TERMS, PT. 2: They'd Better Lose the Attitude

Part 2 of the Terms and Conditions series, for Part 1 click here 

This is the second installment in my vlog series called “terms and conditions”

where we are exploring the underlying expectations that seem to be present in conversations when we talk about racial justice. Each of the terms and conditions we’ll explore fill in the blank for the following sentence: “If black people expect others to get involved against racial justice, then _______.”  Tempers can easily fly high in conversations about race, and there seems to be this assumption that we can’t have a productive conversation if people (namely, black people) get angry. And so today’s terms and conditions go something like this: “if black people expect others to join them in fighting for racial justice, then they’d better lose the attitude.”

An Analogy

Let’s start exploring today’s terms and conditions by considering an analogy. Let’s say there’s a young lady at the movies, and there’s someone who is clearly fighting a cold of the flu sitting behind her. They’re hacking and coughing and sniffling and trying to clear their throat. She’s not taking too much notice, and honestly feels a little bad for the guy. Then the worst happens. The sick person sneezes directly on her. She reflexively begins to turn toward them, and just as she does, the sick person sneezes on her again! Right on her face! She looks at them in shock and frustration, “Really!?”she says. The sneezer says back to the girl,  “I mean, it was clearly an accident. You don’t have to yell at me!”

The sneezer criticizes the girl’s response because the girl’s anger makes the sneezer feel ashamed--and since the sneezer hadn’t intended to sneeze on her, he may feel all the more justified in trying to avoid being shamed. But now the girl is even more upset, because-- not only was she sneezed on--the offending party won’t acknowledge that their accident was still an offense, and is acting like the girl’s response is unwarranted.

The analogy isn’t perfect to describe what it’s like to live in a racist society. But it is good enough to illustrate the frustration one might have when someone offends you and then gets offended that you’re offended--especially when your feelings of anger at that offense are completely understandable.

The Stigma of Anger

I’m assuming that most people watching this video are familiar with the stereotype of the angry black person. That stereotype is frustrating for a number of reasons: one of them being that it suggests that the black people who are angry don’t have good reasons to be. Some people want to bypass the entire context of the black experience that might understandably cause people to live in an almost constant state of frustration.

There is no “Getting Over It” 

By context, I don’t mean just mean history. I prefer to speak of racism in America as a tradition, rather than as history. I make a distinction because usually, we use the word “history” to describe events that only live in the past. That’s not the only way we use that word, but when we talk about American History, we’re usually talking about events from which we’re far removed. Traditions, on the other hand, may be historical but continue to observed and protected in the present: like buying presents on Christmas or eating Turkey for Thanksgiving. This is important to note, because once we start talking about racism, people huff and minimize the whole thing saying, “Black people are still upset about slavery? They need to get over it!”

Well, we can’t just get over things that are still happening. And is racism still happening? Absolutely. The business of American racism is like a tech start-up, when it gets too difficult to do business as usual, the whole operation pivots to a form that is socially acceptable for its time.

Consider the institution of American slavery and the Jim Crow era. Both of them were organized social arrangements for preserving a caste system where certain people were disadvantaged based on categories of skin color. But they were not random social arrangements; they were connected on an evolutionary chain of oppression. When it became clear that the institution of slavery was not going to survive the tides of time, racial oppression took a different form--the form of “separate but equal.” There were, no doubt, people who lived during the Jim Crow era that would have never dreamed of owning slaves. But the idea that they should sit at the same lunch counter as, or marry, or attend the same school as a “negro” was highly controversial. So, racism hadn’t ended because of the Emancipation Proclamation, but had only pivoted to a new form.

In the same way, we would be naive to think that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us about his dream, and that we just loved it so much that we did it. There have been a great number of books written by legal experts showing the genealogy of the historic systems of oppression in America to our current ones (I'll provide links below). So we’re not upset about water under the bridge. We’re upset at continued injustices that we face every day. Black people know that when it comes to employment, housing, criminal justice, buying a car, media representation, the list goes on, that it is simply different to be black in America. And yes, we find it outrageous that black people continue to be treated in these ways.

But some people think that we shouldn’t be upset. Others think that maybe it’s okay that some of us are upset, but we shouldn’t show it. So, both groups offer the terms and conditions we’re considering today--that black people should lose the attitude.

Just Our Imaginations

The first group thinks that black people should lose the attitude because there’s nothing to be upset about. Some people seem to genuinely think that America is a place where everyone is treated equally, and the universe is a place where everyone gets what they deserve: therefore, if there are more black people in jail, then black people must be committing more crimes. Some people seem to genuinely think that everyone in America has access to the same opportunities, and so black people are just using racism as an excuse to cover up some kind lack of ambition or work ethic. Some people say that if we stopped trusting the so-called liberal media that maybe we wouldn’t be so riled up. 

First off, statements like those are upsetting because all of them are inherently prejudiced. All of those statements assume--in one way or another--that black people are inherently flawed: either by some strange natural bent toward violence and crime, or some kind of endemic laziness, or some kind of general inability to assess our experiences in this country for ourselves. Moreover, denying that black Americans experience all kinds of anti-black racism is an attack on our memory and our sanity. It implies that we are basically delusional. That is infuriating. Asking people to sit through conversations where they are experiencing those kinds of offenses without feeling any emotion is simply unreasonable!

If you sneeze on my face, I’m gonna' be upset. Period. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t mean to. If you didn’t realize I was about to turn around. Whatever the excuse, you just spit 6,000 germs into my face at 35 miles per hour, and I at least get to say, “Really!?”

You'll Catch More Flies with Raw Meat Than with Honey

Which brings me to the other group, who may think it’s fine to be angry, but still think that black people need to lose attitude because they think it shuts down the conversation. You’ve may have heard people say, “you will attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.” As a way of saying that you’re not gonna’ win anyone over by offending them. We really need to stop saying that: (1) because flies are disgusting creatures that no one is trying to catch, and (2) vinegar is actually much better at attracting flies than honey (as is raw meat and poop). So, the analogy is wrong, and the principle it’s pointing to may not be that reliable either.

The analogy suggests that being outraged by something racially insensitive shuts down the conversation. But, it fails to recognize that a conversation is not obligated to implode just because someone showed their emotions. That conversation could continue, and it could continue like this, “I realize that I said something offensive. I’m really sorry about that, because I didn’t mean to invalidate what you were saying.” If the offending party were to respond to their offense in that way, there’s at least a chance that the conversation could continue.

You know what shuts down that conversation? When people decide that they’re offended that that you’re offended. It will be difficult for the conversation move forward as long as the offending the party is meeting the complaint of their conversation partner with denial and criticism. The conversation gets shut down when the offending party refuses to honor the feelings of their conversation partner.

We’re talking about a meta-principle of relating to people. Basically, we don’t get to tell people that we didn’t hurt them. They get to define that for themselves. You just get to decide if you care. And if you care, then show it, by putting down your pride and defensiveness, and really listening. 

When I think of this concept, I think of this one time that I hurt my nephew’s feelings. When he was little, I used to call him “Buddha,” because to me he looked like a little Jamaican Buddha. And he used to always demand, “I’m not Buddha!” And he was so adorable that sometimes I would call him Buddha just to hear him tell me that he wasn’t! But one day, I called him Buddha, and he began to cry. He just wanted to be Shaan, and his uncle that he loved, wouldn’t just call him by his actual name. Now, since I’m older and bigger, I could have explained to him that he’s being too sensitive, and that he needs to learn how to take a joke. I could insist that I didn’t do anything wrong. Or, I could look at the reaction that he had to my words, and accept the fact that when I kid around like that, he experiences it in a negative way. And I could resolve to honor that boundary. 

The Real Question

The real question here is not why are so many black people so angry, because the answer to that question is pretty obvious. The real question here is why is it so hard for people to just honor our feelings? I almost asked why it is so hard to empathize, but you don’t have to feel my feelings to respect them. You don’t have to understand my feelings to respect them either. You could respect the fact that n-word is offensive when I hear non-black people saying it, that I get anxiety when I see the police, that black stereotypes are exhausting for me, and that the video of the cops pulling that lady over to hand her an ice cream cone is deeply problematic and offensive, and that no! You may not touch my hair--even if you don’t get any of that, you could respect any of that..

It doesn’t matter if you think something should or shouldn’t offend someone else. Because we don’t get to tell people how to feel about their oppression, nor do we get to tell people how to respond to their oppression.

Verdict

At the end of the day, I have to conclude that people who aren’t interested in black feelings probably aren’t interested in black freedom. So, I have to reject these terms and conditions. We need to be questioning the structure in our society that continue to make victims of people of color, not the pain and frustration that people of color experience because of those structures. We need to be critiquing a culture that insists on protecting that social arrangement, not the responses of the oppressed.

For Further Exploration:

[1] How Racism Evolves in America by Bryan Stevenson for The Equal Justice Initiative

[2] A Cartoon That Beautifully Explains Tone Policing from Everyday Feminism

[3] A Video on How to Apologize When Getting Called Out from Francesca Ramsey