You said it Tyrus, I’m one of the good ones.
March 18, 2019 6:19 AM   Subscribe

Each Friday, for more than two years, The Root has responded to emails and comments from our readers (and some people who obviously don’t read The Root). Not today. Today, there will be just one email and one response.

Michael Harriot uses an email asking what the solution might be to how scary it's getting for white people in America to discuss privilege, blackness, and "divisive rhetoric".
posted by Etrigan (80 comments total) 89 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is a good essay, and it deserves some rereadings! I do wonder, however, at the ability of a white person to really believe that "nothing" is going to happen to them, once they have been reminded of what whiteness is built on. Perhaps that's the nut of what fragility to me. (Privilege as a possession, etc.)
posted by Going To Maine at 6:46 AM on March 18 [6 favorites]


Racists are really good at differentiating between good blacks and bad blacks. That they don't divide white people up that way is because they are one of the bad ones.
posted by Mental Wimp at 6:47 AM on March 18 [41 favorites]


So my 62 year old mum has a habit of phoning me up to ask me questions about excel spreadsheets (other graphing solutions are available!), and i find myself really struggling to deal with her complete lack of comprehension about what feels like simple concepts to me, even after detailed explanation. There is a degree of age related cognitive rigidity that seems to hamper a lot of my attempts to explain concepts.

Reading Tyrus's email feels similar, in that maybe he wants to understand (or not? it's hard to tell), but just when he says something that made me feel like an inkling of insight, he completely misses the opportunity... The response is great, but I can't help but feel that it wont help Tyrus understand because there's too much mental inertia to overcome, and finding exactly the right way to help him understand would be like threading a needle in a hurricane?
posted by trif at 7:50 AM on March 18 [12 favorites]


finding exactly the right way to help him
It's interesting and perhaps telling that Tyrus asked a black guy to do this work for him, for free.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:54 AM on March 18 [66 favorites]


It seems like the basic framework of white privilege is completely unknown to him, and he cant begin to understand what he doesn't understand? I'd like to be charitable about his reaching out, but maybe that's giving him too much credit.
posted by trif at 8:03 AM on March 18 [3 favorites]


Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility. This book articulated for me a bunch of things I already understood deep down but couldn't articulate. On the one hand, there are few things worse than being labeled a racist, but if you come to grips with the fact that we are *all* racists in that we all hold a set of assumptions about race, and also that we're all white supremacists in that we participate in a system that stacks the deck in favor of whites, then you can start to move past defensive reflexes and listen to the messages that people of color want us to hear and take to heart.
posted by simra at 8:05 AM on March 18 [17 favorites]


I have really enjoyed reading Michael Harriot's writings at The Root. He has an engaging style, often seasoned with humor, and frequently supports his assertions by citing the relevant statistics and other verifiable factual information. I continually try to grow my outlook past my privilege as an educated, white, cis-het male, and Michael Harriot is a writer who has provided plenty of food for thought. I feel like my understanding on any number of things has grown as a result of his work, and he has presented plenty of food for thought in my lifelong efforts to improve as a person.
posted by slkinsey at 8:09 AM on March 18 [16 favorites]


there are few things worse than being labeled a racist

Yeah, you might end up losing some of your House committee assignments after fifteen years. Or as the longest-serving Senator in U.S. history. Or the third-longest serving Senator in U.S. history. Or you might even end up in the White House in virtually any role up to and including President.

The idea that calling someone a racist is even close to the worst thing you can do to them is one of the longest poles in the tent of white fragility.
posted by Etrigan at 8:15 AM on March 18 [136 favorites]


It's interesting and perhaps telling that Tyrus asked a black guy to do this work for him, for free.
...and...
...he cant begin to understand what he doesn't understand?

Depending on which part of Wisconsin Tyrus lives in, there may not be a clued-in white person for 200 miles that he can ask. I mean, rural Wisconsin is pretty darn white, and the area where he went to college is also Minnesota farm-country white (i.e., also verrry pale). The guy is probably a couple standard deviations above anyone he knows, so he has to go elsewhere.

And he has apparently been reading The Root, so that sets him another couple of notches above the Average Wisconsonite.

However, his attitude of "Why you so mad all the time?" isn't actually constructive at all, so "better than terrible" still isn't very good. *sigh*
posted by wenestvedt at 8:21 AM on March 18 [26 favorites]


there are few things worse than being labeled a racist

With all due respect, bullshit. To white people, few things *feel* worse than being labeled a racist, but it is so goddamn easy to brush that label off and not have it affect your life in any meaningful way at all.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:23 AM on March 18 [52 favorites]


Oh, in case this part was genuine:

you can start to move past defensive reflexes and listen to the messages that people of color want us to hear and take to heart

I'm a person of color, and I'm hoping you'll listen to my message that "there are few things worse than being labeled a racist" is bullshit, and I'm also hoping you won't just reflexively defend the notion that being labeled a racist is one of the worst things you can call someone, because it's reallyreallyreally not.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:27 AM on March 18 [39 favorites]


there are few things worse than being labeled a racist
@Etrigan, @23skidoo, tongue in cheek. The whole point (of DiAngelo's book) is that white folks have an irrational visceral reaction to that charge.
posted by simra at 8:29 AM on March 18 [4 favorites]


It‘s not Tyrus he‘s trying to convince.

Well ... Here’s the answer to your $64,000 question.

Somewhere, right now, there is someone reading this. And that person might email this to someone. And that person might email it to another person. And that person might email it to someone who happens to be a white dude from white America who works at a very diverse high school teaching black kids.

And in one of his classes, there might be a black guy who’s just as smart as everyone else. And that teacher might wonder why he seems angry or makes white jokes. That teacher might wonder why that kid skips out on some of the educational activities. That teacher might wonder why he hangs out with the wrong crowd. That teacher might see that that kid has a great future but wonder what’s holding that kid back from reaching his potential.

And maybe, just maybe, that kid or his teacher will have heard some of the “divisive rhetoric” pin-balling around on the internet and know that the footprint imprinted on his neck ain’t his fault. It ain’t his mama’s fault. It ain’t even God’s fault. And no, Tyrus, it ain’t your fault either. It’s not even your parents’ fault.

But still ... y’all can go home.

posted by Omnomnom at 8:29 AM on March 18 [12 favorites]


The idea that being labeled racist is the worst thing that can happen to a person is how society justifies never calling even the most blatantly racist statements/acts what they are, because how can we know whats in his heart?!???! and suchforth. That's how we (i.e. white people) get to simultaneously tell ourselves that we're so anti-racism (we all agree that it's the worst thing you can be, after all) and never actually call out racism for what it is.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:33 AM on March 18 [13 favorites]


The whole point is that white folks have an irrational visceral reaction to that charge.

*shrug* If that's your point, my suggestion is to use that exact phrasing moving forward instead of "there are few things worse than being labeled a racist", because tons of white people actually believe that and that belief makes it harder than necessary for white people to fix the racism that exists in the USA.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:33 AM on March 18 [21 favorites]


I read the letter a second time and it was even harder for me to avoid paraphrasing it as “I was more comfortable when black people were less informed and less vocal about systemic racism/white supremacy, or at least I didn’t hear as much about it. Can you please explain to me why you think it’s a good thing to spread this awareness, and also could you please be a little less angry and more polite about it? Thanks.”
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:36 AM on March 18 [44 favorites]


It seems like the basic framework of white privilege is completely unknown to him, and he cant begin to understand what he doesn't understand? I'd like to be charitable about his reaching out, but maybe that's giving him too much credit.

Yeah, I think it is. Like--okay. I am a white person. I was raised in pretty white-centered environments, although that changed a bit as I got farther in schools. But I am a white person who has been pretty privileged growing up and was insulated from a lot. And like--I heard about things like the civil rights movement in the '60s in middle school, and I went and I read up on it learned from it? I went out and when I didn't understand things, I did some fucking reading and thought about what I read? I have a few friends who are not white, and when they trust me enough to tell me about this shit, I try to shut up and listen so they stay willing to trust me with their observations occasionally.

It is not that fucking hard. It is not that hard to read and think, and Tyrus says he is doing that. So Tyrus, fucking think. Quit imagining yourself in the position of the white person who is hurting the author, and think about putting yourself in the author's shoes.

We should be able to expect better of white people. Part of that means training us that we do not get the benefit of the doubt when we do stupid, entitled, lazy shit. That is what Tyrus is doing. It's kind of insulting, this idea that white people are so gosh-darn stupid that they can't figure out how to actually empathize with other people or do some reading or do much of anything on their own! I mean, it's clearly not wrong, but it's definitely insulting. I'd rather not keep it going, thanks all the same.
posted by sciatrix at 8:37 AM on March 18 [32 favorites]


@23skidoo, point taken, I should have been clearer.
posted by simra at 8:37 AM on March 18 [7 favorites]


Privilege is a pretty abstruse to the general pop. It's also hard to explain to those to whom privilege is generally invisible that doesn't immediately cause shut-down and dismissal as bullshit. When arguing this out with white family and friends, theory is very difficult to convey. It's much easier to talk about concrete behaviours and actions. People want a checklist of things that are ok or not ok, and not to have to think about moral reasoning or assessing privilege form first principles.

But that doesn't access the underlying lack of comprehension that rings through in the original letter.
posted by bonehead at 8:45 AM on March 18 [10 favorites]


looking again at the letter, "I don't consider myself to be a racist" is a really odd statement. Are there people who do consider themselves to be racist? Is it a positive attribute to them? It feels not dissimilar to "I'm not a racist, but..."

I suppose there's an acknowledgement that others might perceive him to be racist? It's giving me a headache trying to think like Tyrus.
posted by trif at 8:45 AM on March 18


sciatrix: ...and I went and I read up on it learned from it? I went out and when I didn't understand things, I did some fucking reading and thought about what I read? I have a few friends who are not white, and when they trust me enough to tell me about this shit, I try to shut up and listen so they stay willing to trust me with their observations occasionally.

Not to mansplain, but! even though you're white, you're also a woman, so maybe your mind is more open than the typical born-male/born-pale-American?
posted by wenestvedt at 8:45 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]


"I don't consider myself to be a racist" is a really odd statement.

"I don't do anything that is on the "you are a racist checklist"."
posted by bonehead at 8:47 AM on March 18 [9 favorites]


But still ... y’all can go home.

Ye gods this was something that they even said in a pithy moment in the film Soul Man.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:51 AM on March 18


It's interesting and perhaps telling that Tyrus asked a black guy to do this work for him, for free.

I am pretty certain he actually gets paid to write for The Root.

As he should, because this response was great.

I disagree with this paragraph though:

Don’t worry, Tyrus, you are white. You get to live in a world that insulates you from everything. I can’t imagine how breathtakingly free it must be to live in on a planet that doesn’t keep its foot on your neck at all times. To never have even encountered blackness until you were a grown man. To always feel like you belong. To breathe free. How beautifully exhilarating the oxygen you inhale must taste.

This is a really rosy look on what it means to live in a post-Sackler America. To think of white life in modern America as "breathing free" or "insulated from everything" is to miss all the other boots that can intersectionally end up on one's neck.

I've never been white, but I have been both a poor and not-so-poor person of color, and my god, I would much rather continue being a relatively well-off person of color than a poor or working-class white person in terms of the boots-on-necks I gotta deal with.
posted by Ouverture at 8:52 AM on March 18 [46 favorites]


The whole point (of DiAngelo's book) is that white folks have an irrational visceral reaction to that charge.

I'm a white man. I live in a small town with quite a high proportion of white people. And I can tell you for a fact that every single person I know in this town whom I can plausibly imagine having an irrational visceral reaction to being called a racist absolutely is as racist as fuck, and absolutely has said things in my presence that prove it beyond doubt.

There's also a very strong correlation between being this kind of fragile snowflake and feeling a compulsion to yammer on about how soft the kids are getting these days with all their demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces. But point this out and you get accused of "projecting".

Those of us who own the prejudices inculcated into us by our early training and habitually do the internal work required to counteract them can cope perfectly well with being accused of racism. Personally I react to being called on it as I would if given a heads-up about my fly being undone in public. There's a certain embarrassment there, sure, but mostly it's gratitude for the opportunity to do better.
posted by flabdablet at 9:00 AM on March 18 [47 favorites]


....And my own comment may have been too pithy, I'mma flesh out:

Outright racism is only part of the problem, I suspect. There are also some painfully earnest people who sweep in with high-concept ideas to "help", but they too have a lack of real-world understanding from an empathic level that makes their solutions more harmful than helpful. And if that's a big enough issue that the screenwriter of a cheeseball 1980s comedy put it in the script, then that's a big issue.

If your understanding of an entire group of people is based on anything other than "actually talking to those people and letting them directly tell you what their lives are like, and taking their word for it," then you are the problem. No matter how well-intentioned you are.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:02 AM on March 18 [4 favorites]


Not to mansplain, but! even though you're white, you're also a woman, so maybe your mind is more open than the typical born-male/born-pale-American?

*winks* Ah, but then I gotta ask: if white men are so completely incompetent at life, then, what are they doing in so many positions of authority? Surely they'd be kind of insulted at that characterization, too?

I'm just saying: if you need at least one marginalization to be able to work out how to be aware of this sort of thing--and I could have used a bunch of things to cue me in: gender, queerness, disability--well, fine, but I'm going to shake my head at folks who never learned to listen and treat them as if they've somehow made it to adulthood without learning that other people can smell their farts. And I think that if white men are really incapable of learning these social dynamics as a class, we should stop pretending we don't treat them like overgrown toddlers until we learn that we can expect better.

Because that's what this is. It's a skill. It can be learned. Why do we make so much room for only some people to be bad at it, and only in very specific privileged contexts?
posted by sciatrix at 9:05 AM on March 18 [23 favorites]


Are there people who do consider themselves to be racist?

Yes.

Is it a positive attribute to them?

No.
posted by flabdablet at 9:27 AM on March 18 [2 favorites]


In general terms (and not specifically about race) I like to think I am better at empathising now at 38 than I was at 22, and part of that was taking time to stop and listen, and then ask questions, and listen again. It required listening to other people's perspectives, and it wasn't an overnight thing, and I'm trying to get better and hopefully will continue to try to get better as I get older.

I can imagine, if i'd been called out about some of my nonsense in my early 20s, I would probably have dismissed it with some sort of "I was only joking" comment. And that doesn't feel good to know that the person I am now is related to that person.

So, the fact that Tyrus is asking questions is maybe a step, and I suppose that means I want to feel like he can be helped to take more steps... but it's hard, and i worry that if we don't thread the needle exactly, then he'll regress, and lash out, because it's hurting his fragile ego to make the effort; an extinction burst might push him back towards righteous indignation, and further, maybe.

This is clearly a stream of consciousness, but do we need to make the effort for Tyrus, or should he be scorned and expected to help himself? I don't know.
posted by trif at 9:27 AM on March 18 [7 favorites]



I've never been white, but I have been both a poor and not-so-poor person of color, and my god, I would much rather continue being a relatively well-off person of color than a poor or working-class white person in terms of the boots-on-necks I gotta deal with.


Here's the thing tho'.

Isn't one of the whole points of this discourse that the boots on poor/working-class white necks is intrinsically Something We Should Listen To or (Pay Vast and FoxNewsed Lip Service To) and organize entire elections and political manifestos around

whereas the mere mentioning of the boots on POC necks is "divisiveness" and "race baiting"
posted by lalochezia at 9:30 AM on March 18 [40 favorites]


if white men are so completely incompetent at life, then, what are they doing in so many positions of authority?

This assumes that inability to empathize is a liability when it comes to obtaining or holding positions of authority in late-stage capitalism, which flags a pretty huge [citation needed] for me, because my experience has been almost precisely the opposite.
posted by Ryvar at 9:32 AM on March 18 [8 favorites]


you should feel safe knowing that no white man in the entirety of this country’s past has ever had to pay a penalty for whiteness.

I really like this.
posted by rue72 at 9:41 AM on March 18 [11 favorites]


Wealth can to some degree be gained and lost. Race is a little harder to change in your individual lifetime.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:45 AM on March 18 [3 favorites]


i worry that if we don't thread the needle exactly, then he'll regress, and lash out, because it's hurting his fragile ego to make the effort; an extinction burst might push him back towards righteous indignation, and further, maybe.

If this is what was going to happen, he was actually already there. These people are not savable and we should not put one iota of energy towards trying to retrieve them from the muck they are already in. Their "reserving the right to turn racist" the minute they suffer any kind of ego-injury is already deeply and profoundly racist. Work on pulling in the people who won't "turn" racist the minute they're confronted with facts about reality.
posted by praemunire at 9:46 AM on March 18 [15 favorites]


Depending on which part of Wisconsin Tyrus lives in, there may not be a clued-in white person for 200 miles that he can ask. I mean, rural Wisconsin is pretty darn white, and the area where he went to college is also Minnesota farm-country white (i.e., also verrry pale). The guy is probably a couple standard deviations above anyone he knows, so he has to go elsewhere.

Funny thing is, Tyrus says he works at a school. I was in high school in Wisconsin 15 years ago. I remember Tyrus. Maybe his name wasn't Tyrus. Maybe he wasn't a student, maybe he wasn't a teacher then. But I remember him. I remember those bright young white boys and girls who were so secure in themselves who were so threatened, so uncomfortable when we walked in the doors of their school for debate tournaments. Us from Milwaukee, from the city, our brown and black faces, dressed as smart as we could in the pressed shirts and blazers we carefully changed into in the bathrooms before loading up onto the bus.

I remember Tyrus and I remember his face when he talked affirmative action to my black teammate. Immigration to my Latinx teammate. Middle East policy to my Palistinian teammate. Explained and explained and explained all of this without a shred of self-awareness. And we all had to swallow glass and smile and not raise our voices, stay "articulate", and refute him point by point. But not too harshly lest the judges in the background penalize us for being "emotional". Or "too invested".

Don't burst the bubble. You're the good ones, the only ones in the city "good enough" to compete with our children. But if you rock the boat too hard, if you make them confront reality, if you perform too well, if you're better than them, you're not welcome here.

All I see is that nothing's goddamned changed in 15 years.
posted by ultranos at 10:04 AM on March 18 [86 favorites]


do we need to make the effort for Tyrus, or should he be scorned and expected to help himself?

For me, the answer to this is in the article:

As a black man, there is absolutely nothing I can do to lessen, reduce or eradicate racism. All my bellowing into the wind; all my statistics; all of this data means nothing. Racism, white supremacy and prejudice was created by and is perpetuated by white people. All the blogs in the multiverse won’t reverse the effects of bigotry until white people do something about it. And I’m not just talking about the n-word Trump voters. I mean all of it.

I'm interpreting this to mean that racism is a problem that white people have to solve. If white folks' plan for lessening/reducing/eradicating racism is for white people to make the effort for Tyrus, okay cool, but "we" (meaning everybody, or society as a whole) don't need to make the effort for Tyrus.
posted by 23skidoo at 10:22 AM on March 18 [8 favorites]


Isn't one of the whole points of this discourse that the boots on poor/working-class white necks is intrinsically Something We Should Listen To or (Pay Vast and FoxNewsed Lip Service To) and organize entire elections and political manifestos around

well, we could organize a civil war over it instead

things are getting scary - too many people, rightly or wrongly, feel ignored and taken advantage of

the thing about a boot on the neck is that it can make it impossible to look up or forward

the thing about we all have homes is that some of them aren't any good or better
posted by pyramid termite at 10:53 AM on March 18 [2 favorites]


I remember Tyrus and I remember his face when he talked affirmative action to my black teammate. Immigration to my Latinx teammate. Middle East policy to my Palistinian teammate. Explained and explained and explained all of this without a shred of self-awareness. And we all had to swallow glass and smile and not raise our voices, stay "articulate", and refute him point by point. But not too harshly lest the judges in the background penalize us for being "emotional". Or "too invested".

Don't burst the bubble. You're the good ones, the only ones in the city "good enough" to compete with our children. But if you rock the boat too hard, if you make them confront reality, if you perform too well, if you're better than them, you're not welcome here.

All I see is that nothing's goddamned changed in 15 years.


Really. Make that 35 years, then, because when my African-American, but obviously mixed-race freshman self went to Sheboygan for a debate tourney from Riverside High School, I was the only POC on that bus. That Sheboygan high school was where I was told by a senior from Lodi or wherever who was huge and mean as fuck that "...you people deserve to be slaves because YOU LOST." He was very much a "might makes right" sort of fellow. This kid literally sought me out to say this shit during the lunch break. And the equivalent of teacher Tyrus was basically ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. That teacher was my debate coach. She was of no help when I went to her, afraid that this big white dude was looking for a reason to pummel me. "Just ignore him". Our debates were on freedom of speech, but steered clear of things about "fighting words" or the n-word. I'm sorry that things seem like they were worse for you and your schoolmates.

As for Tyrus, I read that note, and it smelled of a deep desire for absolution. He doesn't want any part of real change, but still wants to feel like he's a good guy. And he wants us to shut up because he's feeling uncomfortable, "Oh my god, chickens might be coming home to roost!" levels of uncomfortable. No. No quarter for that bullshit. He's a grown man and he needs to hear the truth.

I wish Harriott had said something to the effect of, "That glimmer of fear and anger that you feel? Multiply that times 450 years times 35 million people first, then get back to us on whether someone saying they "hate" you is on the same level as what black people in the United States have had to deal with since we've been here. And furthermore, until we have the mechanisms of the state to back up that hatred to oppress you, THEN you can talk." Tyrus needs to watch "The Hate That Hate Produced" (it's on YouTube for free, even!) and have a few seats.
posted by droplet at 10:55 AM on March 18 [52 favorites]


The people who can be saved are the people who are legitimately curious or are making a good-faith effort to learn, and that can be a very difficult thing to distinguish. Yes, every single straight white cis-male struggling towards awareness - every single one - has some number of “kill all men” jokes, some number of “I will not vote for a white man on principle” comments before they decide that social justice simply has no place for them, and that equality was never truly the end game. But the onus should never be on people with less privilege to educate, or to self-censor. Carrying white dudes across the finish line until they are sufficiently invested in social justice that no amount of text is going to sway them in the opposite direction is (and should be) primarily the responsibility of other white dudes who made it that far. But it is a delicate process, and a long one, because the blank checks our society writes white dudes leaves them zero motivation to develop empathy other than pure ethics; it’s not about survival for them, it’s not even about success. It’s almost entirely because you want to do the right thing and not be part of the problem.

My usual go-to (because I do a LOT of 1-to-1 outreach to fellow straight white dudes asking questions on social media) is the Culture series, because it shows an end game that is almost without question a positive step forward, while lambasting our existing power structures in the starkest terms imaginable (Player of Games’ inflection point with the Judge remains the single most brutal takedown of modern society I’ve ever read). It was written by a white dude in language that is not overtly threatening to white dudes but skillfully drives deep wedges into their secret guilt at having gotten ahead so (relatively) easy, with thinly-veiled allegories to both the daily bigotry and atrocities we may not have personally been party to, but cannot be fully separated from in any real-world cultural context. That series is, to sum, social justice training wheels for white dudes.

We really need a lot more like it, and not just stuff that’s targeted almost exclusively at nerds. Because reading the Culture series but *only* that and nothing further is how you get Elon Musk, *shudder*.

As for this article: it’s a good response, one that needed to be written and containing things that needed to be said. It’s almost the worst possible reply to Tyrus if the goal was to persuade him as an individual, but that’s really not the author’s job, and asking him to take on that responsibility was wrong in the first place.
posted by Ryvar at 11:07 AM on March 18 [10 favorites]


Isn't one of the whole points of this discourse that the boots on poor/working-class white necks is intrinsically Something We Should Listen To or (Pay Vast and FoxNewsed Lip Service To) and organize entire elections and political manifestos around

whereas the mere mentioning of the boots on POC necks is "divisiveness" and "race baiting"

I think it is better to advocate for a world where we expand empathy equally than contract it equally, even if it is horribly unfair.

And as you mentioned, lip service is cold comfort to people who lack food, shelter, and basic medical care, or the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died from drug overdoses in the last decade alone.

The cynical neoliberal leveraging of suffering should be something we fight against in every context. Otherwise, people lose hope or worse, become fascists.
posted by Ouverture at 11:23 AM on March 18 [4 favorites]


> and my god, I would much rather continue being a relatively well-off person of color than a poor or working-class white person in terms of the boots-on-necks I gotta deal with.

I don't like the sound of oppression olympics right here but --

>> well, we could organize a civil war over it instead

I can get behind that - or better yet, an inclusive and intersectional labor movement comprised of both carrot (pretty, smiling, radical female workers heading up political and counter-political civic action) and stick (visibly threatening civil war via, say, armed black workers standing on street corners) divisions.
posted by MiraK at 11:24 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]


Come to think of it, it's probably a derail to turn this conversation into one focused on poverty. People say Americans switch the topic to race when discussing class and to class when discussing race - imo, too true, but also, there's a left/right divide there, so that it's usually leftists who change the subject to class when racism is brought up, and conservatives who change the subject to race when class is brought up. The really interesting upshot is that race issues and non-white people get the short shrift in both cases, because of course, conservatives don't talk about race in the most enlightened way.

Maybe we should stick to race and racism here on this thread even if we feel the urge to change the subject to class and labor topics.
posted by MiraK at 11:34 AM on March 18 [22 favorites]


All I see is that nothing's goddamned changed in 15 years.

Wage gaps by ethnicity have not changed in generations. "Black and Hispanic men, for their part, have made no progress in narrowing the wage gap with white men since 1980, in part because there have been no improvements in the hourly earnings of white, black or Hispanic men over this 35-year period. As a result, black men earned the same 73% share of white men’s hourly earnings in 1980 as they did in 2015, and Hispanic men earned 69% of white men’s earnings in 2015 compared with 71% in 1980." (Note that gender is also examined in this report.)

Gender wage gaps had been closing through the 80s and 90s, but have plateaued for nearly 15 years. Gender wage gaps in the US have remain constant since the mid 2000s.

Things really are not getting better.
posted by bonehead at 11:38 AM on March 18 [17 favorites]


things are getting scary - too many people, rightly or wrongly, feel ignored and taken advantage of

the thing about a boot on the neck is that it can make it impossible to look up or forward


This seems like a really good place to remind everyone once again that the sub-$50K-yr household demographics did not vote for Trump, but for Clinton. Only the white subdemographic there did. The median household income for Trump voters was higher than of Clinton voters. (For some reason, people have a hugely difficult time keeping this fixed in their minds.) Why are we so desperately worried about catering to these people, rather than to the substantially larger group of people suffering from the same or greater degree of economic difficulties who don't require soothing out of racial superiority theories to be decent citizens?

If your grievance is that, as a white person, you are not getting a white person's due, there is nothing that can satisfy your sense of "being ignored and taken advantage of" than more white supremacy. We cannot give you that. I sincerely hope that it does not come to (further) violence in this country, but we cannot give you that. You don't persuade fascists or death cultists. You beat them.
posted by praemunire at 11:39 AM on March 18 [37 favorites]


You don't persuade fascists or death cultists. You beat them.

Quoted for fucking truth.
posted by flabdablet at 11:48 AM on March 18 [13 favorites]


It's not sufficient, but white people need to persistently give people of color space to tell their own stories and to persistently say to other white people: Look! Listen! Read this! Having someone call you a racist is never going to be the ordeal for you that racism has been and continues to be for this person.

We need to be dragging people out of Green Book and into If Beale Street Could Talk.
posted by straight at 1:12 PM on March 18 [12 favorites]


Privilege is a pretty abstruse to the general pop. It's also hard to explain to those to whom privilege is generally invisible that doesn't immediately cause shut-down and dismissal as bullshit.

I disagree that the shutdown you describe is due to conceptual difficulty. Privilege is an emergent property (in the math/comp sci/biology sense), like any societal phenomenon. While people tend to be more attuned to direct causation and do in general find emergent effects less intuitive or more difficult to reason about or make accurate predictions about, many of the people who claim to have such difficulty with the idea of privilege have no trouble at all with the idea that distributed market-based economies can exhibit order and effectively meet people's economic needs. Or have no trouble at all with the (eg. in Robert's Rules of Order) idea of a "sense of the meeting", or a zeitgeist more generally. In fact, they frequently seem to refer to such a phenomenon directly when complaining about feeling some nebulous sense of change in general societal values from what they understood to be permissible previously. No; rather, the shutdown response is simply plain old defensiveness. (I.e., white fragility )
posted by eviemath at 2:16 PM on March 18 [6 favorites]


"If this is what was going to happen, he was actually already there. These people are not savable and we should not put one iota of energy towards trying to retrieve them from the muck they are already in."

Well, I disagree, partly, but not with the last part.

I deeply distrust this supposed distinction between "true" racists and "savable" racists, I strongly disagree with any explicit or implicit claims that white fragility is something only the "true" racists display -- but despite this or maybe because of it, as a white person I no longer have the patience required to coddle other white people past their fragility responses.

I see fragility responses everywhere. It's been most illuminating to grapple with it in myself and to see it here from dozens of mefites regardless of my prior evaluations of their wokeness.

As a result, I've come to see any and every hint from a white person of an attempt to make a distinction between "genuine" racists and themseles as a white fragility response. I no longer care so much about the blatant white supremacists, I see them as an extreme, inevitable consequence of a society that has white supremacy built-in; I see them as the tip of the spear held by all of we white people within a white supremacist society and who inescapably benefit from white privilege.

I have zero faith that white people carefully navigating other white people's fragility will help very much; I've come to resent that it is, of course, white privilege that has made this the default assumption necessary to a strategy for change. I've watched mild, indulgent engagements by white people regarding other white people's objectionable behavior inevitably devolve into extended coddling of white fragility and a centering on white experience which merely reinforces the expectations of white privilege.

Harriot isn't really addressing Tyrus with this. If Tyrus can answer his questions himself and eventually become aware of his white privilege is a change that, in the end, Tyrus will or will not choose.

What's clear is that Tyrus's email isn't actually an earnest attempt to engage, even if Tyrus tells himself that it is. He's seeing what he wants to see and until he is able to see what's right in front of him, all he's really doing with emails like this is to use someone else to help shore up his defenses. It doesn't matter if Harriot is a person of color, except in the sense that in serving thus, a person of color could be more effective than a white person -- well, and also it's inevitable that Tyrus's white privilege would just assume that this is Harriot's responsibilty. But, really, Tyrus will use another white person for his self-defense. Any engagement is likely to just help Tyrus reinforce his defenses. That's his intent, though he's likely to be conviently lacking self-awareness about this.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:10 PM on March 18 [12 favorites]


do we need to make the effort for Tyrus, or should he be scorned and expected to help himself?

As, again to be clear, a white woman: I think Tyrus should be scorned and expected to help himself, because I find that the more you coddle someone who has the ability to teach himself but fundamentally does not want to learn, the more excuses he will dredge up to avoid engaging with or interacting with the topic. I think that more white people should be left shuffling and uncomfortable when they do not know these things, and I think that more other white people should be staring at them and going "How did you never learn to listen to other people? Are you that out of touch? Are you that incompetent?"

And I'm framing this very bluntly in the language of competence and intelligence and skill, because like Ryvar I have observed that people do not think these things have anything to do with whether or not someone ought to be in a position of authority or a respected person who knows things. I think that needs to change, and in my comments, I am advocating for change in the way we, white people, discuss them and expect other white people to learn.

I have done my fair share of reaching out. I find that the more hand-holding you do, the nicer you are about it, the less people give a shit until someone they have to respect gives them an incentive to do it. The more you try to make doing this emotional work palatable, the less they think they have to do to try, and the faster they wilt in a fragile tantrum the moment it becomes hard.

No. White people, we have to expect more out of other white people. That's how change happens. It doesn't happen by reaching out with compassion to people who are making asses of themselves. It happens by saying to each other "huh, wow, that guy made a fool of himself, huh?" and, with compassion, explaining to people who ask "how can I not be a fool?" how to start going about doing that. But it doesn't mean that we go "ah, perhaps that fool was merely ignorant and didn't know" upon the first sign of faux pas. We have to expect each other to know, and we have to be disappointed with people who don't know. Otherwise they will not bother to try. And we have to model doing this because in this context, we are the people with the social power. We have the social capital to force other white people to listen to us. PoC don't. So we have to expect more out of each other than constantly insisting on benefit of the doubt for literally everyone who isn't actually yelling Sieg Heil or brandishing an AK-47 at a mosque.
posted by sciatrix at 4:27 PM on March 18 [27 favorites]


I deeply distrust this supposed distinction between "true" racists and "savable" racists,

I don't believe I said anything that actually drew this distinction.
posted by praemunire at 7:03 PM on March 18


Yes, every single straight white cis-male struggling towards awareness - every single one - has some number of “kill all men” jokes, some number of “I will not vote for a white man on principle” comments before they decide that social justice simply has no place for them, and that equality was never truly the end game.

suppose you looked up to some specific set of people and discovered that they didn't like you. suppose it became clear that they did not, especially, care about equality, only about making jokes and being mean to you. pretty awful of them! only: why would that make you not care about equality?

the thing about deciding human decency has no place for you is that you're always right. deciding it makes you right. but the thing about being decent is that it makes you a place, your own place. in fact, it is the only thing that can. white men are able to work this out as well as anyone else, and a number of them have.

which is why the scare-mongering about about how"every single straight white cis-male" is only a contingent fair-weather ally at best -- is on a short fuse and has a breaking point after which he abandons civilization and takes his grudges off into the wilderness to be unjust all by his lonesome -- is cordially not appreciated, as it is not true.

because being terrified of white men and their mighty powers of pique has never gotten anybody a step closer to equality. and it is a fear all too easy to fall into. a white man's pique can kill when it is indulged too far. but a backlash doesn't happen because there were too many jokes or too many principles.

(and this is nothing to do with Not My Job to Educate You grandstanding. telling jokes and articulating principles do educate. and better than cringing and placation do, too.)
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:17 PM on March 18 [10 favorites]


It would be great if a white man wrote a parallel reply to Tyrus, echoing some of the points made above here (and of course many places elsewhere). I wonder if The Root would run it.
posted by PhineasGage at 7:30 PM on March 18


If my decision to be an ally is conditioned on minorities being nice to me or forfeited by minorities writing me off as useless, then I was never an ally in the first place. Human dignity and equality isn't earned. I either believe in it or I don't.
posted by straight at 9:03 PM on March 18 [18 favorites]


White people, we have to expect more out of other white people. That's how change happens. It doesn't happen by reaching out with compassion to people who are making asses of themselves.

You touch on this in the rest of the comment, but I want to point out (specifically, as an educator) more clearly or directly that setting justifiably high expectations is not incommensurate with treating people with compassion. Obviously compassion for others is a motivating factor of wanting white people to be less racist. But on top of/aside from that, coddling someone and letting them get away with not doing the emotional work necessary to be a decent human being is not necessarily compassionate to that individual, either.
posted by eviemath at 9:21 PM on March 18 [7 favorites]


suppose you looked up to some specific set of people and discovered that they didn't like you. suppose it became clear that they did not, especially, care about equality, only about making jokes and being mean to you. pretty awful of them! only: why would that make you not care about equality?

This is literally the precise opposite of what I was saying.

For context, here is what I said in full, with the most important of the three counterpoints in bold:
Yes, every single straight white cis-male struggling towards awareness - every single one - has some number of “kill all men” jokes, some number of “I will not vote for a white man on principle” comments before they decide that social justice simply has no place for them, and that equality was never truly the end game. But the onus should never be on people with less privilege to educate, or to self-censor. Carrying white dudes across the finish line until they are sufficiently invested in social justice that no amount of text is going to sway them in the opposite direction is (and should be) primarily the responsibility of other white dudes who made it that far

Your comment carries the assumption that equality = social justice, and while I believe that to be true, and it is held to be true here, it is not assumed to be true by default in more conservative (predominantly white) circles. When white men first happen to learn that there is even a thing called social justice they are immediately getting hit with two competing narratives: one claiming that it is part of a movement to undo the systemic inequality of our society and the compounded effects of that inequality over centuries/millennia - which appeals to a very universal human desire for absolute fairness that takes all past and present context into account. The other, from the conservative side, claiming that "social justice" is simply an attempt at inverting the current hierarchy with white men on the bottom - effectively denying that said fairness can ever exist.

The more our potential-ally white men read about social justice the more obviously false that latter claim appears. The more they read comments that seem to reinforce that latter claim - even if those comments are coming from a place of absolutely justifiable anger at past and present inequality - the more they wonder if they are being deceived, and open themselves to believing the racist influences in their lives. This very expressly does not mean that less privileged people should self-censor; it means that other white dudes need to step up and help contextualize those comments. Fortunately for everyone involved, there is a threshold or cutoff point where total reading and personal investment in social justice solidifies and no amount of text on the Internet can gainsay it, but white men are effectively running through a minefield of Internet commentators to reach that point and after adjusting for weightings like upbringing, education, and peer group it's almost completely random whether any given individual will make it or not.

So, no, my point was not that white men are forever fair-weather allies, or forever one criticism away from snapping and going back to retweeting Ben Shapiro or whatever, but rather that upon learning about social justice and becoming politically aware they exist in a delicate state until they've reached a decisive conclusion. Which is why it's so incredibly important for other white dudes who have made it through that minefield to reach out and contextualize those angry comments, to point them to media that paints a picture of social justice in which they have a place - precisely equal to everybody else's - at the table. That delicacy - and for the love of god please do not omit this sentence if you reply - is expressly not the burden of any other group of people nor should it be. But it is incredibly important nonetheless, because while I've seen a lot of people change their minds over the Internet, I've never seen anybody who concluded social justice was in fact a scam recover from that. Not even once.
posted by Ryvar at 10:35 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]


And just to be 110% clear, because we've had a lot of difficulty communicating in the past, this:

and that equality was never truly the end game

is not meant to suggest that white men are evaluating whether their personal goal is equality, it's meant to suggest that they're evaluating whether the social justice movement's goal is equality, or whether racist uncle Ricky was right about it all being a scam.
posted by Ryvar at 10:51 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]


while I've seen a lot of people change their minds over the Internet, I've never seen anybody who concluded social justice was in fact a scam recover from that. Not even once.

I have, but it doesn't happen over the internet. It can happen in person, but it's a long, slow, gradual process, not a single lightbulb moment followed by a complete change in belief systems.

It's incredibly tedious to watch someone start to Get It, and have the horrified realization that this means they Failed To Get It for the last twenty years--and then realize this is going to happen again and again, on every new aspect of social justice they encounter, because now they're finally willing to pay attention to (some of) the messages that oppressed people have been stating for their entire lives.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:07 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]


Tedious to live through, yeah, I can see that. But all the same that’s pretty inspiring for me to hear, because there’s been some real-life people I lost along the way where it really, really hurt. I don’t hold out much hope, but maybe I should touch base and see where they are these days.
posted by Ryvar at 11:17 PM on March 18


It would be great if a white man wrote a parallel reply to Tyrus

Easy because quite short:

For fuck's sake, Tyrus, get over yourself.
posted by flabdablet at 2:09 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]


I have also watched this happen, and happen because people the person cared about drew lines in the sand and imposed consequences. Consequences like objecting to bad behavior and spoiling social outings, or explaining that they thought less of the person for saying that, or otherwise making clear that the behavior wasn't okay.

But it has to be people whose opinion the person cares about saying it. Some people do not actually care enough about another living human being enough to do this work, but they aren't common. Some people don't care about you in the specific enough, and that's more common. White people are disproportionately likely to be people that white people care about, though, and so it's particularly important that white people take point on this.
posted by sciatrix at 6:36 AM on March 19 [3 favorites]


Saying "Get over yourself" accomplishes nothing. I'd encourage re-reading MLK's "Letter From Birmingham Jail." He expressed disappointment, anger, frustration, but he communicated his points and feelings and arguments in an attempt to persuade, with love and empathy, people he still recognized as fellow human beings.
posted by PhineasGage at 9:02 AM on March 19 [3 favorites]


I think it has its place. I also think that the more of us who say that, the faster he'll take seriously the need to do it.
posted by flabdablet at 9:24 AM on March 19


Yeah, Tyrus probably needs to read or re-read MLK's Letter, but he's probably not gonna unless some white guy he cares about bluntly says, "Dude you still don't get it."
posted by straight at 9:47 AM on March 19 [3 favorites]


Saying "Get over yourself" accomplishes nothing

Just my view, but I've learned a lot from people being blunt with me and telling me to get over myself or that I don't know what I'm talking about or that I need to cut the crap and take them seriously. I have learned a whole lot less from people biting their tongues and/or babying me while I act like an ignorant fool.
posted by rue72 at 10:14 AM on March 19 [4 favorites]


There's not much use in having white privilege unless you exercise the freedom to be blunt that comes included in the package.
posted by flabdablet at 10:35 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]


Saying "Get over yourself" accomplishes nothing.

Saying "Get over yourself" lets someone know that they believe something so wrong that you're willing to break the social taboos against dismissive and rude language. You're not "supposed" to tell people to get over themselves, so when you do, it can serve as a shock to their system that you really can't get with hand-holding and patience. Letters from a Birmingham Jail is great, but someone killed the guy who wrote it- persuading people with love and empathy will not automagically make them listen to what you have to say.

I feel that "Get over yourself" (or similar) works best if you try it with someone you are very close to, as trying it on a stranger will likely just make the stranger defensive, but trying it on a close friend can be exactly what might make the close friend start listening to what you say after "Get over yourself".
posted by 23skidoo at 10:42 AM on March 19 [6 favorites]


Whenever we get into this conversation about race vs. class, I find it frustrating that no one seems to acknowledge that the biggest losers in the American class war are black and brown. And I think the point about how it's only the white working class that went for Trump deserves a "yes, and" in the fact that the Democratic party's loss was greatly exacerbated by low voter turnout among Democrats. A lot of the voters that didn't turn out were impoverished black voters who didn't feel heard by either campaign. Malaika Jabali does a great job of drawing this argument out.
posted by zeusianfog at 10:42 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]


Last year I burst out laughing in my dad’s face when he told me the story of how a black man in the 70s asked him for money and then called my dad a honky after dad refused to give him money. I was hearing the story because my dad was attempting to defend himself after I shut down some racist bullshit he was spinning. So to make me feel sorry for him, he told me this other story and insisted that that was just as bad as being called the N word. That’s the point when I started laughing. And he was deeply offended and hurt, and I told my dad he could believe that if he wanted to but I was never going to believe it because it was simply not true because history, etc.

Once I tried to explain white privilege to an ex who seemed to believe that the appropriate phrase to use to describe black people had shifted over time in a way that made it feel to him almost like it was some kind of trap for white people. I was so exasperated and practically yelling, “this is not all about you or white people.”

Because he’s a cyclist, I tried to use that as metaphor. That being white was like always having a headwind and because it had always been there you didn’t notice it. At least, not unless that started to change. But all of the other riders, the ones who weren’t white, or male, or able-bodied had ridden their entire lives against the wind, and they were exhausted. His response? “Honey, it’s not my fault I was born white.” Somehow my dad, who is way more racist, is easier to deal with in some ways. Thanks for the post, OP!
posted by Bella Donna at 1:23 PM on March 19 [2 favorites]


(Because I am not a cyclist I probably got the winds confused. Maybe the people who have a tail wind are the ones who are not fighting against the wind. In any case, I swear I got it right during that conversation if not just now in my comment.)
posted by Bella Donna at 1:28 PM on March 19


“Honey, it’s not my fault I was born white.”

weird, I am juuuuuust getting around to watching Orange Is The New Black, and in Season 1 (Spoilers, I suppose) a screwdriver goes missing from this tool room, and a supervisor gets all the CO's together to rip them a new one for the missing screwdriver.

"But it's not our fault the screwdriver is missing!" one of the CO's whines.

And the supervisor looks at all the CO's and goes "Yep, it's somebody else's fault the screwdriver is missing. But it's your fault that it hasn't been found yet."

Applied to racism in the USA, the notion becomes: "Yep, it's somebody else's fault (aka, white people from long ago) that the USA is so damn racist. But it's current white people's fault that racism hasn't been lessened/reduced/eradicated."
posted by 23skidoo at 1:36 PM on March 19 [9 favorites]


Because he’s a cyclist, I tried to use that as metaphor.

The better cycling metaphor, at least in the US, is cyclists existing in an infrastructure and legal regime that treats cyclist as, at best, an afterthought and at worst is actively hostile, resulting in deaths and no accountability.
Some places are trying to change this, and those places receive enormous pushback from benefited populations, who regard their longstanding accidental privileges as birthright.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:53 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]






I don't think it's possible to talk about race without also talking about class.

There’s a difference between also talking about class and changing the subject to class.
posted by Etrigan at 10:24 AM on March 22 [9 favorites]


The fact that race and class (and let's never forget gender/presentation) are all intertwined here is one of the major things Tyrus missed, or perhaps willfully dismisses. It doesn't fit in conservative world views (rugged individuals can bootstrap themselves, so economic fortune indicates strong moral fibre), so consideration of class are erased from their conversations. Indeed, it's not raised in the original letter at all, though you can see it poking in around the edges.
posted by bonehead at 11:44 AM on March 22


The main relevance of class is to figure out whether I'm scapegoating black people because I'm too cowardly to fight the powerful causes of my own problems or if I'm scapegoating black people to distract other people from my role in causing their problems.

Either way, it's important to focus on the unjust scapegoating process itself, or else even if we solve the problems we're blaming on black people today, we'll just blame them again for whatever problems we have tomorrow.
posted by straight at 3:06 PM on March 22


And scapegoating, whether it's racism, sexism, homophobia, or whatever, isn't just about distracting people from their problems. It's also a potent form of group bonding that transcends class. We can't really fight it until we notice that it is going on and are intentional about refusing to strengthen our social bonds with anyone at the expense of black people or immigrants or women or transgender people.

Which necessitates paying attention to specific instances of scapegoating and how they are happening, not just a generalized "I'm against all -isms." We have to be able to point to specific ways in which black people in particular are being scapegoated in order to work toward fixing it.
posted by straight at 3:24 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]


do we need to make the effort for Tyrus, or should he be scorned and expected to help himself?

White people should make the effort. You know how we say, POC shouldn't be expected to "educate white people?"

White people should make the effort to be compassionate towards Tyrus. You've all been Tyrus before, at some part in your lives. Let's not be ahistorical with white wokeness.
posted by suedehead at 6:27 PM on March 22 [2 favorites]


but do we need to make the effort for Tyrus, or should he be scorned and expected to help himself? I don't know.

White People Must Save Themselves From Whiteness, Venita Blackburn, The Paris Review
In truth, everyone knows that tribalism, and the lie of racism, could be eradicated, but no one agrees on the method. The only real solution is vulnerability and agreeing to that is no easy choice. To give up whiteness is to become vulnerable, to confront the deep tears in the psyche gouged over generations, to see the hate in the face of a loved one and name it and therefore open yourself up to being seen and ultimately touched. For most morally sound people who benefit from whiteness, there is a need to absolve oneself of guilt and responsibility. In the literary world, that means we hold up champions against racism, the demi-gods of American letters: Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among others. A funny thing happens, though. These forces, while they are championed, are neutered of their philosophies, of their observations, of their astute articulations of the black experience. It’s an act that protects whiteness while allowing the free-thinking white person to believe she is challenging the institution.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:33 AM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: racist uncle Ricky was right about it all being a scam
posted by trif at 3:18 AM on April 17


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