“After reading what you’ve said, I’m thinking differently” Photograph: Joshua Lott/Getty Images
Jess Zimmerman: Hi, Rebecca! First of all, thanks for talking this out with me, and I hope I don’t come off like a jackass. The internet exerts a powerful jackass ray, and lord knows so does talking about race, and we are essentially crossing the streams here. Anyway, after the Ferguson grand jury verdict came down, I tried to spend the night just RTing black folks on Twitter. I felt pretty OK about this approach – borderline smug, to be honest, especially when I saw other white people being like “I’m just going to amplify black voices and not tweet” and I got to pat myself on the back for not announcing it. But I also saw people saying that white privilege means you have an obligation to speak up. I’m not sure how to figure out which is a better approach.
Rebecca Carroll: Whatever your actions as a white person in the current racial climate – a climate that is quickly escalating to a place of irreparable disrepair in terms of productive communication – there still exists a level of comfort, of self-satisfaction, of: I can afford to be smug because my life doesn’t depend on it. It leaves me with the same reaction I have when grown white people tell me they’re taking “baby steps” towards racial awareness.
That’s cool, you go ahead and take your baby steps – take your time. I’ll just keep hoping I don’t get dead. Great then! If you’re a baby, take those steps. If you’re a grown, adult white human living in America right now and you’re not there yet, take bigger steps.
JZ: I guess my question is, which direction should those baby steps go? How do we balance the responsibility to speak up with the responsibility to shut up? How do we use a platform without stealing the podium? And how do we deal with even ASKING these questions when they just put white people at the center of the conversation LIKE ALWAYS?
RC: Use the platform to talk to other white people. If you are a racially conscious person, you are affected. You are angry. It matters.
JZ: But talking to other white people includes, presumably, talking to white people who aren’t racially conscious, who don’t have black people in their lives – or don’t work hard to understand how their black friends’ experiences are different, or think they’re actually less racist if they pretend the differences don’t exist.
RC: Seriously, if you have black friends and black people in your life and it still doesn’t gut you when another black boy or man or person gets shot and killed, then you need to examine your friendship. If on some level you and your white peers, those racially conscious and not, don’t feel bad – like really bone-deep bad – then you’re not there yet.
Our legacy as black folks is of pain and strife; your legacy as white folks is of cultural decimation, violence and human ownership. Bummer. Who wants to look at that? And when you do, if you can, that’s gotta feel bad.
JZ: Yeah, this really gets at the heart of it. I do feel bad about our ugly legacy, and I accept that it’s right for me to feel bad. But I have a harder time with having to feel bad because individual people are angry at me specifically – say, because I argued with them for saying something racist. I really do want to amplify black voices and not speak over people. But there’s some cowardice in there too, which I need to suck up and get over. It’s not like I’m going to get more than my feelings hurt.
So I’m trying to figure out how to give the problem of inequality my work, my support, whatever muscle I can give it, without overflowing it with my dumb opinions. Is the answer to point people to the things they should be reading? If a white person says “read this piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates”, are other white people more likely to be receptive?
RC: No. I mean, yes. EVERYONE should be reading Ta-Nehisi Coates – like all the time, seven times until Sunday. But what white people should be really be doing is thinking really hard about ways to make change in an immediate way.
My son was at our neighborhood public school at the peak of our neighborhood gentrification. I would talk to the parents on the playground and ask, “Are you not concerned about how white this school is becoming?” They looked at me like I was a zealot. I took my son out of that school and found another one that is properly diverse – not 25 middle-class white kids and three black kids from the projects; kids from here and abroad, black and brown, different religions, and so on. White parents should feel this urgency to do the same and have the collective power to demand it.
JZ: Yes! And white hiring managers, and white editors, and … I was thinking mostly about talking to other white people specifically about, like, their dumb terrible ideas about police violence. Like, what do you do when your cousin hijacks a Thanksgiving conversation to talk about how the Ferguson grand jury was right, NOT THAT THIS HAPPENED TO ME AND NOT THAT I HANDLED IT REALLY POORLY (I ran away). But yeah, that’s only relevant to a few conversations. It’s not really making change.
But I’m realizing that I really suck at thinking of real-world solutions beyond “try to convince people” and “protest”. The Guardian’s #FergusonNext project with a bunch of media outlets is great, but I admit I haven’t contributed yet.
RC: We have to get up in folks’ faces, follow it through, listen and think. We can’t “try to convince people” forever. Protesting is important regardless of the result, I think – it’s the rare combination of visceral and intellectual movement that I will always support and respect and encourage, because what else is more potent?
JZ: So, OK, there are two things I don’t want to do right now (or in general):
- One is that thing where people act as though acknowledging and self-flagellating for their privilege, or their cowardice or their insufficiency, somehow magically negates it. My goal isn’t to get acknowledged for being a white person who knows that white people suck; my goal is to figure out how I can try to make things better without accidentally making things worse.
- And the other thing I don’t want to do is ask you is: “OK, what should white people do?” Because that is extremely not your job.
“If there was something you all could do, wouldn’t you have done it by now? Just mind your business and stop killing us?” Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesRC: I just watched a clip from Spike Lee’s Malcolm X – the scene where the well intentioned white girl approaches Malcolm and is like: “What can I do?” And he says: “Nothing” and walks away. I feel a real pull to that response, because really, if there was something you all could do, wouldn’t you have done it by now? Just mind your business and stop killing us? Take care of your business. It’s like detox.
I have long maintained that white privilege is an immaculate high – it’s free, you feel (I imagine) magnanimous and amazing all the time, there are no side effects and there is no comedown. Unless you choose to come down. And then you’re gonna go through it – withdrawal, anxiety, agitation, all of it. And then you have to figure out how to live your life without it. We’ve been doing it for the past 400 years, so.
JZ: Honestly, until this conversation I didn’t even realize how focused I was on trying to do my part just by talking at problems, and talking online in particular, instead of taking useful action. But I mean, I guess what springs to mind is the obvious stuff: Say something when a person acts unjustly, and make them stop. Say something when an organization is imbalanced, and refuse to participate if it isn’t fixed – and seek out organizations and businesses with black leaders, too. Vote and get involved politically to try and chip away at inequities at the national level.
RC: Those are all good, common-sense action goals. And as I’ve said, I will always support and encourage talking with each other – it’s why we are here on the planet, as far as I’m concerned: to communicate, listen, articulate, understand, work through, pause and keep going. And for every white fool you shut down on Facebook or school or take on, I personally am grateful.
But also, as a white people primer:
- Do protest; do not take selfies as you protest and then post them on social media – good for you, I don’t care, not what it’s about.
- Next time you are shopping in an upscale store and no salesperson is watching you, ask them why they aren’t watching you.
- Check your tone, your tenor and your composure when you’re engaged in dialog with black and brown people. Literally. Don’t say “I get it” because you don’t.
- Read Ta-Nehisi Coates Reparations piece in The Atlantic, and then read it again.
- If you are a celebrity or public figure and have a national platform, use it, because the young folks are watching you every second. I’m not talking about Erase the Race or USA for Africa type action (fine), I mean go hard in a national campaign, publicity junket type way (see: Chris Rock). Because your celebrity is among the most extraordinary, astonishing privileges there is. As Chris Rock likes to say: “I love being famous. It’s almost like being white.”
JZ: Maybe this isn’t so different from trying to argue with your racist Facebook friends – or it’s a difference of degree. It’s just calling bullshit at different points along the power structure. Being white means I have better access to the upper levels; I have to go up and call bullshit there, too. It’s like being the tall person who needs to get cans off the top shelf, only the shelf is ingrained power structures and the cans are basic human rights.
RC: Yes, exactly.
JZ: I’m embarrassed to admit that I NEVER would have thought of saying something to a salesperson who wasn’t serving a black customer. This is making me reframe my thinking about what I should be trying to do – that it’s not just about opposing visible racism. It’s about making the entire racist framework impossible to ignore (which of course it already is for people of color, but white people are great at ignoring it – we think ignoring it is our birthright). I’d been thinking in terms of opposing (overtly or covertly) racist arguments; I hadn’t thought enough about noticing these instances of passive racism and pointing to them and saying “LOOK WHAT YOU DID” and refusing to let it be swept away. This will make everyone involved very annoyed and probably ashamed of themselves, so I feel like that’s on the right track.
RC: This is real. It’s like that photo going around of the black boy and the white police officer hugging – white people are so quick to point to that and say: “Look! There is love, there is light, we are moving forward!” Because in my experience, white people can stand to feel badly, ashamed, annoyed, uncomfortable for about 25 seconds. But the right track is to feel all of that and then some for, say, 25 weeks. To start.
Lesley McSpadden waited over 100 days to hear whether or not the cop who shot her son, her child, would be indicted for murder. That probably felt pretty awful. And the non-indictment decision probably feels a lot more awful, not to mention the fact that her son is dead. Forever. So check your right track – it’s likely not going to look like progress or rainbows or magic anytime soon.