In George Yancy’s book Backlash:What happens when we talk honestly about racism in America, this PhD holding philosopher and professor painstakingly explains how white supremacy is literally inculcated within every single white person. His audience is definitely white readers, he addresses them multiple times as such, to the point where I actually feel like a voyeur eavesdropping on a conversation between him and some white person. His words ooze love, both explicitly and implicitly expressed to the white reader, a love predicated on truth and wrapped in humble confidence.
In fact, he calls his writing a gift to white people, and acknowledges that they can either accept or reject it. His pervasive sweetness while calmly outlining the complexity of white racism made me subconsciously protest that this is a love they don’t even deserve. This is rage scrubbed clean of its vicious impact, showing the reality of agony and trauma that lies below, offering a vulnerable underbelly for white people to stab even closer to the heart, as we know they will.
What truly resonated with me was the way he articulated black pain. The pain that I and countless others feel every day. The pain that I had fumbled for so long to find the words to explain, so that when I finally saw it, it felt so familiar to me that all I could do was embrace it and linger there for a while. Like a loved one returning home after having been away for many years. Or the way you hug your mother when you’ve become an adult who has finally experienced the terror of life and can properly appreciate how much she has sacrificed for you. That is how I embraced the discovery of my own truth.
But it was a bittersweet moment, because I couldn’t help but realize the downside of witnessing my truth in a highly academic and scientific format that reinforced it’s credibility. It is the notion that it has already been said. Yancy painstakingly researched and seasoned his words with quotes and concepts from other black writers and thinkers, most of whom I have yet to read extensively, and it truly dawned on me that the truth has been already articulated for a very long time, and many times over. It is available to us all, if we merely seek it. All this time I thought, perhaps if I could find the best possible combination of language to convince white people of my humanity, and of their role in my oppression, then they will understand, and progress will be made.
For the latter half of my life I’ve been criticized for being too mean when I talk about race, too raw, too direct, too harsh. I decided that maybe the problem was me, the problem was in my turn of phrase, in my choice of words, perhaps the tone of my voice. Many people, well meaning and otherwise, encouraged me to think of my audience, and see how I could reassemble my words to “land” better on them, to be gentle but true enough to usher them like a shepherd to fields of lush green clarity, where they would finally be able to see my point of view and work towards making the world a better place.
Now I see that it is a futile endeavor. What can I say that W.E.B Dubois and Langston Hughes have not already established? Audre Lorde? bell hooks? George Yancy? What can I say that my ancestors did not say with their own blood? Did the truth exist before we learned to read and write English, back when the truth beckoned us to kill or be killed? Did the truth exist before we managed to share it with each other, like on the slave ships when they ensured that men and women who spoke different languages were grouped together to reduce the chances of organized retaliation? We found a way to communicate truth without the luxury of multiple common words back then, because there were still many revolts on those ships. And lastly, did truth exist to white people in that time? Does it still stare them in the face now? Or are we obliged to put it into words for them, and not just any words, comfortable words.
You see, the most crucial aspect of speaking to our goodly white liberal allies about race, or let’s say to the general “colorblind” populace of America, is to remove the suggestion of personal responsibility. We must, if we are to maintain their allyship, articulate truth in a way that does not implicate them as being benefactors and perpetrators of the very thing we are supposedly all fighting against. If not done properly, even the most well-meaning can begin to feel personally attacked, become uncomfortable, and subvert the entire conversation.
George Yancy does a great job of holding a mirror up to the individual white reader and explaining that they are in fact part and parcel of white supremacy. Their elevated status in society only exists because of black people’s inferior status. In that way, we are actually yoked to each other. As a white person, you are privileged as long as I am underprivileged. You are at the top only because I was placed at the bottom. You invented the label of “nig***” for people like me so that you could feel superior. Without something or someone to feel superior to, you would only be average. My suffering cradles your very self-esteem in its palms.
Our discomfort is parallel to your comfort. We are oppressed so that YOU can have a better life.
So no matter how well we articulate the truth, how gently, or softly, or academically, how much we scrub it clean of the vulgarity and profanity that offends sensibilities and anger that chills to the bone, it is difficult for you to ingest. It is not the way the truth is spoken, but the fact that the truth is spoken, as well as the truth itself, that makes you uncomfortable. That’s because truth, the reality of injustice, is inherently disconcerting to those who were raised ignorant or in denial about how they are complicit. Anti-racism is a lifelong process of re-education, it is less of a destination and more of a journey. Discomfort along the way, especially white discomfort, is both vital and inevitable, because there is a power imbalance seeking to be restored.
Did you know that we, that I, live in perpetual discomfort? Comfort does not exist for me. It never has and it never will. I marvel at the thought that you even know what comfort feels like. I always assumed it is something you feel when you get to heaven. So when you tell me that my spoken truth made you uncomfortable, or go a step further to say it made you feel unsafe, I’m a little thrown off. You glimpsed the eternal state of my being and recoiled in agony? You dipped a pinky toe into the waters where I drown slowly and complain that it is too cold for you? And now you expect…sympathy from me? You are comfortable all the rest of the time because I am uncomfortable. That is our parasitic relationship, thanks to your lovely ancestors and your amazing government and your wonderful media and your phenomenal police force.
Now let’s delve into the ways I suffer for making you uncomfortable. When you utter that magic word, I get called into the HR office. I get told that I need to work on my communication skills, and I need to learn time and place. I earn a reputation. When I continue to speak my truth, and to be myself, I get reminded of what “professionalism” entails, how it guarantees the security of white employees in the workplace, and how I will need “parameters” to govern my interactions. When I make you uncomfortable, you make me even more uncomfortable. You placate me with your fake smiles and your pleasantries and your compliments of my outfits, then passive aggressively undermine me. You remind me that there is no escaping you, that you will be there in every workplace in America, and then, when I run to other white dominated countries because after all, they are “first world”, you will be there to greet me once again with open arms.
But let’s not talk about me for a second. Let me illustrate how white discomfort has real implications for black people who are already uncomfortable. I witnessed a court session recently. We were asked to turn out to support the family of the accused who would be attending his sentencing that day. He was supposed to hear the judge tell him exactly how long he would remain in prison for, but that had to be postponed. Why? Because his lawyer called the Probation officer who recommended a sentence of 25 years, and allegedly asked her how she could sleep at night. They had a 45 minute conversation, during which she secretly began taking notes. She testified that he said that she would walk into the courtroom for the sentencing and it would be packed with the defendant’s family, and they would all know that she was the one who recommended 25 years. She lamented to the judge that it made her uncomfortable.
The lawyer categorically denied the exact phrasing of his statements, the judge questioned his credibility and decided that further action must be taken, in the form of possibly having him removed from the case and reporting his actions to the Bar. As for the defendant, a black man who sat there shackled watching the whole thing, he would return to his jail cell with the same uncertainty he left with. The judge advised the family not to expect the next hearing to be scheduled within a month, since the court’s schedule was packed. The defendant’s family left in tears, and the uncomfortable white Probation officer left with the comfort of knowing that such a dire obstruction of justice had been settled. The real crime here was challenging her judgement, questioning her character, suggesting that she should feel the slightest ounce of shame, and stating that the defendant’s family may not like her very much. The real crime, as we see time and time again, was making a white person uncomfortable.