To the long list of permanently offended types lurking the internet, lying in wait, to meet the news of the day with self-indulgent grief, we might add one more populous and prickly tribe: colorblind white people who've grown "tired" of talking about race. What seems to cause a not-insignificant amount of distress for members of this identity group is the merest whiff of suggestion that racial inequality continues to shape American life. And so, let me warn you: I'm about to describe a recent interaction with a white family member, who is resolutely "over" race, and the degree to which that exchange has redoubled my conviction that racism stubbornly still exists.
First, some backstory. I'll admit I wasn't as moved as some of my friends by what happened in Ferguson. In retrospect, maybe I got played, but to my mind that convenience store footage mattered, as did some of the subsequent eyewitness testimony. The refusal to charge Daniel Pantaleo with even negligent homicide or manslaughter in the documented killing of Eric Garner, however, combined with the two-second execution of Tamir Rice in Cleveland and all the other abominable slayings at the end of last year was cause for a lot of sadness and reflection.
After the Staten Island verdict, a close photographer friend, who is also black, and I decided to proceed with a project we'd talked about since summer. We launched a Tumblr to compile the oral histories and portraits of as wide a variety of black men as possible. Our goal is simply to do whatever little we can to complicate what is still far too often a tragically basic understanding of what it means to be black and male in America. We made a call for submissions on Facebook and, as would be expected of something like this, received plenty of positive feedback and encouragement from friends of all colors. It all seemed rather innocuous.
But then my 20-year-old white cousin, with whom I've only ever really bantered and exchanged pleasantries, inserted herself into the thread, angered and challenging the worthiness of our desire even to tell these stories about black men. "Will you be doing one with white people?" she asked. "Maybe a long time ago the life of a black man would have been considerably different at no fault of their own … but now I believe if the life of a black man is any different than any other person's life it is their choice and their doing. Your skin no longer defines who you are unless you let it."
It brought to mind a widely circulated and apocryphal tweet from a Chris Rock parody account after the Darren Wilson verdict: "Just found a new app that tells you which one of your friends are racist. It's called Facebook." But it wasn't funny so much as flooring. I stared at the screen, something closer to fury than pain coursing through me. I should say straight up: I'm hardly a black man with a victim complex. I've written and spoken a lot about personal choices and what I've seen to be the self-sabotaging side of so much black cool-pose culture. I'm also quick to acknowledge that life was exponentially harder in, say, my father's youth in the segregated South. But what would seem so glaringly true to me—that none of that obviates the need to acknowledge and address lingering racial inequality, especially the systematic brutalization of (often but not always poor) blacks at the hands of police —was somehow lost on my cousin.
I grew up on the East Coast and now live in France; my cousin has always lived around Los Angeles County. We've only seen each other a handful of times. I can't claim to know everything about her, but by all accounts and impressions, including my own, she's a sweet, caring girl. I saw her last in August at my brother's wonderfully mixed-up wedding in upstate New York. He's friendlier with her and her boyfriend than I am, since they'd recently bonded in California over off-roading, poker and talking about the NFL. I know that my cousin likes my brother and would even say that she loves him.
I also know that she must know this about him: About a dozen years ago, when he was pulling up to my parents' home in Fanwood, New Jersey, a couple of white cops were waiting for him with an arrest warrant (which later turned out to have been issued by the court in error) for an unpaid speeding ticket. Over such insignificant (and mistaken!) paperwork, these two officers ended up assaulting my brother in the driveway and, as he attempted to get himself to safety through the garage door, followed him inside and knocked his teeth from his mouth with a flashlight. My then 65-year-old black father, hearing the scuffle, came downstairs to be greeted, in his own home, by the barrel of a loaded gun. The only thing that could get these two impeccable servants of the law to cool their rage was the sight of my white mother holding a cordless phone to her ear, calling the lawyer, the neighbors, the station chief—anyone who could possibly do something to stop the attack.
When it came to discussing race with my 20-year-old white cousin, maybe—certainly—I was naïve. But I just wouldn't have wagered that a member of my own family could on the one hand be aware of the kind of racially motivated abuse my brother and father endured and on the other so glibly declare racism an exhausted topic. I told my cousin as much, and over the next few days we exchanged a series of comments and private messages. After I pointed out to her that blacks are some 21 times more likely to be killed by police, she countered that it can only be because they are deserving of it. "It's like names in a raffle," she explained. "The more names you have in a raffle, the more chance you have of your name getting picked." No amount of appeal on my part to census data or crime statistics showing why that threadbare logic can't possibly hold in a nation so overwhelmingly populated by whites could sway her.
On the subject of crime statistics, the exchange took on an ugliness I began to feel was impossible to recover from. In attempting to trump the debate, my cousin came back to me with a link to a website called metapedia.org, a laughable if it weren't so despicable trove of "facts" I'd never heard of, which bills itself as "the alternative encyclopedia." The site trumpets impossible statistics and hosts sections on correlations between race and intelligence, and race and physical beauty. I wrote back to her that a line had been crossed: some bells can't be unrung (nor can some spurious links to The Bell Curve be unseen). When I pointed out how offensive all of it was to me, my cousin swiftly passed through stages of what the scholar Robin DiAngelo has termed "White Fragility," or the "state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, spurring a range of defensive moves including the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation." Our exchange did not end well: my cousin unfriended me.
In the wake of this encounter, I vented to my wife and argued with my cousin's grandmother, my beloved aunt, who tried to arbitrate the matter as a simple difference of opinion—a blindness to the severity of my claim that only further exacerbated it. Finally, I returned to DiAngelo's paper, struck anew by what she describes as "the reduced psychosocial stamina that racial insulation inculcates" in many whites. And it is this, I'm afraid, that while it may be a lot easier to cope with and ignore than the rabid bigotry of the past, will prove much more difficult to overcome. What we are seeing today, often played out on social media, is the banal reality that far too many white people, even loving, caring and close ones, frankly are unprepared to talk seriously, candidly and at any reasonable length about racism and race.
Having been reminded of that, I'd imagined I'd end this piece on a pessimistic note. But as I began to write, my cousin messaged me an apology. She explained that in her work for a housing management company she'd had to tell a potential client, a dog owner, about the landlord's no-pit bull policy. The client responded by disparaging the breed, assuring my cousin she would never have such a terrible and dangerous animal as that. My cousin told me this saddened her because she herself owns and loves pit bulls and felt the woman had stereotyped them based on nothing more than misinformation and illegitimate statistics…
My cousin is young. This analogy is not ideal. And yet it is a start. I hope she will find the energy to pursue its implications where they lead her.
[Image by Tara Jacoby]