What Are You?

What Are You?

My daughter-in-law is bi-racial. Her father was black and her mother was white. Her skin is a very light brown, making it possible to think her Latino, Asian or even Middle Eastern.  This racial ambiguity often makes white people uncomfortable.  Uncertain of how to identify her, complete strangers often ask, “What are you?” While she finds this offensive, she usually responds with, “I am a human being just like you.”

Of course, some people – either lacking certain social graces or harboring deeper prejudices – don’t get this not-so-subtle suggestion that their question is racist. They persist in their attempt to categorize her. They say, “You know what I mean.  What race are you?” To which my daughter-in-law answers proudly, “I’m half black and half white.” Sadly, many of her questioners seem only concerned about whether any part of her is black.

The lineage of another person shouldn’t be our concern.  That we are all human beings should be enough to engender respect and kindness.  If someone was really curious about my daughter-in-law’s family history, they could ask far less offensive questions.  Asking “what are you?” – with its objectifying language – is obviously focused on determining status rather than empathy and understanding.  They are asking if my daughter-in-law is due their deference or disdain. For some, any blackness is justification for disdain.

While I think such questions offensive and racist, they are far too common. All of us are repeatedly asked to identify what we are.  Indeed, our government is one of the worst culprits, demanding this information on a variety of forms.  We are offered a list of boxes with different racial and ethnic designations and asked to fit our often complicated histories into these prescribed boxes.  My daughter-in-law prefers to identify as bi-racial, but is often asked to identify as either black or white.

Sadly, while my daughter-in-law has both a black and white parent, she does not necessarily have the right to identify as white. The predominantly white culture demands those without a “pure” lineage identify with the “less pure” lineage.  People with a black ancestor are black. Though we’re given the impression we can self-identify, historically the government has carefully delineated who fits in what box.  Those who deviate have often found themselves in court or jail.

Fifty years ago, it was against the law for my son and my daughter-in-law to marry. To enforce these laws, the government established who was white and who was not.  In Virginia, 1/16th black was black.  In Florida, I/8th black was black.  In Alabama, any black ancestors made you black, regardless of how you physically appeared.  Thirty years ago, many southern states still had laws that determined how to categorize people.  These “one drop” laws were designed to defend the purity of the races, specifically the white race.

While most of these laws were repealed or found unconstitutional, the courts are still asked to rule on racial identification. When there are disagreements about “what we are,” the courts are asked to judge.  The census includes an admonition against fraud, implying that self-identification is potentially criminal if the government decides you are not who you say you are.  Indeed, for the 2020 census, the government has added a new category – Middle East/North Africa.  Many people who previously identified as white are being asked to identify themselves differently.  They are no longer white.

As complicated as racial identification has been for my daughter-in-law, it could be even more complicated for her children – my grandsons. What are they?  By appearance, they both look very white.  Yet by the old formulas, they are 1/4th black.  What box should they mark?  Should they mark the one that honors their father or the one that respects their mother?  Why should they even have to choose?  And, if they choose to apply to college as a black person, could the courts accuse them of fraud?

Such questions expose race as the cultural and political construct it has always been. Race is used to divide and categorize us.  For some, it means inclusion and all of its benefits.  For others, it creates obstacles and disadvantages.  In America, it has always been a construct designed with one primary goal – to guard white identity and power.  Within this American racial construct, identifying as white is a protected privilege.

The problem in America is not with how people of color identify themselves. The problem is that so many of us – whose genealogies are probably far more diverse that we know or acknowledge – continue to proudly wear the white label.  As long as I identify as white, I give tacit approval to the cultural and political construct that does so much damage to people of other colors.  Racism will not end with laws or constitutional amendments.  It will only end when white people abandon and deconstruct the idea of whiteness as preferable and normative.

I will not pretend this deconstruction is an easy task. White privilege was embedded in the very foundation of our nation.  Our cultural institutions were built on this foundation.  Cosmetic changes to a few laws do little damage to its underpinnings. However, I am certain who holds the responsibility for deconstruction.  It is the ancestors of those who built this ugly system.  It is white people like me.  In the months ahead, I will be wrestling with the many ways I and other white people can speed the deconstruction.

For example, how should I identify in the 2020 census? To identify as white feels like flashing my membership card to an exclusive club. Yet I also understand that demographic information has provided evidence of inequities and support to those who challenge them.  Even with this statistical evidence of great inequities, many white people resist change.  Without this demographic information, how can the courts be swayed and people shamed?

But I also realize demographics are a two edged sword. The census data of the 1930s was used to identify the Japanese who were placed in internment camps.  How will the label North Africa/Middle Eastern be used against Muslim people?  The boxes we mark give power and legitimacy to what I hate, the idea that people can be divided and valued by the color of their skin.  As much I wish, we are not at a place and time where my daughter-in-law’s response that “she is a human being just like you” is enough.

Until that day, I will use my membership card to gain entry to the club, examine all of its many security measures, exploit their weaknesses and plot its destruction. My goal is not that my white looking grandsons are assured admission. This would be no victory.  I want to tear down the building, brick by brick and stone by stone.  I want to destroy this American apartheid, to see a day when marking the box “white” has no more value than any other box.

The Walls That Divide Us

The Walls That Divide Us

When I was a boy, my parents moved our large family from a town to a farm. We went from a small house with a small yard to a house on eleven acres of fields and woods, with a small pond and a creek running through it.  For my three brothers, my sister and me, the move was magical.  Our first summer there was one of adventure and exploration.  We spent our days clearing trails through the woods and building small wooden bridges over the creek.  We also became acquainted with our neighbors, of which we had one.

Our new home shared a lane with one other house, inhabited by a young married couple with no children and a swimming pool. My siblings and I quickly decided to become fast friends with Roger and Eilene and their pool, visiting them several times each day.  We were certain they would like us and utterly devastated when – a few weeks after we arrived – Roger built a tall privacy fence between their house and ours.

When we asked my father why Roger and Eilene had built the fence, he avoided the obvious answer that young married couples don’t usually fantasize about sharing their lives and their pool with five very noisy and nosey children. Instead, he said, “There are two kinds of people in this world – people who build walls and people who build bridges.  Roger and Eilene are the wall building kind and we’re the bridge building kind.”

I’ve remembered my father’s words often throughout my life. Time and again, I’ve encountered people and situations where the dividing line has often been between wall building and bridge building.  I’ve seen this in issues of politics, race, economics, gender, religion and sexuality.  I’ve also realized that most of us are taught to be one or the other.  Neither I nor any of my siblings have ever built a fence between our yards and those of our neighbors.  We understood that what you build is a reflection of a deeper attitude toward life.

Ironically, in my formative adult years, I watched another conservative Republican president – Ronald Reagan – spend a lot of time talking about walls. Only his mantra was “Tear down that wall.”  I vividly remember when the world celebrated the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and all that it represented.  Conservatives and progressives alike recognized that any wall that keeps poor and oppressed people from freedom and opportunity is to be hated and opposed.  Back then, it was the Communists who were chanting “Build that wall.”

I suppose that’s why I worry so much about our President’s desire to build a wall on our southern border. I fear our country is changing and not for the better, that what we want to build is a reflection of a deeper malaise, of a not so subtle shift from being a nation of bridge builders to being a nation of wall builders.  Does this desire to build a wall represent a deeper inclination to build walls between people of different politics, race, economics, gender, religion and sexuality?  This seems a fairly easy case to make.

Early estimates for the cost of building the border wall run anywhere from $15 to $25 billion dollars, with past performance by government construction projects suggesting we error on the higher number. Other projections suggest manning, monitoring and maintaining the wall could require an additional billion dollars each year.  This would make the wall a $35 billion dollar investment for ten years of “protection” from poor and oppressed men, women and children seeking freedom and opportunity. More damning, this priority on wall building will mean the paltry $320 million dollars of foreign aid we have previously provided to Mexico will end.  In the first quarter of the Trump presidency, we gave less than $1 million dollars in assistance to battling poverty in Mexico.

As a director of a community development organization – CoCoDA – which does work in Central America, I have to wonder what would happen if – instead of a wall – we invested $35 billion dollars in schools, clinics, roads and housing in Mexico and Central America. After all, another way to eliminate illegal immigration is to eliminate its necessity.  I’d feel so much better about the use of my tax dollars if I knew they were going to building something that will enhance human lives.  But then again, I’m bridge builder.

However, in the end, it is not the financial cost of the wall that most concerns me. We are a rich nation and can afford to build a wall.  What I fear is the cost to our national psyche.  What are we teaching our children about the world and our place in it?  Will the walls we create to “protect” ourselves eventually become our prisons, keeping us from seeing, understanding and relating to the rest of the world?

When I was a boy, Roger and Eilene built a wall between their home and ours. It made it much harder for my siblings and me to visit them when they were swimming in their pool, but we persisted.  A couple of years later, they sold their home and moved.  While I don’t know how much we contributed to that decision, I suspect their wall didn’t accomplish what they hoped.  That is my experience with walls.  They seldom provide what we desire.

When Condemning Genital Mutilation Is Racist

When Condemning Genital Mutilation Is Racist

I am universally opposed to genital mutilation. It does not matter to me if your religion considers the alteration of the human sexual organs divinely ordained or your culture finds it morally defensible.  I think it should be against the law and physicians and parents who mutilate the sexual organs of their children should be punished.  I applaud the nearly universal condemnation of Jumana Nagarwala, the Muslim emergency room physician, arrested for committing female genital mutilation on several young girls.  I also think much of this public outcry is racist.  It is more about the hatred of Muslims than concern for these children.

Why would I make such an outrageous statement?

As a victim and perpetrator of religiously ordained and culturally approved genital mutilation, I find it suspect when Christian and Jewish Americans who circumcise their sons suddenly become ardent opponents of genital mutilation. If altering the sexual organs of Muslim children is so appalling, how do we justify what we do?  How are our justifications for circumcision any nobler than Muslim justifications for a clitoridectomy?  Both procedures are based on religious and cultural opinion rather than good science.  And why do we use a medical term like circumcision for what we do and a pejorative term like mutilation for what some Muslims do?  Circumcision is clearly the mutilation of the male genitalia.

Let me make this clear. I am not defending the actions of Jumana Nagarwala or the parents of the children she mutilated.   I universally oppose genital mutilation.   Therefore, I cannot ignore the hypocrisy of Christian and Jewish Americans using this incident as one more opportunity to demonize Muslim people, many of whom also oppose genital mutilation.  This is racist.  I will also oppose attempts by some Muslim people to defend genital mutilation as culturally relative and worthy of tolerance.  My opposition to their argument is not racist, if it is based on a universally applied principle.

I understand this is a subtle distinction, but it is an important one as we sort through issues of culture, privilege and racism. As a white, male American, I must be very careful of what and whom I critique.  My privileged position makes is easy to identify and condemn the flaws in others.  I must be constantly aware of how my prejudice impacts my opinions.  As I make judgments of other people, I must carefully sort out those judgments that are racist from those that are moral.

For example, when I began attending public school graduations at my children’s urban schools, I was forced to examine my judgments of the black families sitting around me. They were loud and boisterous, interrupting the proceedings with cheers and shouts.  Initially, based on my cultural preferences, I judged them rude and obnoxious.  Only later did it occur to me that high school graduation, which I had grown up seeing as normative and expected, is a cause of great celebration for a marginalized group.  My judgment of them was racist.

On the other hand, raising children in a diverse setting, I also became aware of the higher levels of the use of corporal punishment by black parents. In black culture, the physical punishment of children is often tolerated, defended and even celebrated.  Though there are some good explanations for why many black parents utilize corporal punishment, I oppose corporal punishment for children.  I oppose this behavior in parents of all races and ethnicities.

This moral position does not give me the right to target black parents for my condemnation. That would be racist. There are plenty of white parents who still whip their children.  It does, however, allow me to oppose any argument that defends corporal punishment as either a black cultural distinctive or a conservative Christian hallmark.  I don’t care what your parents, religion, or culture taught you.  Beating your child is wrong.

The problem, whether we’re dealing with genital mutilation, corporal punishment, or a variety of other human behaviors, is when we condemn another group or race for a behavior we tolerate. When we do so, we are speaking out of racial prejudice rather than moral outrage.  Our responsibility, first and foremost, is to address the acceptance and prevalence of that behavior in our own group or culture.  Looking through the windows of someone else’s house only distracts us from our own housecleaning.

This is why I find the Facebook posts calling for Jumana Nagarwala’s punishment in the ugliest terms so disturbing. It smacks of hatred and racism.  Racism is most dangerous when it wraps itself in moral indignation, focusing on another group’s imperfections rather than on our own complicity.  When Christian and Jewish American’s finally abandon our fixation on altering male genitalia, I will be less suspicious of our condemnations of Jumana Nagarwala.

All Lives Don’t Matter Equally

All Lives Don’t Matter Equally

Note to my white self…

When other white people say “all lives matter,” don’t be confused. You’ve written about white code.  You’ve talked about those terms white people use to voice racist sentiments without sounding racist.   “All lives matter” – when voiced in response to “black lives matter” – is white code.  It is not a defense of human rights.

Certainly, all lives should matter. The lives of every person, regardless of the color of their skin, their gender, their ethnicity, their religious faith or their sexual orientation, should matter equally. This is a noble and principled assertion, especially in a world where religious, political and economic forces don’t always affirm the universal worth of every individual.  If you’re discussing and defending human rights, stating that all lives matter is a good starting point.

Unfortunately, when the starting point is someone else saying “black lives matter,” saying “all lives matter” does not come off as noble and principled. You sound racist.  Your defense of all lives suggests a lack of sensitivity and understanding, some unacknowledged racism or perhaps both.  In responding with “all lives matter,” you imply the person saying “black lives matter” is really saying “black lives matter more” and this is simply ridiculous.

“Black lives matter” developed as a response to the lack of concern on the part of police departments, the media and the political system to situations where black people have been the victims of police brutality and even murder. It was never the assertion that “black lives matter more” than other lives. It was a desperate cry of those who were experiencing a world where “black lives matter less.”  “Black lives matter” is another way of saying “All lives don’t seem to matter equally.”

When you respond with “all lives matter,” it suggests a disconnect on your part. Maybe you don’t want to admit you live in a world where such horrible inequities exist.  Maybe you’re afraid the only way black lives can matter more is if white lives matter a little less.  Maybe you see the world as place where all lives matter at birth, but are thereafter judged worthy by other standards.  Maybe when you say “all lives matter” you mean all lives matter, but some lives matter more.  Maybe you think black people are making that claim because you look at the world that way.

Let’s be clear. If you really believe all lives matter, the proper response to “black lives matter” is simply one word – “Yes.”  Anything else is suspect.

And don’t get me started about “blue lives matter.” If claiming “all lives matter” is insensitive, then claiming “blue lives matter” is downright ugly.  It implies that when a black person and a police officer encounter one another, the life of the police officer matters more than that of the black person.  This is what people of color hear when you defend the actions of the police and disparage the character of the victim.  They know that after nearly every shooting, the white media, politicians and police departments spend tremendous energy is portraying the black person as criminal or questionable, as a life with less worth.

Sadly, people of color agree that blue lives matter more than black lives. It is their experience.  It is precisely why they’ve been arguing “black lives matter.” Indeed, they know official police policy and judicial pronouncements have consistently defended the right of a police officer to kill a black person when they feel threatened.  Notice that they have the right to do so when they ”feel” threatened.  Whether they were actually threatened is almost irrelevant.  Protecting blue lives matters more than protecting black ones.

So stop saying “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter.” It’s insensitive, ugly and racist.  It is not how mature people respond to expressions of pain and tragedy.

Imagine you discover you have lung cancer. You share this terrible news with your friends and family.  They respond by reminding you that “all cancers matter.”  What would you think?  How would you feel if they responded by listing all of your behaviors in the past that might have contributed to your cancer?  What if they suggested you didn’t deserve to be treated fairly by the medical system?  How angry would that make you?

If you share the news of your cancer with someone, you only want one thing – their understanding and support. If someone says “black lives matter, they are asking for the same understanding and support.  In a world where not all lives matter equally, that seems a reasonable request.

White Privilege and the Redwoods

White Privilege and the Redwoods

Note to my white self…

You are privileged.

I know you realize this, but you need to be reminded.  One of the problems with privilege is that it so easily becomes normative.  You begin to assume your reality is everyone’s reality.  You make the Marie Antoinette mistake and assume everyone eats cake.  You saw this absurdity in the failed Republican replacement to Obamacare.  Part of the reason it failed is because white privileged men thought providing people – who barely make it from paycheck to paycheck – with a Health Savings Account was a solution.   “Let them save money” is only slightly more absurd than “let them eat cake.”

Another reason the Republican plan failed is because a small group of conservative white male Republicans actually think they deserve their privilege, that they are more intelligent, more hard working and more worthy. They don’t think healthcare is a human right, but a reward.  They ask taxpayers to provide them and their families with some of the best healthcare in the world because they deserve it and others don’t.  This is another of the problems with privilege, it is so easy to justify.  To the winners go the spoils.

I know it is tempting, but don’t focus on them. They are only the most obvious example of your own privilege.  Indeed, focusing on them allows you to ignore your own privilege.  It distracts you.  Another of the problems with privilege is that you can easily identify someone more privileged than yourself.  In so doing, you can pretend to be less privileged, even oppressed.  You know white American males – the most privileged class in the history of the world – who think this way.  So instead of focusing on the ugliness of white politicians and their privilege, examine yourself.

For example, last week you took your family on a vacation to the Redwoods of Northern California. You spent four days exploring the national and state parks created and paid for by your fellow citizens to preserve these places of beauty for all people.  Except they don’t.  How many people of color did you see during your hikes in the woods?  Zero.  Admit it.  The National Park system was largely designed by and for white privileged people.  Like those politicians’ healthcare, it is a privilege you are perfectly willing to allow people of color to pay for with their taxes.

I don’t remind you of this to lessen the value of your vacation. I think every person – regardless of color – should see the Redwoods.  I remind you of this because I don’t want you to make the mistakes you so easily see in white male politicians.  People vacationing in the Redwoods is not normative.  It is a privilege.

You can justify it by telling yourself that everyone has access to the national parks, but those politicians argued everyone has access to healthcare. The problem isn’t access, but affordability.  Many people of color don’t have the resources to take your vacation.  Indeed, many of them work jobs without paid vacation.  So you can celebrate and support the preservation of natural beauty, but don’t forget that the enjoyment of these places of grandeur is largely reserved for the privileged.  You should have suspected this when you visited the most famous grove of redwoods in California and saw that it was named the Rockefeller Grove.

So what do you do about this? Guilt isn’t helpful.  Awareness is a beginning.  Changing your thinking is important.  If you think healthcare is the right of every person, can you really limit your experience in those Redwoods to a privileged few?  Why do we give retired people of means free access to our national park system, but charge young families entrance fees?  Why do we not have inexpensive transportation systems from our urban centers to nearby natural beauty?  If we believe experiencing these places of beauty inspires and ennobles, why don’t we give easy access to those who need inspiration the most?

Think about this. If your vacation to the Redwoods was an act of privilege, where else are you benefitting in ways you don’t see?  What else do you assume is normative?  What else do you justify?  This is the problem with privilege.  It is problematic until you acknowledge that most of what you desire, value and need is what every other human desires, values and needs.  If you want affordable healthcare, paid vacation, quality housing, and excellent schools, you should also want this for others.  What you treasure should be available to all.  Even a walk in the Redwoods.

I Focus On The Wrong Racism

I Focus On The Wrong Racism

Note to my white self…

You focus on the wrong racism.

I know you mean well, but your outrage at every blatantly racist Facebook post, meme and news item doesn’t make much difference in the world. Nearly everyone – conservative and liberal – finds blatant acts of racism offensive.  Priding yourself on your freedom from blatant acts of racism is a little like bragging about not beating your children.  Behaving as a mature, thoughtful adult shouldn’t be considered admirable.

Sure, there has been an upsurge of more blatant acts of racism in the past months. Yes, that is unfortunate.  Of course you should condemn this trend.  Nearly everyone does.  Just don’t get distracted.   Don’t focus on what nearly everyone abhors.   Blatant racism – however ugly – isn’t being defended and institutionalized.  It isn’t what you should worry about.

Instead, challenge systemic racism. Systemic racism doesn’t call a black person names.  It politely denies them the same rights and opportunities offered to white people.  Systemic racism doesn’t make jokes about Latinos.  It requires them to carry papers proving their citizenship.  Systemic racism doesn’t paint graffiti on mosques.  It signs executive orders implying Muslims are more dangerous than other people.  Systemic racism doesn’t make bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers.  It neglects to mention them when talking about the Holocaust.

I know why you focus on blatant racism. The acts and attitudes of systemic racism are much harder to recognize.  Calling them out is more difficult.  The perpetrators can offer other reasons – bureaucracy, expediency, security and even equity – for their actions.  As a white person, it is tempting for you to accept these justifications precisely because they play to your fears and prejudices.  Indeed, it is your inability to see and acknowledge acts of systemic racism that are the truest indications of your racial bias.  You don’t see them because they don’t impact your life.

Think about this. How would you feel if you never really knew if you weren’t hired because you weren’t qualified or because you were white?  What would you say if a neighbor, employer or police officer questioned your citizenship?  How would you respond to the claim that white people have a higher tendency to be criminals, murderers or terrorists?  What would you think about a society that ignores or diminishes your past pains and struggles?  If this was your life experience, would you still be focused on what people say on Facebook?

Opposing blatant racism is like opposing child abuse. Of course you should!  However, the question is how you will oppose it.  Are you willing to challenge its underpinnings?  Do you oppose the use of corporal punishment in homes and school?  Do you support giving more financial resources to poor families with children?  Do you understand child abuse as including emotional and mental abuse?  Do you see the cure to child abuse as parental incarceration or parental education and training?  Calling out the physical abuse of a child in a public setting doesn’t make you a child advocate.  It makes you a law abiding citizen.

The same is true for racism. There should be no accolades for treating people of color with respect and dignity.  If you think this makes you a good person, you have set the bar far too low.  The true indication of your maturity and thoughtfulness is what you are doing to increase equity and opportunity for people of color.

You need to set the bar higher.

Look at your life. Find at least one instance in your life where you are benefiting from systemic racism.  If you can’t find something quickly, you need to spend some time learning about systemic racism.  Here are eight short videos with examples of systemic racism.  When you do recognize something, think about how you might personally alter or challenge that systemic racism.  Are there ways you can disconnect from directly benefitting from this injustice?  Pick one small cause and try to make a difference. Pledge to spend as much time fighting systemic racism as you do posting about blatant racism on Facebook.

If every white person in America took that pledge, the foundations of systemic racism would begin to crumble.

(Quick Note: I will be on vacation for ten days.  I will return to blogging during the first week of April.)

Between The World And Me

Between The World And Me

When my oldest daughter was a teenager, she kept a diary. On several occasions, she left her diary in a place – where if I had chosen – I could have opened and read it.  I was often tempted.  Curious how she was navigating the world, what she was thinking and how she was coping, I tried to justify violating her privacy.  Fortunately, I never opened her diary.

I say “fortunately” because, in reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between The World And Me, I realized the darker side of encountering someone’s inner thoughts and struggles.  We may not like what we read.  They may reveal less about themselves and more about us.  Seeing ourselves through the eyes of another is almost always surprising and sometimes shattering.  This was my experience in reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ powerfully written letter from a black father to a black son.

White people are not the intended audience of this book. That, in itself, makes it a rare read.  In a nation built around white privilege, white people can nearly always expect to be included, if not the focus, in most writings.  As a conversation between him and his son, Coates does not concern himself with the fragile sensibilities of white readers.  He does not tone down his rhetoric so white people can hear and understand his opinions.

Coates is not concerned about white people at all, except as a danger to his son’s body. He writes, “I am afraid.  I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me.  But I was afraid long before you, and in this I am unoriginal.  When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.”  Indeed, if there is one overriding emotion in this book, it is his justified fear of white people.

Like picking up a diary, much of what I read in this book was both surprising and expected. For the white reader, it both shatters our illusions and confirms our suspicions.  What Coates writes, though painful to read, rings true again and again.  People of color do not see white people as we see ourselves.  More importantly, when we see ourselves through their eyes, what we see is often quite different than our imaginations.  We are much uglier and crueler than we’d like to believe.

For this reason, Between the World and Me is not an easy read for white people.  I read it in short snippets, putting it down when I read something disturbing about myself.  And yet I tried not to become angry.  I was the one eavesdropping.  Whatever I heard in Coates’ words to his son could not be easily ignored.  Like reading someone’s diary, you know the words to be authentic even when you wish them to be untrue.  You can throw the book to the ground, rail at its author, dispute its claims about you and your motives, but you cannot ignore the reality that someone does not see you as you wish to be.

Coates challenges more than our individual illusions, he questions our national perceptions and the ways in which we see the American dream. Indeed, he argues this dream has largely been reserved for white people alone, that ignoring this history makes the offer of the dream to people of color ironic at best.  He writes of white justifications, “Mistakes were made.  Bodies were broken.  People were enslaved.  We meant well.  We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history; a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”  Coates explains to his son, and tangentially to white people, that there have always been competing American dreams; a white dream of power and domination and a black dream of justice and equality.

In describing the world his son must live in, Coates cannot afford to risk his son’s life with banalities and idealisms. These are the luxuries of white privilege.  He speaks at length about Prince Jones, a young man with whom he studied at Howard University and whose life was snuffed out by a police shooting.  This is no Horatio Alger tale where anyone can lift themselves from their bootstraps and achieve the American dream.  Instead, it is a vivid reminder that people of color can play by all the rules, obtain all the symbols of affluence, achieve educational and professional success and be at the cusp of a vibrant life, but have all of that robbed from them in a moment, simply because the system needs to periodically demonstrate its power.  This is the story his son must understand.

Coates writes, “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history.  They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. You have to make peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold.”

It was paragraphs like the one above that often forced me to lay down the book, to mourn with Coates and his son, to acknowledge how differently they must live in this world we share. Again and again, he told his son things I wanted to deny or diminish, but I could not.  For I understand his fear more than most white people. His words are the warnings I must pass on to my black daughter, painful though they will be.  Indeed, those conversations between her and I may be more painful than that of Coates and his son.  At least, he was able to stand in solidarity with his son, facing the dangers and risks together.  When I talk with my daughter, I will be one of the people she must fear.

I’m not certain I can recommend Between The World and Me to my white friends and family.  Without the reality of having a black daughter, I wonder how I would have heard his words. Would I have dismissed him as an angry black man?  Would I have given credence to his fears and anxieties?  Would I have felt the need to defend myself and my whiteness?  I worry white people don’t know how to read a book that isn’t written for them.  This is the most discouraging aspect of what Coates writes.  If white people cannot read a book without themselves as the center, what hope is there of creating a world where they are not?

I will try to believe what Coates writes, “You must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair.  These are the preferences of the universe: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”  If a black father can persevere in the midst of such ambiguity, the least I can do is join him.