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A sermon on the unbearable whiteness of America


A protestor holds a Black Lives Matter sign outside of the U.S. Capitol building on July 7, 2016 in Washington. (Photo by Christian K. Lee/The Washington Post)

TEARS WE CANNOT STOP: A Sermon to White America

By Michael Eric Dyson

St. Martin’s Press. 228 pp. $24.99

“Hey, fellow white guys! It’s about to be a new year. And there’s a few things we think you can do a little bit better in 2017.”

Thus began MTV News’s “2017 New Years Resolutions for White Guys,” one of the Internet’s most transcendentally awful experiments in wishful viral-video-making of the past year. In the 88-second clip, various young MTV staffers, spanning multiple ethnicities, proceed to lecture “white guys” for their offenses to liberal identity politics, such as mansplaining, suggesting that all lives matter and saying “woke.”
The video grates, both for its pedantic, generalizing message and because it was obviously created with the expectation of countless shares among knowing lefties. Instead, the mockery and backlash was such that MTV took it down less than 48 hours later.

I wish they’d kept it up, owned it. Because, if 2016 was the year of rediscovering the political power of the Deplorable White Male, 2017 may become the year of attempting to sway, co-opt, educate, overanalyze or shame that class. Some attempts will backfire. (I’m looking at you, MTV News.) Another, Michael Eric Dyson’s new book, “Tears We Cannot Stop,” is more thoughtful yet far more angry, mingling insight, righteousness and harshness.

St. Martin’s Press

Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, a prolific author and a Baptist minister, leavens his anger — at racism, at police brutality, at economic injustice against black Americans, at indifference to their plight — by presenting his book as a sermon and by seeding his words with flowery, loving language. “I offer this sermon to you, my dear white friends,” he writes, “my beloved comrades of faith and country.”

But there is little comradeship in these pages, and if there is love, it is of the toughest kind imaginable. Dyson makes clear that he regards much of white America as a pernicious force. “We can do nothing to make our tormentors stop their evil,” Dyson laments to the Almighty. “How can we possibly combat the blindness of white men and women who are so deeply invested in their own privilege that they cannot afford to see how much we suffer?”

He likens law enforcement officers to terrorists (“We think of the police who kill us for no good reason as ISIS”) and slave drivers (“The police car is a mobile plantation”). He admits that he’d like to pay violence back in kind. “Lord, Dear Lord, I don’t want to feel this way, but I swear to you I want to kill dead any Godforsaken soul who thinks that killing black people is an acceptable price to pay for keeping this nation safe. But then, am I any better than that soul?” And, in shades of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Dyson calls on God to “convict” America. “May this land know your displeasure, taste your holy wrath, for killing us like pigs without conscience,” he writes.

[How people convince themselves that the Confederate flag represents freedom, not slavery]

Still, he asserts that his problem is less with white individuals than with whiteness itself — with the political, economic and social advantages the status confers. “You don’t get whiteness from your genes,” he tells his beloveds. “It is a social inheritance that is passed on to you as a member of a particular group.”

It is also a ruse to justify discrimination. “I want to tell you right off the bat that whiteness is made up, and that white history disguised as American history is a fantasy, as much a fantasy as white superiority and white purity.” Whiteness is particularly insidious when it serves as a stand-in for normality, he contends, leaving others relegated to some second-tier, hyphenated hybrid. “It is most effective when it makes itself invisible,” Dyson writes, “when it appears neutral, human, American.”

Dyson recounts what he calls the stages of white grief, pulled out whenever white Americans fear their dominance is threatened. They plead ignorance of black life and suffering; appropriate black culture; or simply deny, rewrite or dilute America’s racial history. So please don’t show up with tales about the economic insecurity of the white working class; for Dyson, the 2016 election was entirely about the revenge of whiteness, “how it is at once capable of exulting in privilege while proclaiming it is the least privileged of identities . . . and how it howls in primal pain at being forgotten while it rushes to spitefully forget and erase all suffering that isn’t its own.” The presidential election was also a reaction to fear, Dyson writes. Donald Trump, “more than anything else, signifies the undying force of the fear unleashed by Obama’s presidency.”

[Review of Michael Eric Dyson’s “The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America"]

At times, though, there seems to be a built-in irrefutability to Dyson’s case. Any effort by white people to disassociate themselves from charges of privilege, to bypass or mitigate guilt, is dismissed as just another case of “innocent whiteness” — of reckless, blind denial. “You are emotionally immature about race. . . . You have no idea that your whiteness and your American identity have become fatally intertwined,” Dyson accuses. “Your resistance to feelings of guilt is absurdly intense.”

Any argument against Dyson is then, by definition, confirmation of his point. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong. But it does little to invite dialogue.

Readers will find searing moments in “Tears We Cannot Stop,” when Dyson’s words proves unforgettable. “Every encounter with the police splits us into two selves,” he writes, “one a quiet, brooding figure cursing the cops from within, the other a dawdling doppelganger, a concrete-staring, shuffling Negro we are ashamed to admit lives inside of us.” But the author also lapses into admiration at his own cleverness. He coins a white malady called C.H.E.A.T., or Chronic Historical Evasion and Trickery disorder. Okay, I get it. But then, sensing a chuckle from the crowd, he continues: “If not treated early on, C.H.E.A.T. leads to other disorders, including F.A.K.E. (Finding Alternative Knowledge Elusive), F.O.O.L. (Forsaking Others’ Outstanding Literacy) and L.I.E. (Lacking Introspection Entirely).”

Ever the educator, Dyson also provides a black-studies crash course, listing dozens of authors — from James Baldwin to Isabel Wilkerson — that white Americans should read to understand black America, and he revels in N.W.A.’s “F— tha Police,” KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police,” Tupac’s “Point the Finga” and Beyoncé’s “Formation,” calling them “the hymns that rally us against the fantasy of our erasure.”
But more than education, Dyson wants a reckoning. “Without white America wrestling with these truths and confronting these realities, we may not survive,” he declares. And he offers his own resolutions for white people, a collection that does not do justice to the gravity he describes.

Pay black workers more than you normally would for the services they provide, he urges, a sort of “secular tithe” or “black tax.” Visit black people in schools, churches and jails. Go to rallies and join protests for black justice. And make more black friends. In fact, “every open-minded white person should set out immediately to find and make friends with black folk who share their interests,” Dyson admonishes. (I imagine hundreds of well-meaning white people clutching their copies of “Tears We Cannot Stop” and accosting black co-workers, neighbors and gym-goers, seeking the absolution of sufficient interracial friendships.)

“Whiteness must shed its posture of competence, its will to omniscience, its belief in its goodness and purity, and then walk a mile or two in the boots of blackness,” Dyson concludes. And such steps may be a start. Yet Dyson is also pessimistic about the chances for racial understanding in America and, in this book at least, he doesn’t show enormous capacity for it himself. “It is hard to be white and empathetic to others,” he argues early on. “It is hard for you to give up this willful ignorance. It is a drug.” And the arrival of Trump to the presidency may be the biggest high. “Whether he wishes to be or not,” Dyson writes, “Donald Trump is the epitome, not only of white innocence and white privilege, but of white power, white rage, and yes, even of white supremacy.”

If this is where we find ourselves after eight years of the Obama presidency, it will take lots of New Year’s resolutions to move in a new direction. And lots of new years.

Christine Emba and Karen Attiah of The Washington Post's opinions section explain what "white privilege" means, how it originated and how it manifests itself in America. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

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