Enough think pieces have been written about the obviously offensive Kylie Jenner-Pepsi Ad and the arguably problematic alternative from Heineken. But I’m not writing to flex my intellectual chops by analyzing these ads all over again. I want to share a personal story to raise some questions about having civil discussions about our differences. Everywhere you turn, it seems that most people think that “coming to the table” to talk will heal the deep chasms of that divide us.
For a moment, I think Heineken convinced me of the power of coming to the table, in having me watch these strangers collaborate to build the very bar to which they would be invited to drink together--that is, after they discovered how jarringly dissonant their worldviews and walks of life were. There was something moving about seeing the very same man who started as a boastful misogynist, at the ad’s open, cheers to smashing the patriarchy at the end. I thought for a moment, “that’s how it’s done!” And I wondered to myself, “have I been doing it wrong?” Because I have not sat down over a beer with anyone who tells me that there is no such thing as systemic racism, or white privilege, or that Jesus doesn’t care about how black people suffer because of the enduring white power structures of American society.
In fact, I set up a rigid wall between myself and people who come to me and (oftentimes very politely) request to them that I prove to them that racism is a real problem with life-or-death consequences for people like me. I block people who demand that I patiently endure their kicking and flailing against the goads of social awareness, or expect me to pastor them through the stages of grief as they realize that their post-racial society has been a fantasy. No. I don’t invite racists--even the nice unintentional ones--out for beer. But I almost did.
In the summer of 2016, one of my best friends outed himself in a conversation where he stumbled into a defense for the institution of American slavery. “Well, some people’s experience of slavery may have been positive, and so I can’t categorically mark it as evil,” he said...with a straight face...to me...and our Asian-American friend. He continued to explain that there have been other forms of slavery in the world, and that those forms of slavery were not as harsh as what we think of when we think of chattel slavery in the United States. I was beginning to get snappy. In my head I thought to myself, “what the f*ck does slavery in ancient Greece have to do with Kunta Kinte’s foot?” But wanting to save face, I changed the subject, hoping that I was misunderstanding him.
That conversation rang in my head for days, the smug and condescending tone of this little white man from Arkansas basically telling me that slavery wasn’t all that bad. That every time he thought of it, he wasn’t horrified and embarrassed that his country (probably his ancestors) could have done such a thing. That he actually thought that as long as some master was “nice” to another person he owned, that it somehow made the morality of that institution more nuanced.
I felt betrayed, and confused. This guy was one of my best friends. He was there for me during some of the toughest seasons of my life. When my faith in God was shaky, he helped me straighten out my thoughts. When the longest relationship I’ve ever been in went south, he was the voice of reason to help me through it. He encouraged me to keep writing songs, and never missed one of my shows if he could help it. And now I was finding out that he believed in “reverse racism”, and pulling the race card, and that white people have no obligation to take black people seriously when we talk about how our society was built to keep us from flourishing.
When we finally spoke again, I told him that his remarks about slavery were both surprising and hurtful--that I felt like he’d stabbed me in the back. We arranged a time to sit down and talk over drinks. But as that appointment approached, I could not imagine myself actually going through with that conversation. Was I really going to sit down and listen to this man debate with me about the facts of my life? Was I seriously going to let him question the three times I’ve been nearly arrested for being “suspicious”, the time I almost booked an apartment until the landlord saw my clean cut brown face, and the myriad of micro-aggressions and blatant acts of hate that I have endured in my short little life?
Let’s ask this question again by using an analogy. It’s the first day of Algebra I. The teacher has written x + 4 = 9. A little boy raises his hand and confidently huffs, “Pff! That’s a trick question. You can’t add numbers to letters.” He scans the room for agreement with a smirk, a chuckle, and look on his face that says “amirite?” The teacher patiently responds, “This is a new kind of math problem for you. But you’ll need to get used to it, because in Algebra you’re going to be adding numbers and letters a-lot!” She giggles a little. The kids scoots back from his desk a bit. “May I have the floor?” he asks.
Does that kid deserve to take up class time to debate with the teacher? Absolutely not. You and I both know that this child does not deserve to dominate the classroom with his ignorance. His perspective is uninformed and doesn’t deserve a hearing. In fact, it’s unfair that anyone should have to listen to him argue with the teacher. If he doesn’t know that algebraic equations contain numbers and letters, then that’s his problem. And if he can’t discern that he doesn’t know as much about math as his math teacher, then that is also his problem. There is really no discussion to be had here, unless it’s “you don’t know what you don’t know, and you need to sit down and listen.”
My friend and I never sat down to discuss racism over drinks because racism is not just a hot button topic that I can agree to disagree on. It is a life-threatening reality--and that is something that either someone knows or doesn’t, and if they don’t know then they don’t get the floor. As long as people deny the problem, they help it thrive, and I can’t be part in facilitating that by validating in any way that they know what they’re talking about. Their refusal to know what most black people have to know is costing the lives and futures of people like Tamir Rice and Jordan Edwards. And I don’t owe anyone the emotional energy or time it takes to endure them telling me that my experience is not real.
I opted not to do happy hour with my friend, which seemed inconsequential to him because I was the one who had arranged a time to talk. It hadn’t even occurred to him that maybe he should try to explain to me that he didn’t think it was cool for my ancestors to live as subhuman property--to see if we were good. In fact, I didn’t hear from him again until late July, after I started lugging a boulder around LA to convey the burden that continuing racism lays on the black psyche. That stone was like the full moon for all the closeted well-meaning innocent racists in my life. It seemed like every week some white person I loved, and had known for years, was showing up on my Facebook wall or in my direct messages to silence me: my former pastors and mentors, family members, former classmates. These messages often led to phone conversations, video chats, and sometimes conversations over coffee...of why I was wrong. My friend eventually showed up, multiple times, to undermine everything I had to say about my experiences.
I don’t think the point of the Heineken commercial is that their brand of beer is some kind of civic potion that can enable people to have constructive dialogue. I think the point was that if we can build rapport with one another, find common ground first, then perhaps we can talk about our differences in a productive manner. But we should be careful to remember something: most decent people are polite to people they’ve just met. And most decent people can probably be cordial while enduring the final moments of a random, manufactured social anomaly like building a bar with a stranger for a commercial.
Back in the real world, however, no level of relationship was able to help some of my former pastors and mentors, my former classmates, one of my best friends hear me. In fact, the longer I’d known people, and the closer they were, the less they would listen. Perhaps I should have bought them a beer.