Last week I wrote about race and racism, again. It was a hard piece to write, but I ultimately felt like it needed to be written in part because, as Emily said encouragingly when I was contemplating whether I really wanted to write yet one more post about a blatant act of racism in this country: “It seems to have really affected you.” Indeed, and that’s the point. It affects me, and you, and everyone else in America.
But this piece out of the many I’ve written sapped me in a way others had not. My husband, Chris, a sociology professor who specializes in race, history and social policy, is also my valued in-house editor. He reads nearly everything I write before it is published and is always supportive, and often critical in ways that generally help me figure out how to better shape my ideas.
This time he wasn’t able to read the piece until after it was posted, and when he did, he had little to say. What, he wondered aloud, was I saying that was new with this piece? At first I was defensive, naturally: What do you mean what am I saying that’s new? In the world of online media, you and your ideas are only as relevant as your last post! Besides, who cares whether or not I’m saying something new? This happened and needs to be called out!
He said he understood and agreed with all that (remember, he noted, “I teach race everyday to students who sometimes get it, sometimes don’t”), but was more skeptical that my writing or anyone else’s on the subject of racism will ever be enough to move the needle. Maybe then, I thought, what I had failed to put a finer point on is that good-intentioned liberals do not actually understand how grotesque outward racism can be.
The incident with the white woman in western New York might have seemed extreme or like an outlier incident, but it happens all the time. Racism can be as blunt as an anvil. In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin case, a white man, a stranger, said to me, tauntingly, while passing on the sidewalk in Chelsea, York City, “Poor Trayvon.” You poor black woman who probably sympathizes with that black kid who got shot for acting out of line, and getting what he deserved.
How many different ways, how many essays or blog posts in which a racist incident is addressed, deconstructed or recounted will it take before anything changes?
And it is true that every time I write about race and racism, I continue to somehow be shocked that the sky doesn’t open and there isn’t a tectonic shift in the way the greater population thinks about race and racism. Not because my writing is so exceptional (I bow at the feet of the incomparable Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is doing the best writing out there on race in America right now), but because did you see that f***king video of that white woman screaming the N-word at that man in his car? I mean, good God on a trolley truck in France, are you kidding me?
A few days later, almost as if in direct response to Chris’s question, the writer Cord Jefferson wrote a piece on Medium called The Racism Beat, in which he pointedly explains the emotional and psychological fatigue that results from being the black writer who is repeatedly asked to write a commentary on whatever most recent racist incident for such-and-such publication or media outlet. It is an excellent, smart piece. Much of it spoke directly to me:
“It’s exhausting to always be writing and thinking about a new person being racist or sexist or otherwise awful. It’s exhausting to feel compelled on a consistent basis to defend your claim to dignity. It’s exhausting to then watch those defenses drift beyond the reaches of the internet’s short memory, or to coffee tables in dentists’ offices, to be forgotten about until you link to them the next time you need to say essentially the same thing.”
But here’s the thing, I realized, yes it is all that. But for me, it is also about the one or six or 12 emails I get after I write a piece that tell me what I’ve written has helped to changed their thinking or resonated with them. One friend (who is white), emailed me recently (reprinted with permission):
“I just wanted to send you a note to say that I am REALLY GRATEFUL for the work you’re doing. Honestly there are times I wonder about the way you go about it all -- I can see why some people get bent out of shape about it, and sometimes I think they have some good points (and sometimes I think they’re missing the point). On the whole, however, you're getting me to think harder and (I hope better) about race, which I think is at least a little part of what you have said you want to be doing. So by my lights you’re succeeding in the important stuff.”
Often times I post Facebook comments about pieces I’ve written. I tend to use Facebook as a sort of informal salon to generate and encourage conversation and ideas. Last week I posted this: “It's weird how sometimes when i write about race and racism some of my white friends = crickets.” Of the 39 responses that ranged from positive to negative to uncertain to emphatic, this one struck me the most (reprinted with permission).
“The thing that probably keeps me the quietest, at times is that race is the most dangerous subject to talk about, as a white person. I have no problem forming and sharing ideas about politics, religion, sexuality or a lot of other topics and feeling confident about my stance. Race is the only subject I know of that makes me feel vulnerable to the point that being wrong, or misunderstood or misunderstanding equates to being a bad person in some way. Pick any other topic and I have no such fears.”
I would argue that the reason her fears are warranted is because openly acknowledging racism means recognizing that it is as sucky for white people as it is for black people, in, of course, vastly divergent ways. The difference of course is that white people can opt not to even step up to a starting place.
But if my writing the same thing over and over again prompts even one person to openly admit their fear of talking about racism, encourage a willingness to overcome that fear, or to tell me that my approach might not always work, but has at least done some good work, then I will keep writing the same thing over and over again.