Over the past few months, two black men – Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates – have been clashing on the internet. West has been critical of the neo-liberal slant of Coates’ writing and taken him to task for not focusing more attention on the intersectionality of race and class. Coates, for his part, has tried to stay above the fray, but supporters of both West and Coates have battled it out on Facebook pages, blogs and comment sections. Seeing these two respected men of color pitted against each other has been painful for me, a white man who has found both of their writings insightful and enlightening.
As a person committed to listening carefully to marginalized voices, it is disconcerting when those voices aren’t unified or, even more bewildering, when they are in conflict. As a person seeking direction from these figures in the fight for racial equality and justice, what does one do when the direction is contradictory? How does one act when there are several groups of people of color in your city with different perspectives on what people of color should do and what white people should do to help? How do you proceed when two people of color tell you that being an “ally” requires very different responses?
This, of course, isn’t a new dilemma. In the 1960s, many white people struggled to sort out the differences in direction between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While today they are seen as complimentary figures in the fight for civil rights, in that day, they were often critical of each’s other strategies. This division was often used by whites as evidence that the concerns of people of color could be ignored. If they couldn’t agree on what they wanted, how could whites be expected to respond?
That was, of course, racist subterfuge designed to deflect and distract the discussion from what nearly every person of color agreed on – the prevalence and persistence of systems of racial inequity and injustice throughout American society. While West, Coates, Malcolm and King may disagree on strategy or on how to incorporate white allies, they are strongly unified in their condemnation of systemic racism. Those whites committed to listening to this societal critique will find plenty – personally and societally – to address without getting lost in the weeds of strategic differences.
One of the ironies of abandoning negative and monolithic stereotypes about people of color is also discovering that they are not monolithic in their sentiments concerning white people. For some, white people are helplessly enmeshed in their personal racism and white privilege and generally do more harm than good when they attempt to help. For others, white people – as the chief architects and perpetrators of racism – must play an active part as allies and accomplices in its dismantlement. And, depending on the situation and the white person, the opinion of a person of color on which strategy is preferable can understandably shift.
I’ve struggled with this issue personally over the past couple of months. In February, I developed and led a three hour workshop entitled “Paying Our Reparations” for a local church. The workshop, based on a series of blogs I’d written, was designed to defend the reasonableness of reparations by educating white people on the long history of enslavement, economic disparity and racial discrimination in the United States. After exposing the ignorance of most white people concerning the depth of racial injustice in America, the workshop concludes by encouraging white people to commit to personal acts of repair – “reparation.”
In creating this workshop, I took careful note of the oft repeated admonition that people of color should not be responsible for educating white people about racism and white privilege. That can be exhausting for people of color, especially when they must repeatedly deal with white fragility, micro-aggressions and even blatant racist resistance. This is especially true when the topic is reparations. When people of color advocate for reparations, many white people reject their arguments out of hand, impugning their motives with charges of laziness, greed or resentment. When a white person makes these same arguments, white people can’t ignore them as easily.
However, in promoting the workshop, I’ve also encountered people of color who’ve take some offense at the audacity of an old white man pontificating on race. They’ve argued that either a person of color should lead or co-facilitate the workshop with me, that the workshop smacks of white appropriation and privilege. What right do I have to speak on their behalf about the injustices they’ve endured? Since I am committed to listening carefully to people of color, I take this critique seriously. I can understand their suspicion of my motives. Indeed, being suspicious of white men seems a very appropriate strategy for people of color in our culture.
In sorting through these divergent voices, I am aware that when people of color know me personally, they seem to trust my motives and support the workshop. When people of color do not know me, they tend to distrust the project. This would suggest a rather simple solution to the question of which voices of color we respect – all of them. I don’t get to choose between West and Coates or King or Malcolm. As a white person, I need to listen to them all.
Those people of color who know me represent one set of accountability partners. They are in the best position to judge my motives and suggest appropriate responses. I need to listen to them when they tell me to speak out, educating and challenging my white peers. However, those people of color who do not know me are also accountability partners. They remind me of the necessity of continually and humbly reexamining my actions and motives. Taking offense at their challenge reveals more about my unconscious white entitlement than their suspicions. As a white man, I am not accustomed to having my right to speak challenged.
Listening to those who question my sincerity is as important as listening to those who trust my authenticity. They remind me of my position and participation in a culture that too easily pushes them aside, marginalizes their voices and asks them to take a back seat on the bus. To some extent, whether I am actually doing this with my workshop is irrelevant. They remind me that everything in our society – including a workshop on reparations – has that potential. To think myself immune to this propensity is the height of white arrogance.
In the days ahead, I’ll be looking for a person of color to co-facilitate with me. That will need to be a strong and brave person of color with a willingness to weather the tender sensitivities of uneducated and unwoke white people. Hearing the story of racial injustice from a person of color in conjunction with the story of white responsibility from old white man will be uncomfortable for white audiences, but discomfort is something white people need to learn to tolerate. Until that day, I will also continue to do what people of color have told me to do, challenge my white peers on racism and white privilege.
I do not have the right to speak on behalf of people of color.
I do have the responsibility of speaking to my white peers.
In our present culture, that can sometimes be a difficult line to walk.