace seminars about race relations. In the breakout conversations, things are never very pretty. We have a long way to go in the USA.
posted by kozad at 8:39 PM on December 18, 2016

Huh, kozad; as a white person with black friends, the last time I saw this thing crop up was... last week, at a dinner party at my boss' house, when people started processing the election and someone mentioned a New York Times article about PoC collecting racist memorabilia. The only black dude in the room was being real quiet, and one of my colleagues turned to him at one point and asked for his point-blank opinion on a story about a Thing that had caused a conflict about whether a white dude collecting black Santas was racially offensive. He's a quiet dude in general--has great things to say when he's comfortable volunteering them, but he's the most junior member of the lab and knows it--and he looked for a second utterly uncomfortable when she asked him for an opinion.

(The colleague in question, incidentally, is herself biracial. But her experience is different from his--she's Asian/white, for one thing--and--*waves hands* race is complicated, and... oh, I don't know. I was one of the two whitest people in the room, and frankly my role was mostly constricted--well, I hope--to shutting down the white-boy douche who started rambling about what he thought dehumanization was, entirely incorrectly, and trying to make space for other people. But nevertheless: that thing happened, and my coworker who had been being carefully quiet had that dropped in his lap and then was pressed for a more detailed opinion when he demurred and tried to sidestep, and that was--let me put it like this, I watch him carefully navigate this crap often enough that I was not at all surprised to see the premise of this article.)

I am gonna go back to listening now.
posted by sciatrix at 8:53 PM on December 18, 2016 [14 favorites]

I am gonna go back to listening now.

Well, not much conversation on this topic on Metafilter. I wonder why. That's an interesting story, sciatrix. My workplace has always had several African-Americans on the staff, so I've never seen this terribly uncomfortable scenario played out.
posted by kozad at 9:07 PM on December 18, 2016

My workplace has always had several African-Americans on the staff,

There'd probably be more discussion if fewer of the convos sounded like Trump pointing to "my African American" for cred.

Also, "Explain the Black Experience to me!" doesn't have to literally use those words; it also includes the cluelessness of privilege ("how was that a microagression? I'm sure they didn't mean anything by saying that") and the demands of emotional labor ("Let me, a White Person, email you with my outrage about [current racial tragedy] and get credit for my outrage and demand that you comfort me in my shared outrage!"). It's fucking exhausting, y'all.
posted by TwoStride at 9:14 PM on December 18, 2016 [15 favorites]

A fine discussion.

I don’t have any black friends. Frankly, I doubt I ever will, both from lack of access and lack of desire. (In fairness, my general list of friends list isn’t long either, and I don’t expect that to grow much.) I don’t know what that means for the nation, but I can’t think it’s good.
posted by Going To Maine at 9:27 PM on December 18, 2016

There are some parallels to be drawn between this and the article about how women are expected to manage men's emotions.

Not only do black people have to protect white people from their own emotions when attempting to talk about black experiences, but in this age of Twitter pile-ons and social media harassment shutting down marginalized people's attempts to talk about marginalization and bigotry, in addition to being their white friends' racial therapists, they also have to be iron-skinned crusaders, expert activists, post-graduate-degree-level racial/gender theorists with immediate command of ironclad statistics and studies, silver-tongued diplomats, unpaid diversity consultants, and perfectly enlightened paragons of understanding of intersectionality and other groups' oppressions. Fail at any of this and they'll get raked over the coals while a white celebrity gets all the cookies forever for acknowledging Social Justice 101-level concepts.

Economist Sendhil Mullainathan talks about how poverty is a "tax on cognition," but I think it works for marginalization, too: there are all these additional drains on marginalized people's mental bandwidth, and then we as a society turn around and ask why they "underachieve" (while busily making sure their achievements either go unacknowledged or are credited to someone else).

Essentially, anyone who doesn't fit the mold for what society considers the "default" human (white, male, cis, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical, etc.) already has to navigate a world that isn't designed for them, and then on top of it has to protect people who are closer to that default from their own emotions when they are exposed to the idea that it isn't a level playing field.
posted by ElizaDolots at 9:41 PM on December 18, 2016 [28 favorites]

This was a great read. Thanks for posting.
posted by great_radio at 11:13 PM on December 18, 2016

I found the latest episode of Code Switch — in which Gene, Shereen, and Hari Kondabolu discuss how much cultural context they should provide of their own volition during shows — a good companion to this piece.

In a very different way, this whole can of worms with Margaret Cho and Tilda Swinton is also interesting to think about with regards to this article.
posted by retrograde at 12:16 AM on December 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Actual question: how do we do both? And how does this foster conversation?

Part of the frustration of the writers comes from the extremely basic nature of these questions. As Demby's tweet says:
it was, like, the 500th tweet like that in the past week.
It's the use of That Black Writer On Twitter as a resource when one could just Google or go through Black Writer's Twitter History or browse through Code Switch episodes or basically do any rudimentary form of Internet search. When you instead default to My Black Friend or That Black Writer On Twitter, it indicates a mixture of laziness and entitlement to the Black person's time that is, for lack of a better descriptor, extremely White.

When people are talking about listening, they're implicitly asking "How many Black people do you follow on Twitter? How many Black writers do you read? How many Black blogs do you visit, how many Black forums do you lurk on, how many Black personalities have you followed on Facebook, so their posts regularly show up on your feed?" Because if the number was "more than just Gene Demby", then you might not have that extremely basic question because you'd have read at least a few commentaries on it already.
posted by schroedinger at 1:48 AM on December 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

When you instead default to My Black Friend or That Black Writer On Twitter, it indicates a mixture of laziness and entitlement to the Black person's time that is, for lack of a better descriptor, extremely White.

It's also reinforcing the idea that race is something black people have, not white people. A ton of white privilege is about getting to ignore that we're white despite the advantages most white people receive for being white - not the least of which is being giving the benefit of the doubt most of the time.

I think what really brought it home for me was the comparison of how we talk about white mass murderers versus black murder victims. The white person's past is delved into, his humanity is discussed, his pain is centered - even when the people he murdered are the most innocent of us all. The black person is rendered a caricature, the most criminal of his images is dug up and used ad nauseum, his humanity is sidelined and his pain is not even acknowledged. And this is in cases where the white person has undisputedly murdered multiple people in cold blood - the time when realistically we should give people the least benefit of the doubt. White murderers still get more sympathy than black victims - than black children.

White supremacy is so absolute in the US that even our mass murderers benefit from it, and white people still pretend like race doesn't involve us.
posted by Deoridhe at 1:59 AM on December 19, 2016 [16 favorites]

How best do we deal with the well-intentioned folks who are in our lives already (and not Twitter/FB ghosts) and not scare them away but also not give up too much of our souls in the process? Because it’s draining, obviously, to be the racial confessor. You are not priests or therapists—you did not sign up for this.

This bit struck me, and I know that in previous conversations about race--one on one or in small groups, trying to give the friend I'm talking with the option of graceful outs of they want them--I have used my queer experience to draw analogies and try to make common ground. I don't mean that being queer means I understand anyone's experience, though - - actually, this is pretty much the one circumstance where I reach for that analogy as a way of making the point "fellow white people, could you not?"

See... Okay, I got gay married in 2014 as a direct result of Windsor. I had recently (as in, only a few months before!) had my partner move down to live with me when Obergefell came down. I am often one of the only "gay narried" people my straight friends and colleagues know*, and so when Obergefell happens, when anything heavy and queer happens, they seek me out to talk about it.

And those are things I have complicated and not always straight person friendly feelings about. For one thing, I actually really resent having to get married to sponsor my partner. Marriage is an institution I'm not always comfortable with, and having to use marriage so early on caused me a fuck ton of interpersonal problems with my family. I don't have a lot of heartwarming things to say about the institution and loving my partner to make straight people feel good. And yet I've been socially pressured by straight people into repeating them, starting literally on what passed for our honeymoon, when the roommate of the woman we were staying with while we got legally married in Boston tried to get, like, heartwarming stories of how grateful we were to be able to do this while I was mostly going "fuck, in three days we each go back to separate cities and I was trying not to think about that, thanks" internally.

That's the experience that makes me careful when my non white colleagues and friends trust me to talk to me about race. And to me, it is an expression of trust and should be treated like one! I don't want to be like all the people who get weird about marriage at me, and anyway I want to hear real opinions, not just whatever is easiest to make the damn conversation go away. Even if it makes me sore and sad and angry. Sometimes the best o can carry away from those conversations is "Aw, shit, that's hard. I pledge to help you best I can; that's the only way we'll get anywhere, by standing together."

*in case of colleagues, the exception is usually our boss, who is less approachable than me for age and hierarchical reasons
posted by sciatrix at 5:11 AM on December 19, 2016 [8 favorites]

Thank you sciatrix. I’ve been trying to pull apart this assumption that genuine interest should always be welcomed.

The faintest whiff of this I get is, as a Korean American, there is a 70% chance of a new acquaintance asking me to recommend Korean restaurants in [X] town. And even though this is low stakes and low emotional labor and a topic I sometimes enjoy pontificating on, if it turns out the last 7 people I've met have all (within 5 minutes of meeting me) asked me for my top 5 Korean restaurants then chances are I will be irritated at the 8th person. It’s irritating to be interacted with as a dispenser of info and validator of their authentic Korean food discernment. It’s irritating even when I know the other person means well. Because their interaction with me feels based on the assumption that of course I would be happy to do a personalized rundown for their gustatory delight. And the interaction doesn’t feel/isn’t based on recognition of me as a full person with interests unrelated to kimchi. Because this is a low emotional stakes topic, I usually just rejoinder to Person #8, “What am I, Jonathan Gold?” and then give them my recommendations anyway.

But if I was asked to do this constantly by strangers and acquaintances on issues central to my recognition as a full person— e.g., explain (with citations please) how is it that women are capable of graduate level study, or, asked to give my hot take on the latest Orientalist escapade or whitewashing of Asian characters in Hollywood — I would lose my shit. I’m not a “press here for hot opinions” dispenser or your “devils advocate” buddy.

To give an example of when my own genuine interest doesn’t prevent me from being a jerk, I’m a very young Gen X (or Gen Y if that is still a thing). I feel my generational age keenly because I am pretty clueless about trans issues as it is not my daily lived experience and I haven't had a lot of the basic conversations; I’m more clueful about other queer issues, but still, as a cis woman now in a heterosexual marriage, my long-ago past doesn’t make me any kind of expert there either.

Anyway, I have all sorts of 101 level questions and ontological confusions because I’m an old who grew up with the notion that sexual identity is fluid but never thought to question gender as a category. I know I have subjected as least one friend to the “tell me your trans person explanation of all the things” conversation. I probably have blocked from recall the 5 other times I was a jerk full of genuine interest and good intentions. But I can now co-sign to the notion that I need to listen and to read. That I should follow more than one person on Tumblr who is transitioning so I don’t fall into the trap of thinking they are the oracle of all things and also recognize them as full people who have interests around fan fiction and Moroccan food. When I read a thing on the internet that is complicated, I don’t ask my in real life friends for their hot take. If they ever invited me into a conversation (hey, cis friend, this is a thing that you need to work on), I hope I would join in but also remember that it doesn’t mean that the conversation means I know have permission to ask them anything all the time because they know I’m cool like that.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:50 AM on December 19, 2016 [8 favorites]

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