I’m afraid that didactic model is not going to work.
Learning is about opening yourself up to people and experiences and seeking to understand. And when you’re talking about race, it involves making horrible mistakes and getting your feelings hurt and not closing the door when that happens. White people can’t content themselves with asking questions of black people. They should be prepared to face a lot of anger and not shrink from it. Too often, they’ve shown themselves to be unprepared for the emotional heat, too willing to check out.
A meme developing on Twitter and across social media says black folks have no interest in teaching white folks about race and racism. A white friend noticed and called me. She wanted to thank me for having been upfront with her about race over the years. She recalled a story from decades ago, when I spoke about the first movie I had seen in a theater. The movie was “From Russia With Love,” and I’d been 16. This friend and I were sitting at a table where reporters, producers and others at the mainstream media organization where we all worked, nearly all of them white, gathered for lunch. No one quite understood why I hadn’t seen a movie before the age of 16, which would have been around 1965. I began to explain that my grandparents didn’t allow me to go to the movies when I suddenly realized that my grandparents had known what I didn’t at the time: I would not have been allowed in the theater before then.
I was surprised that my friend remembered the story, because there had been a collective groan at the table — as in, “Here we go,” when I’d inadvertently brought up segregation — that squelched any further exploration of the subject by me or anyone else. But I remembered that moment as well and thought of it often as one in which white folks were clearly not open to hearing more about America’s racial past.
That moment of realization, however, opened a whole new avenue of understanding for me into the behavior of my grandparents, who raised me. Suddenly they were not the killjoys of my Southern childhood who didn’t want to go out to dinner, venture off the beaten path or out after dark in some unknown town or neighborhood. My grandparents would tell stories of body snatchers who grabbed black people off the street and used them for medical experiments. I dismissed these stories as just their way of guaranteeing my obedience. But I also recalled the box lunches packed with fried chicken sandwiches, cookies and chips — travel preparations for departure in the early morning, always morning, just as the sun rose. We did not want to be traveling late at night. Exaggerated fears, perhaps, but ones developed over a lifetime of stories about relatives who never made it to their destination.
I associate that memory with news reports of the search for James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, three Freedom Summer workers who went missing in 1964: When searchers looked for the bodies of the men, one black and two white, they found other black bodies as well. The memory surfaced late one Sunday night recently when I was talking to another media colleague.
What transpired was an example of how conversations about race can veer off in entirely unexpected and painful directions. I remarked that even the mild-mannered columnist David Brooks had expressed outrage over recent events: the discrepancies in the value the Trump administration placed on black and white lives, the lack of an appropriate response to the disproportionate number of black people succumbing to the coronavirus and the killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota.
My colleague said she thought Brooks was really thoughtful.
I came back with, “Yes, but he is a champion of Ronald Reagan, the man who started us down this road, the man who began his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi.”
She didn’t understand.
I explained that Reagan’s event in Philadelphia was seen as a signal to racists in the South.
She was still baffled.
I asked, “You do know what happened in Philadelphia, Mississippi?”
I said, “That’s where they found the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman.”
She asked me whether those people were related to President Bush’s Vice President Dick Cheney, at which point, I started screaming. I explained that they were three civil rights workers who had been arrested by a Mississippi sheriff and released late at night into the clutches of a bunch of white men who killed them, buried them in “an earthen dam,” with only one of the perpetrators convicted of the crime, 41 years later. “Earthen dam” is one of those stock phrases that stay with you, evoking Southern nights you hope never to experience.
She said, somewhat defensively, I didn’t know, and I continued screaming: “How is it possible that you don’t know, and how is it possible that David Brooks thinks that Ronald Reagan was not deliberately sending a racist message about ‘states' rights’ by kicking off his campaign at the Neshoba County State Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi? How is that so different from President Donald Trump signaling to police officers that it’s okay for the police to rough up criminals during an epidemic of killings of black men? Like the sheriff in Neshoba County, he is essentially telling them, ‘I’ve got your back.’”
I was in a rage, beyond reason. So she hung up.
The next day, I texted an apology but told her it was hard to accept that someone her age — an American in her mid-40s, I would guess — did not know about James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.
But you can do very well in this country without ever knowing. I don’t know what, if anything, she learned from that exchange.
That same morning I awoke to texts among friends who had received calls from white women friends wanting to organize discussions about race. The younger women friends wanted examples of articles and recommendations. We older women wanted nothing to do with it.
Asking black people in the United States to discuss race is asking them to relive every moment of pain, fear and outrage they have experienced: the insult of a supervisor who objected to your going to China to report but was very open to sending you to Africa, or the distress of having your child picked up by the police while waiting for the bus because he “looked like someone.” Day after day, year after year, one swallows the taste of bile over seemingly minor incidents that cannot be discussed lest one be regarded as rude. Then suddenly there is a need to talk, to know how one feels and have things explained? No can do.
I reached that point nearly 20 years ago out of sheer exhaustion from serving as the middle person and translator for white people. I remember telling my boss that what white people didn’t know about black people was not up to me to tell them, which assured my obsolescence.
The friend who reminded me of the conversation about the first movie I’d seen in a theater in the Southern town where I grew up told me that it was at that lunch table with our colleagues that she first realized that, even though we were contemporaries, our lives had been completely different. “This was in our lifetime,” she said. “This was not that long ago.”
She thanked me for being willing to engage her in conversations about race. I told her, “But you also did the work. You covered racial issues as a reporter. You read books by and about black people. You spoke up.” I also thought, and didn’t say, “You also have more than one black friend.”
Too often the white friends who want their black friends to educate them about race don’t do that work, and don’t accept that being uncomfortable with black anger is part of that work. Few things are more off-putting to a black person than being subjected to Socratic questioning by a white person over seemingly trivial matters that may actually be deeply personal and painful. “What gives you the right to know?” the black person often thinks. As I told a white male neighbor who asked me about a black woman’s hair, “You’re going to have to invest more than curiosity to find out.”