Good faith isn’t always enough to close the gap

My father had a saying: “You wanna talk to somebody, you gotta meet them where they are… But some muthafuckas are just too far away.”

This saying applies to a lot of situations, but he would use it most often when it came to talking to white people about race.

Talking to white people about race is a hard thing to do. The main reason is that it’s not always clear just how far away some muthafuckas are. It can be difficult to tell if a white person is speaking in good or bad faith. If you discover they are speaking in bad faith, then they’re too far away and it seems easy to just not engage…

But it’s not necessarily that easy. There could be other white people involved who don’t recognize the bad faith and question you as to why you’ve ceased engagement. Suddenly you’re in a debate about the intentions of a person with bad faith while that person remains unaccountable and all the other white people just think you’re overly sensitive or paranoid.

But even if you can manage to successfully navigate all of that, stay away from those with bad faith and end up communicating with a white person who is speaking in good faith, there is still no guarantee you will be able to get them to understand.

It’s like the difference between the current president and Joe Biden. Obviously, the president is a man of bad faith. Joe Biden, on the other hand, has all the markings of a man of good faith. He always seems to have a kind word to say. He seems friendly and optimistic. Plus, he’s got that Black friend we all know about!

Unfortunately, there was that time he said of that Black friend, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Naturally, he later non-apologized saying, “And I really regret that some have taken totally out of context my use of the world ‘clean,’” as if that were the problem.

I know right now some of you are thinking So what? He said some bad stuff a long time ago, but he’s learned and he’s better. To you I say, first of all, if his current situation in being told not to touch people who don’t want to be touched is any sort of signifier—which I think it is—he hasn’t learned anything. He was publicly mocking the entire idea and then non-apologizing again just last Friday.

The problem isn’t that people just say some “bad stuff.” The problem is that if we accept that “bad stuff” from each other, then we also accept it from our leaders. In Biden’s case, some of that “bad stuff” he said in the 1970s was against integration and nearly 20 years later he was a leading proponent of mass incarceration. There’s a high cost to be paid for saying that “bad stuff” for such a long time, but Joe Biden doesn’t have to pay it. Countless Black men—or “predators,” as he called them—paid and will continue to pay.

Meanwhile, voters are just hoping Uncle Joe gets through this one OK. And I think that’s because we can all tell that he more or less operates in good faith. Unfortunately, good faith alone still leaves some muthafuckas too far away.


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The pollution in our soil: White supremacy

The president’s response to the tragedy in New Zealand… Well. He’s a eugenicist whose shriveled, quivering mouth has only ever dribbled out an endless ooze of hate, stupidity and lies when it comes to women, Black people, Islam and basically anyone who isn’t a rich, white man. He cut funding used to fight white supremacist violence despite the fact that it’s on the rise. He plotted and enacted a Muslim ban that is still in place. And he retweets racists and religious bigots so much that, if I didn’t know better, I might think that he’s delighted by the kind of violence that is so often done in his name. And, to be clear, I do not know better.

If you’ve been paying attention at all, I’m sure the president’s reaction was anything but surprising, but there was a reaction by a world leader that did surprise me. Jacinda Arden, New Zealand’s Prime Minister actually put forth a “global call” to fight racism. It probably says something about the lowering of my own expectations that I could be surprised by a world leader’s sincere, compassionate and all-encompassing response to a tragedy. I’m sure I’m not alone, but I was surprised.

That said, given how often white supremacist ideology has been used to destroy as much of the world as possible—Native American genocide, Civil War, WWII just off the top of my head—it sure would be nice if we were beyond simple condemnations in 2019.

While in this country we are used to leadership not being able to complete a sentence, Jacinda Arden did not just offer words. She somehow, in what seems to be a plainly impossible feat, instituted an assault weapon ban in New Zealand. And she did it less than a week after the massacre.

Here, in the United States there are no amounts of racist massacres that could get us to even think about thinking about having a discussion. What I see instead are a fair amount conversations about tech companies as they have been successful in past battles with extremists online. Non-white extremists, that is. It seems that they’re having a difficult time with white supremacists, somehow.

Obviously, this is because they’re not actually addressing the problem, which is, again, white supremacy. It’s a problem buried so deep in our soil that nothing can grow without its pollution. There are no exceptions, not even tech companies.

The polluted thoughts of this country have been inspiring madmen and mass destruction around the world long before our current president started goose-stepping through the White House. Fixing ourselves will go a long way toward fixing the world, but avoidance will only make things worse.

Gun control, while a positive for society and something the majority of the country is behind, will not stop white supremacist attacks from continuing. If the recent Florida Man incident didn’t tell you that, last year’s Austin bombings should.

And while, of course, tech companies should do everything they can to top the spread of diseased thought, they could turn off the internet, put a moratorium on phone carriers, shut down the United States Postal Service and force the carrier pigeon into extinction and we’d still be left with an idea that continues to prove itself the most destructive force in the world.

In the end, white supremacist systems fight to not stay as they are, but to go backward. They don’t want to disregard human rights so much as to take them away. Talking alone will not push us forward and our silence only acts as their permission.

Fighting is the only way. Find a way to fight.


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Maybe we could start telling the stories right?

It’s almost been a year since Linda Brown’s death and so I’ve been thinking a lot about segregation. It still exists, of course, in very real ways, but it’s just not on the books in the same form anymore. Unfortunately, so much of this is because, as a population we’re still mentally segregated. This can be seen in not only our individual, specific positions on race, but in everything from our views on history to how we frame contemporary social issues.

As a child, I was taught that slavery began with Africans selling each other to white slavers. This story has been retold to me countless times throughout my life. It was taught to my father and mother and their parents and probably to you and yours as well. This story has implications that are in the very DNA of this country. From this story we are to infer that Black people inherently do not care for one another and therefore we are incapable of understanding core tenets of American society, like “Honor” and “Family.” From this story we are also to infer that whatever happened to us as a people was at the same time inevitable and exclusively our own fault.

You can see these beliefs of our moral inferiority and innate undeservedness make their way from slavery all the way through Brown v Board of Education and continuing to right now.

While whiteness continues to change and eventually include every other racial group, it will never include Native Americans or us. This is because every other racial group is allowed an origin story of self-reliance. All of their stories involve leaving a homeland that persecuted them in one way or another. Their stories, and therefore their identities support the identity of this country as a safe harbor for the tired, poor, huddled masses, etc. Native Americans, on the other hand, are thought of as noble savages who were too naïve to know that their time had come, leaches that take advantage of a system designed with only the most benevolent intentions for everyone, all of the above or somewhere in between.   

We ignore the fact that many Native Americans actually do have the same origin story as the rest of those groups. Unfortunately, most of them were also murdered en masse because, while having the same story, that story is at odds with this country’s identity.

The same, believe it or not, is true for Black people. While America tells itself the stories of Black people being responsible for our own enslavement, it avoids the true stories at all costs. America never tells the stories of the African leaders who fought against and in some cases defeated attempted enslavers. It never tells the stories of the Africans who fought against being enslaved in every possible way. It never tells the stories of the countless rebellions by the people it enslaved.

America never tells these stories because it cannot simultaneously be its own hero and its own villain. And since it cannot admit to its own villainy, it continues. But please don’t think of villainy, in this case as a reflection of an individual’s intentions. I am speaking specifically of the stories we tell ourselves as Americans about our fellow Americans that limit and destroy us as a country, and perhaps as a globe.

Currently, as a country we are struggling with addiction. The opioid epidemic has forced us to rethink our relationship to drugs entirely. We have begun decriminalizing addiction and treating it as a medical issue. Rightfully so. This change in attitude comes because it fits with our national identity of self-reliance. For white people.

Looking back at the crack epidemic, which affected mostly Black people, you can see the old, familiar story resulting in mass incarceration. White people, being self-reliant and superior find their victims of addiction in hospitals. Black people, as dishonorable things that would sell their own family members deservedly end up in cages or dead.

The same story is told about gun violence. A white person goes on a shooting spree and they are mentally ill and in need of treatment. The reaction to Black gun violence is, again, that Black people are inherently violent and nothing can be done.

Again, it’s not only in the acts of the individual where this can be seen. Currently, the most important issue the country faces is climate change. For white people. Not for people of color, though. Racism is still the most important issue for us because we’ve already been living with the effects of climate change for years and racism is why.

Humanity faces a lot of problems, but addiction and the temperature of the earth don’t care what color you are. They don’t care about your gender, for that matter, either. But if women and people of color were allowed the opportunities of a white man, there would be more doctors. There would be more scientists. Without even getting into the value of different perspectives, there would simply  be more people attacking the issues that affect our species.

That’s the story this country and the world need to start telling.


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