On Monday I started writing a follow-up letter to Justin Timberlake. Justin and I had a little conversation last summer, after he pulled out his All Lives Matter card on twitter. While not everyone remembers JT’s outburst, hearing Adele’s vulnerable acceptance speech at the Grammy Awards on Sunday night made me think he might learn something from her humility and grace in the face of a moment with racial overtones … and that reaching out to Timberlake might be a teachable moment for White folks more generally.
Then this happened:
Are we all here? Great. Listen closely:
The person who made this cartoon is related to one of us.
It’s true! And even if a member of your own family did not draw this cartoon, someone in each of our families looked at this ignorant slander against Black history and thought, “Well, that’s a reasonable comparison.”
It’s probably our cousin Becky, right? Becky lived her whole life going to holiday meals with us, yet still thinks it’s acceptable to compare a second-generation billionaire heiress, to a Black child being ushered by armed guards to attend school in the Jim Crow South.
Why does Becky think this? I have no clue. Her dad was kind of bigoted, so maybe she absorbed prejudice by osmosis. Maybe she, like so many of our White relatives, was subjected to an endless stream of racist imagery, spewing out like flickering embers from our television screens throughout our entire childhoods. Perhaps she watched that parade of propaganda, featuring criminalized Black folks and victimized White ones, while not a single level-headed person challenged the truth or data behind that narrative.
In light of Becky’s peculiar perspectives, we have one job as “aspiring allies” this week: have a conversation with our cousins about this picture. We could have been the level-headed influence during Becky’s childhood, but we weren’t. We had other priorities. We were somewhat less woke in those days, right?
There’s no excuse now, though. We’ve gone to a bunch of protests, and we’re constantly reminding our Facebook friends that we want to “do more” right now.
As part of our penance for letting Becky drift into alt-right-adjacent territory, we must talk to her. Let’s start with these three questions:
1) Do you know the history to which this cartoon refers? If Becky says “yes,” proceed directly to question number two. If she says “no,” you might discuss the history of schools segregation; the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education; the way in which segregation persists even today; and the massive disparities in wealth and educational attainment that accompany that history. Once you have established a fact base, proceed to the second question.
2) Why do you think this comparison is fair? When you ask Becky why she thinks the comparison is a fair one, I want you to actually listen to her answer. Do not judge her with your face, even though I KNOW you totally are judging the fuck out of her in your head. Force yourself to pause and listen, even if what she says afterwards is COMPLETELY indefensible. Okay, let’s be honest: whatever she says is probably going to be Charlie-Sheen-circa-2011 levels of incoherent. But I want you to listen for opportunities to go deeper. Does she think that conservatives suffer the same discrimination that women of color do? (They don’t.) Does she think that protest-driven discomfort is tantamount to the state forbidding the education of black children? (It’s not.) At this point in the conversation, I predict that something is going to happen to Becky, which leads to the third and final question for this session …
3) Why are you so mad? If my experience is any indication, Becky is going to get mad and defensive at this point. Her arguments, whatever they are, have deep roots in decades of misinformation. Defending an argument with a flawed premise is hard to do, but she’s trying. Becky may have never questioned the fundamental underpinnings of her beliefs. As a result, she’s going to get that tingling feeling in her spine. You remember that feeling. It’s the way you felt the first time you realized that the whole world around you might be predicated on a series of lies about yours, and others’, identities. The only way your cousin can justify her current beliefs is if she continues to deny the existence of institutional racism, white privilege, and white supremacy. Perpetual denial is much easier than the tension of justice.
Once she’s mad, you should end the conversation. If you try to lecture Becky about racism and white privilege right now, while she’s angry, you’re pursuing a pointless path. People can’t hear anything when they’re mad. Was it possible for you to listen to reasonable discourse after Adele won that third Grammy? How about election night? Were you susceptible to logic then?
Yeah. That’s what I thought.
I know it sounds unfair to let your cousin stay mad after this first conversation, but I promise you that she will never hear your extremely logical, and historically valid, arguments about racism and white supremacy while she’s feeling defensive about her own identity.
Here’s the most important part though: letting Becky stay mad after this conversation doesn’t mean that you can let her off the hook. Call her a couple of days later. Ask her how she’s feeling. Mention that you were surprised by how angry she got. Then have that follow-up conversation, wherein you casually mention the concept of institutional racism. Perhaps you can discuss white supremacy in a fourth or fifth conversation
Yes, I know this sounds crazy … you have to engage in TWO WHOLE conversations with Becky, who you suspect might be kind of racist. This sounds like a big “ask,” right?
Well, guess what’s worse than having two conversations with Becky? The extraordinary resurgence of overt racism and white supremacy that’s happening in our country right now. The process of educating other white people about racism is textbook “White folks' work.” You have the power to do something about Becky. Her education is going to be a long process, for which we should hold ourselves accountable. Stop asking what you can do. Start talking to your cousins.