A good and longtime friend recently asked me: “It’s exhausting to keep identifying racism. What was the work that you did to be able to speak about racism so often and plainly?”
The short answer to that question is that I stopped catering to white people’s feelings. I think all black people—and I emphasize black people—that feel compelled to do this work should do the same. But coming to these conclusions has been a process for me that involved four important realizations.
1. Tip-toeing around white feelings doesn’t work.
When I first began writing about racism everyday, I was a lot nicer about it. Some of the white people in my life were like family to me, and so I wanted to give them a lot of grace: even when they were criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement, parroting stereotypes about black people, and espousing slaveholder religion.
I was genuinely surprised that people I had known since I was young were secretly so antiblack. Nevertheless, I put my frustrations to the side, gave them the benefit of the doubt, and tried to give gentle correction without shaming them.
They walked all over me. They would call me angry, insult my intelligence, question my spirituality, or just bail on the exchanges altogether. And my gentleness made it all the more easy for them to do so.
I came to realize that it was the content of what I’m saying, and not the tone, that was offensive to them. Also, by continuing to prioritize how they might feel about my delivery, by trying to mask the taste of their medicine by mixing it with orange juice, I was diluting the truth—and it wasn’t making a difference.
2. Tip-toeing around white feelings is oppressive.
White people are accustomed to living in a world they get to define. Part of that reality has meant that white people have often dictated what is appropriate behavior for black people. For instance, under Jim Crow, white people expected courtesy and deference from black people—even while they continued to maintain, defend, and benefit from a system that was obviously violent to black people.
Today, many white people feel that there is an appropriate way for black people to talk about racial violence and pursue racial justice. Even if that were true, it wouldn’t be the prerogative of white people to decide what those “appropriate ways” would be. Yet they try to impose their definitions for appropriate racial justice advocacy in these conversations regularly. But when white people insist that their sensitivities should constitute the boundaries for race conversations, they’re fighting to remain in a world where white definitions determine the behavior of black people—the world their ancestors built.
But we can’t expect to have racial justice in a world defined by whiteness. This is because whiteness doesn’t define itself honestly.
Is there a sufficient vocabulary in whiteness to construct a litany of the racial sins of those who think they are white? White racists have always found a host of other names for their racism: biology, common sense, doctrine. They’ve used their power over the world of meanings to gerrymander the definitions. And if whiteness has no language of confession, then it has no means for repentance. Whiteness is a little boy, changing the rules of a game he made up as he goes along, because he can’t pronounce the words “I lose.”
Our only hope for freedom is for black people to define our own experiences and to speak plainly about them. To live within the boundaries defined by whiteness is to endure violence every day and say nothing about it. If we are to be free, we must claim the space to assert our own definitions of the world. To accept our own definitions as authoritative, regardless of if white people agree. This is also—perhaps, ironically—the only hope for those who think they are white: to listen to us tell the truth for which their ancestors devised no grammar to express.
3. My ancestors didn’t tip-toe around white people’s feelings.
Many white people will tell black people, just as they told me, that you’ll attract more flies with honey than you will with vinegar. They’ll say that you’ll only create an echo chamber of social justice warriors, if you don’t watch your tone. They’ll tell you that the “greatest freedom fighters” were careful not offend anyone. These stories are not true.
The more I’ve learned about U.S. History, the more I’ve come to see that white America has hated black freedom fighters indiscriminately. They labeled Dr. King an extremist while preaching love and nonviolence. They labeled Malcolm X an extremist for preaching self-love and self-defense. So, let no one fool you into thinking that the gains of the Civil Rights movement came about because black people were demure and charming. Our ancestors spoke plainly about the racial violence that permeates American society, and they were hated for it. Their houses were bombed. They were reviled in the media. They were exiled, imprisoned, and assassinated, no matter what their approach was.
4. Those who are down don’t need you to tip-toe around their feelings.
I used to think that there were only two types of people: those who are for racial justice and those who are against against it. A lot of people think that way, and so they assume that if one is serious about confronting racism, one has to be ready to patiently enlighten KKK members. This is a mistake.
There is a spectrum of people representing varying degrees of support or opposition for any social justice issue. Once I realized this, I stopped mincing my words for those who get offended when they hear the word “racism.” I realized that I was not talking to them and that I didn’t have to. There are people who care about the work, want to do it, and that expect to be uncomfortable from time to time while doing so. Those are my people.
Black Lives Over White Feelings
Once these things were clear, I stopped mincing my words with white people. I had to understand and accept that some people are just not committed to the work of creating a racially just world. There is too much at stake, namely black lives, to go about fighting racism according to the sensibilities of those who would prefer that you didn’t. Those who maintain, defend, and benefit from an antiblack world should not be trusted to advise those trying to dismantle it. What kind of sense does that make?
For these reasons, I encourage other black people that feel compelled to tell the truth about racism to free themselves from walking on eggshells for white people. There is too much at stake to do so, and I’m not sure there’s much to be gained. Black lives are more important than white feelings.