The setting: political geography class. The assignment: discuss the literature of Ta-Nehisi Coates in groups, responding to questions such as “What would you ask the author?” The issue: a white female classmate, clearly curious on some more nuanced aspects of Coates' life as a black man, stutters, stammers and ultimately silences herself as she tries to qualify her statements in the name of not sounding racist or privileged.
Certainly, I cannot as a human being, an American citizen and a biracial scholar endorse racist behavior. Nor can I deny that in discussions of a social group’s issues, the conversation gains greater depth, wisdom and authenticity when the affected population is involved. But it really becomes a problem when academia and mass culture perpetuate the idea that belonging to that group makes you allowed to talk about it. Put another way, being black doesn’t give you an exclusive right to discuss black issues, and not being black doesn’t make you racist or privileged when you do the same.
Now, before you all send me the latest season of “Dear White People,” let me clear up some things that should explain why sustaining a culture of exclusivity on race talks is wrong.
No. 1: Half of my heritage is black. So even if you believe being black is a condition to talking about black issues, I’m qualified to speak, like it or not.
No. 2: The belief is hypocritical. Most, if not all, segments of the U.S. population — black people included — will have a Holocaust component of their education. Yet, as we all realize, that genocide, though not exclusively, was an effort targeted at Jewish people. What right do we Gentiles have to talk about Jewish issues? If we applied the verbal embargo on white people as strictly to this case, only Jewish people would be allowed to engage in conversations about Jewish history and culture. Do you honestly believe our country and world would be a better place by leaving that out of our history and literature curricula? If not, try thinking of how non-black comments could be opportunities to build understanding rather than to bully speakers.
No. 3: The practice limits free thought. Look, I get it. Nothing will make the blood of a black person boil hotter than when someone else mischaracterizes, falsely claims or tries to dictate black culture. Moreover, acting on those grievances has laid the grounds for some decisive achievements in emancipatory history: the decay of minstrelsy, the passing of affirmative action and the continued expansion of agency for people of color, to name a few.
However, defensiveness of cultural agency cannot justify condemning white people’s contributions to race discussions as privilege, let alone racism. Especially if these questions and comments are not based in malice, and especially if the condemnation limits people's ability to use their voice and freely express their thoughts. Not only is this principle enshrined in our national ideology and constitution, but it’s something I have spent a lifetime fighting social coercion, administrative cover-up and my own neurology to defend. I personally appreciate the value of speaking your mind, especially in support of a valuable cause you believe in. As such, I would encourage some serious soul-searching for any method of empowerment that deems honest, authentic and well-meaning expression a price worth paying.
No. 4: This is a team effort. For better or worse, our nation’s history is such that the broader mission for equitable governance remains deeply connected to racial issues. Fortunately, this agenda has seen some important victories, including the defeat of the Confederate States of America, the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the election of Barack Obama. What they all have in common? Cross-cultural engagement. I can promise none of these were achieved by chiding the abolitionists about how their efforts reflected white privilege, or by marketing Democratic National Committee campaigns solely to the 13 percent of Americans who are black. To shame non-black discourse on racial issues into silence is to undermine social justice’s odds of succeeding.
So here’s my “Dear Black People": Keep fighting the good fight, defending our culture and bringing it to new heights. At the same time, please make a conscious effort to encourage discursive inclusivity.
Contact contributor Michael Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.