The seventieth puzzle in my Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! crossword puzzle book had me a little stumped. The actress in The Unbearable Lightness of Being? “This shouldn’t be looked at on the job” letters? Popular baijiu brand? I chiseled away until just a few boxes remained in the upper left and bottom right corners. It was getting past time to start our Saturday movie so I called on S.to help me fill them in, which she did.
We didn’t find our first choice movie. (“This movie is no longer available in your area.”) After a brief back-and-forth, we settled on The Farewell. I had heard the story on This American Life, and it caught my interest. I didn’t need to see it, but I thought it might be fun to see dramatized on the screen. Besides, I wanted a rest from our usual fare of British crime dramas or art films. China would be a welcome antidote. Midway through the movie, the Wang family calls for the bottle of spirits. I could have sworn I saw (and heard!) “Maotai.” I quickly rewound the film and saw that indeed they had broken out the baijiu, Maotai brand. Something of which I knew nothing, had never heard of before, I saw twice in two different contexts in the space of less than an hour. Quelle coincidence!
Yesterday, before dinner and a crosswords and a feature film, I also listened to The Glenn Show on my walk around the park. Glenn Loury and his co-host John McWhorter took on the concept of structural racism. Does it exist? How valuable is it as a construct? Loury’s initial parry was not all that convincing. (“Did I take both sides of that question, John?”) McWhorter’s initial stab was more incisive. (“Beyond a certain point, I don’t care whether white people know it [black people’s lack of achievement, acceptance, etc.] wasn’t our fault. I’m not sure how exquisitely educated a society we’re expecting.”) The middle part of the show used the conceit of “Malcolm,” a fictional middle-class black student from McWhorter’s days at Berkeley in the 1990s. (As the show progressed, the two imagined later incarnations of Malcolm in the 2000s and 2010s.) Loury took Malcolm’s role and did a creditable job voicing his concerns, though as the stakes inflated he finally admitted his heart wasn’t in it.
Cut scene to next morning in the car, switching the radio to podcast format to listen to the next Glenn Show installment. But the words emanating from my speakers, brief as they were, caught my attention. I switched back. A man, apparently and later acknowledged to be black, was addressing much the same issue in a very different tone than the “Two Black Guys” from the day before. As I oriented myself to the man’s theme, I heard these words: “When white folks and allies say that they’re allies, and what can we do, and you think you’re being helpful; or what should I do now?, and you think you’re being helpful, there is such a brutality to your words that, many times, I can’t fool with white folks. I can’t be around you. I need you to leave me alone. I need you to not ask me what my opinion is of a Black man getting murdered with no regard.” Whoa.
A woman’s voice came on, apparently and then acknowledged to be white, and said, “I just want to offer to white listeners, if you’re feeling frustrated, just watch what’s coming up for you as you hear Resmaa’s hopelessness and you start to have feelings. And some of them may be anger — like, why are you not giving me hope? Why are you not making me feel better? What am I supposed to do? — just notice all of that. It’s a different way of breaking through the apathy of whiteness.” Throughout her speech the black man could be heard affirming with ‘uh-huh’s and other verbal nods. I was surprised that he found her words agreeable when the words of other well-meaning white folks are filled with “brutality.” The woman was Robin DiAngelo, of course. The man was Resmaa Menakem.
When I reached the grocery store, I didn’t turn off the car and go inside. I stayed in the car and kept listening. Later I went back to the podcast’s transcript an read the initial segment that I had missed, as well as review the final segment that I had heard. How to sum up my response?
- Let’s get this one out of the way first: I am in no way fragile. I accept DiAngelo’s main premise that I benefit from white privilege and that I have a racist–is “racialist” a better word?–outlook. This inoculates me against fragility because I am aware that everyone else has biased views, too; some more privileged, others less; some from positions of more power and others from less. Call me a racist. I will not quake. I don’t even aspire to be non-racist, as DiAngelo doesn’t. (She says: “And let me just be really clear. As a result of being raised in this society as a white person, I’m racist. I have a racist worldview.”
- Menakem and DiAngelo talk about white people to the exclusion of black people. They make a good point that we white folks, most of us, don’t need to think much about race. We don’t even think we have a race. (Remember: science tells us there is no such thing as race. I assume we are talking about race as a sociological construct.) I have gained by the repeated invocation of “white people” during the last few years. There, I admit to having had some discomfort, resistance, not a bad thing to come to terms with. But the progressive argument has been pushing itself beyond the limits of sound reason. Listen to Menakem admonish white people: “If you’re not going to be with other white bodies for three to ten years, grinding on specifically about race and specifically about the things that show up when white bodies get together to build culture, then I can’t fool with you.” But what are black people doing during this time? Surely, there is more for them to do than to sit in judgment on white Americans’ (too often feeble) attempts to be non-racist, which DiAngelo tells us is impossible, anyway. (See below.)
- Their message is too religious to appeal to me. McWhorter called contemporary discourse around race “medieval.” I might call it “cultish.” Everything Di Angelo and Menakem say implies a higher understanding inaccessible to the rest of us mortals, acolytes and devotees. Their pronouncements (many of them) demand to be taken on faith. I am sinful and must trust that if I do the work (the penance(?), the years of undefined “grinding”) I might see the light and be “saved.” (Or will the society be saved? I have lost track of the goal.) As it stands, I can either be damned as a “devout” racist, an Archie Bunker, or as a “complicit” racist, a well-meaning progressive:
DiAngelo: And let me just ask Resmaa, would you rather have a Richard Spencer in your face or a white progressive?
Menakem: None of them.
DiAngelo:[laughs] Thank you. I shouldn’t have said “in your face,” but “deal with.”
Menakem: I don’t have a space for either one of them fools. [laughs]
Menakem has convinced me. I choose not to be his fool. I don’t have any space for him either. (Which is not, in fact, true because much of what he says is valuable.)
Their interlocutor, Krista Tippett, heard their words and underlined their religious bent: “No, I’m talking about confession coupled with repentance, which literally means you stop in your tracks and walk in a different direction.”
Though I share their premises–race has and continues to have a pernicious affect on American society and on individual American lives–I am forced to draw different conclusions. Why would I grind away at unspecified work for an indefinite period of time toward undefined ends, all the while being scorned for my whiteness which is as much an accident of birth as anyone else’s. I am not being invited to “join the work.” At least, it doesn’t feel that way.
One might call these the protestations of a “fragile” white person insisting on being “untouched by the water we’re swimming in,” white privilege. I would say they are the response of a human confined in the larger fishbowl known as human nature. No one wants to be told what to do or say, think or feel. To relinquish one’s power of self-assessment to others seems a recipe for bad mental health. I dare not expose myself to the possibility of such psychological and intellectual manipulation.
Surely, there are particulars in the DiAngelo/Menakem worldview that are of value to me and to others. But the whole of it is too circular, too all-inclusive for me to accept. It globalizes racial issues beyond the average human’s ability to cope. It denies white and black people both of agency and individuality. Let’s not accept the assertions of DiAngelo/Menakem as revealed truth but as provocations to hash out in ongoing dialogue.
It was no coincidence when the next podcast I listened to–The Glenn Show with Loury, McWhorter, and Thomas Sowell biographer Jason Riley–touched on some of the same issues. Near the end, Riley asked rhetorically but with evident passion, “Why aren’t there more left-wing critiques of the progressives” on race? By all means, bring them on. And perhaps this will be a subject for a later post.