At no point in my life have I ever been unapologetically Black. In 4th grade, my mother bought me a t-shirt that said, "CAUTION: Educated Black Child." She and my father were so tickled by the shirt, but I didn't totally understand what it meant. All I knew was that I felt uncomfortable wearing it at Ye Olde Princeton Day School. I wore it once to appease my parents, and then buried it in the back of my drawer, where it stayed until I outgrew it.
It has ever been an apology, my Blackness. I was very knowledgable and relatively proud about my heritage until I wore that shirt. I'd never felt "other" before. To me, the shirt was a stamp: "This child is different." I'd written 3rd grade poems about slavery and made red-black-and-green friendship bracelets, but it had never been out of fear or a battle for justice. My life was simply a thing where I was Black and my closest friends were white. I knew we had different histories, but every single person has a unique history, so how is that any different from a cultural experience, right?
Fast forward through my life. I was the token Black kid, and I made light of it. My privilege was everywhere (it still is). And it was easy to do that, to make light of it, because the environment of my childhood and college years was primarily engagement with upper-middle class white folks who don't, and can't, know the struggle. I was never angry. I didn't have a reason to be. I learned about history, sure, but the true implications of what it meant to be Black never quite set in.
I did what was probably my parents' worst nightmare: I decided that colorblindness was the answer. If we all would just stop making everything about racism, it would go away. I got frustrated when my grandmother wanted to know if the girl who was bullying me was white. (And yes, she was.) I constantly referred to my perspective as "the Martin Luther King to my father's Malcolm X." I became a mediator of sorts—"I can see where the white people are coming from because..." "Why don't we give them the benefit of the doubt, though?" "Why can't we all just be friends and love each other?" "But don't all lives matter?" (Embarrassing. I'm embarrassed.) I was irritated by many of my classmates of color, even through college, because they WERE unapologetically Black. They were hard, and they were strong, and they took no shit, and it annoyed me that they didn't seem to compromise or be interested in being diplomatic.
Fast forward to now, where the implications of being Black couldn't be clearer. Where the fear is palpable, where the rage is pouring out of us, where we are fighting daily to breathe.
Which brings me to my point: how the fuck are we supposed to have these conversations? And how can I, Kyle, do better?
I KNOW I screw up a lot with this. (Once more with feeling: embarrassing. I'm embarrassed.) And I know I'm not the only one. I'm writing this blog post and asking for input because I know that screw-ups are infinite. I'm still that mediator at heart, and though I'm learning not to be and have made progress, I'm still inclined to find some kind of neutral position to speak from. I'm still so careful with my words in these arguments. I tread on eggshells in them, afraid that I'll upset the person I'm arguing with so much that they'll entirely write off me and my viewpoint and my culture and our struggles. I don't want to do that or to be that. I want to do better. So how can we eradicate these kinds of internal struggles so that we can appropriately contribute to finding and helping provide solutions to the large-scale problems?
Here are the givens that we're working with in these scenarios—
- People on the whole tend not to listen and instead get defensive (or offensive) when they're confronted with rage.
- Black folk are not responsible for the feelings of white people.
- Dialogue can honestly and significantly be productive if it goes down in the right way.
- Black folk have no obligation to validate opinions that cause harm to themselves or others.
- Everyone is already incensed, and every conversation needs only a single little spark to ignite an argument where no one is listening.
- Black people are not responsible for educating white people, and there is no obligation to do so just because they ask.
With all that swirling around in my head, I ended up having the following delightful little conversation on Facebook this morning:
Me: "Thinking NFL players are 'protesting the flag' is like thinking Rosa Parks was protesting public transportation."
Random dude: So you are saying i can take a knee and protest at my job and I won't be fired? lol dream on snowflake
Me: I'm not sure who you are or why you're insulting me on my Facebook page, but these gentlemen are still doing their job and doing it well in addition to protesting, so...
Rando: this is not a protest this is a resistance to our President. If any of these players really cared about racial injustice they would be doing something about it other then taking a knee. Sorry but once again liberals lose
Me: It is a peaceful protest against racial injustice. What would you have Black men do? How would you have any POC "do something about it?" One of the major problems is that we don't have a way to combat injustice other than to protest. Our literal lives are in danger. Kneeling is peaceful and expressing freedom of speech, and isn't that what this country stands for?
Rando: Get up and actually do something, Go to Chicago and work with inner city kids and try to get them to see that YES there is more to life then gangs and drugs that they can have an education and become something other then a body count after a long weekend...MOST black men once they become successful abandon the neighborhood they grew up in...change starts at home first.
So now we're at the root of the problem within this conversation. And so here's where shit gets sticky, because do I attack him, or educate him, or educate as though I'm attacking? I mentally went through all of the bullet points above, and ultimately chose to say, "But how does any of that take action against current injustice and racism? Yes, those are all valid things to do and I support them wholeheartedly, but those don't combat racism specifically..."
But what I was afraid to add for fear of him getting angry and not listening at all, and what, thankfully, my friend Alana added later, was the direct thing that needed to be said: "It's not the obligation of 'most black men' to use all their resources to support marginalized communities." She's damn right. Essentially what he'd just said was, "If Black people would take care of themselves, this wouldn't be an issue. There'd be no need to protest if Black people fixed their own behavior and their own communities." And if Black people aren't responsible for white feelings, we sure as HELL aren't responsible for their racist behavior.
The end result of this dialogue—of him coming at it aggressively, and of me not clapping back—was actually a de-escalation. His final line was, "Hey I am not a saint and I know that and I get caught up in the BS. Best of luck to us all." That is better. That is some kind of step. Right?
But man, was I annoyed with myself for not saying what Alana had said. I'm so glad she said it, because that is information that was necessary for a turning point for him, and I balked at sharing it. I didn't want to make him mad and then have him not listen. He did have his turning point based on the tentative things I was saying, but it happened ever so delicately because my focus was to get his attention in a quiet way. That is the epitome of caring about and catering to his white feelings, isn't it? And then, the flip side—I post these things because I firmly believe that dialogue is an important way out of this mess, and it's usually NOT a dialogue. It's usually people yelling. And dialogue is really, really hard when people use anger, their internal problems, irrelevancies, and insults to make their arguments. And so where this started off as him being flippant and insulting, it ended in some semblance of "respect" gained. Which is a step also. (There are no leaps and bounds here. Let's be real.)
And my latest strategy works, to some extent. I've been using two questions that really make these social media arguments easier: "Can I ask why you're insulting me?" and "What would you do differently?" If I'd thrown that guy's behavior back in his face, the likelihood of the encounter ending as "positively" as it did would be very, very slim. He gave an apology, and though it was probably the worst apology ever (second only to "I'm sorry you're reacting this way..."), it was more of an apology than these kinds of things frequently yield. But of course, then it's a situation of, why do I have to be the one to temper my rage? Why is it me that has to be the bigger person? Why don't I get to rail and gnash teeth and have that be effective? In the real world, marginalized groups don't get to be angry—we don't even get to own our individual emotions, not really—and ideally, we shouldn't have to settle for that.
Can somebody please help me strike a reasonable balance with this shit? How to dialogue, how to respect, how to educate, how to be unapologetic and empathetic and passionate and logical all at the same time? And how can I get to a point where I can focus on the task at hand instead of this internal struggle where Kyle is always getting in the way? Seriously. I want to know how to do better. The answer may be obvious and right in front of me, but I don't have it yet. (Like I really honestly might be being stupid right now so please call me out on it if I am cuz I got a bigass mouth.) I know I might never have the answer, but it stands: I want to do better. Please help me.