Race is a difficult subject to discuss, said Captain Obvious, making the understatement of the year.
When he had our discussion in class about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, I feel like we managed to dance around race by talking about it through other lenses. These were important lenses – the relationship between ourselves and law enforcement, other systems of oppression at play in our society, and looking at objects from the teaching collection that are part of a racial history. But we spent very little time talking about race itself, the subject at the heart of Coates’ award-winning work.
I know that I can feel very nervous and uncomfortable reading and talking about race. If I ask myself why I feel this way, my first response is that I’m afraid I’ll say something wrong. If I ask myself what I might say “wrong,” every answer is something that would make me look racist, or would hurt or upset someone. This inherently selfish fear carries the assumption that I’m not racist, or part of the system of oppression that is both the cause and effect of ongoing racism in this country. But I’m white, and therefore I am connected to this system of oppression no matter how hard I deny it.
I know that I feel uncomfortable discussing race because I’m aware of my privilege and when I learn about these systems of oppression, I have to look my responsibility for perpetuating them in the eye. When I learn about race, I empathize with those that are victims of a system I’m a part of, and the guilt I feel as a result is overwhelming.
It may be presumptuous, but I think that these feelings are common, and are reasons some white people completely avoid discussing race, or become reticent when forced to. They don’t want to be the oppressors. Those that understand that they are oppressive forces don’t particularly enjoy the feeling of responsibility and guilt they must accept learning about some of the major and minor atrocities enacted by people that identify like them. That sense of “white guilt” is something inside me that knows that I am part of the system. I’m the beneficiary of centuries of violence and tyranny and my ability to choose not to think or talk about race simply because “it makes me uncomfortable” is just one example of the privilege I have. While I have never actively committed an act of physical or (to my memory) verbal violence towards a black person, my privilege and choice to not actively combat this oppressive system makes me an oppressor.
And that’s just a really disappointing and awful thing to realize about yourself.
These thoughts were crystalized when reading Coates’ work, written as a letter to his son about race in America. He explores what it meant to be black growing up, what it meant to be black throughout history, what it means to be black to him today. The book, short and direct, is best represented when he went to speak to his son after the fourteen-year-old fled room upon hearing that Trayvon Martin’s killer would not be indicted. Coates didn’t comfort his son, he told him that he would have to find a way to live in this reality.
I felt like, in some ways, he was doing that to all the readers. As the book conveys his understanding of the oppressive world he grew up, lives in, and will see his son grow up in with devastating and powerful clarity. But he doesn’t explore it with gentility and kindness, he confronts all the difficulties, complexities, and inequalities openly, directly, and strongly. He wants the reader to know exactly what they are getting into, and it’s not pretty.
What made this book additionally uncomfortable for me was that I didn’t really feel it was written for me, a white woman soaked with privilege. It’s for his son, a young black man coming of age in 21st century America. He talks about white people, but never to white people. The format is very personal and feels almost invasive for me to read, especially with the thought megaphoned from the back of your mind that when he talks about these oppressive systems, he means me, and everyone I know who identifies as white. When he talks about Dreamers, people who live lives believing they are unaffected by their race, I know I am among them. It’s easy enough for me to slip back into the dream and pretend I haven’t read this book, and I’m sure I unconsciously will. But the intimacy, clarity, and power Coates uses to describe the struggles and dangers he has witnessed his entire life are not easy to shake.
But my white discomfort is in no way comparable to the destruction of black bodies. The devastation I felt more clearly understanding my role in oppressive systems was nothing compared to imagining this conversation having to happen not just between Coates and his son but between millions of black parents and children over the centuries. Their emotions and experiences are something I will never fully understand, but I can listen and learn.
I was told by many people this book would be a very tough read, and it was. And tough stuff is hard to discuss. But not being open to looking critically at the systems in place, the inequalities we perpetuate, the mistakes we have made and will make, and discussing them in safe, productive spaces is the absolute least we can do to combat the damage that has already been done. Dancing around it and avoiding it is just another way to be a bystander to the violence.
It’s time to put the privilege to avoid these conversations aside. We need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, honest, and humbled, and learn from such powerful, vulnerable, honest, humble voices as Ta-Nehisi Coates and the thousands of black voices calling for change.