“Why do white people like what I write? How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you?” – Ta-Nehisi Coates
“Are these “woke” White people really WOKE? Or do they just love White-peopling Black cultural events?” – Humble Vito
This past Friday I was supposed be at Riverside Church to see Michelle Alexander interview Angela Davis. It had been on the calendar for about a month, but shit was blowing up at home and I was scrambling to figure out how to work my day. It didn’t help that I was hearing from people all day; people calling to warn me to drop whatever work I had going on and get there EARLY.
Like, 2 hours early.
“And just because I made a reservation, didn’t mean I was going to get in.”
“It was going to be packed out.”
“We need to get good seats. Right up front. Not get left out.”
Oh, and all these people who were blowing up my phone about getting there early were White.
Just two days prior, I read Humble Vito’s post “Woke Wypipo” and I couldn’t shake the questions he was asking. Then on Thursday, I finished Coates’ intro to “Fear of a Black President” in Eight Years We Were in Power:
“A question-from other black writers and readers and a voice inside me now began to hover over my work- Why do white people like what I write? The question would eventually overshadow the work, or maybe it would just feel like it did. Either way, there was a lesson in this: God might not save me, but neither would defiance. How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you? What does the story you tell matter, if the world is set upon hearing another one?” (118)
Why DO White people like myself love Coates so much? Why did these White people insist on camping out to make sure they owned the front rows of the Angela Davis event?
I’ve been a little down the last few days, which can actually be a blessing for some solid self-reflection. So I let the chaos of my life swirl around me and I sat.
And sat some more.
And I re-read the Coates intro and Humble Vito’s post and attempted to answer some of the questions that they bring up.
And while I believe the power of some questions can live in the questions themselves, rendering them important but ultimately rhetorical, I think these questions deserve some answers.
The first question is my own, but related to Humble Vito’s noticing that at every Black-centered intellectual event he attends, White folks post up in the front rows.
What are we signaling by occupying the spaces of Black discourse?
[SideNote: This is an important distinction here that Humble Vito makes as well. White folks are typically not occupying Black social spaces. Vito says; “I mean, in my experience, Wypipo don’t generally convene where Black folks be. As a rule of thumb, Wypipo tend to stay away from places Black folk be that haven’t yet been gentrified. But at intellectual Negro shindigs there always seem to be a mass overflow of Wypipo; maybe because they love to swagger jack Black people so they can appropriate our culture for monetary gain.” I’ll refer to these spaces as spaces of Black discourse. But we’re acknowledging the same trend.]
When I was a teenager I remember lining up for (Extreme Whiteness Drumroll….) Tori Amos tickets. Don’t know who Tori Amos is? You’re probably not a suburban White woman who came of age in the 90’s. Forget that- (no please, I beg you, forget it) and join me in remembering a concert you lined up to get tickets for. Where did that level of devotion come from? For me, it was about feeling like the songs belonged to me- like they were written for me- and being in the front rows would prove my devotion not just to the artist but to the world. There is also the fact that if I’m in the front row, nobody else is. I’ve won. I’ve signaled in the clearest way possible that I’m the biggest fan, bigger than you, and you, and definitely you all the way up in the nosebleeds.
So with that logic applied, I notice how insidious and undermining Whiteness is in spaces of Black discourse. Whiteness, rooted in capitalism and ownership, does not really know how to be a guest. Whiteness only knows how to be an invader. Also, our particular strand of White supremacy here in the U.S. is literally rooted in ownership of Black bodies. So why shouldn’t we own the front rows? The discourse? Black music? Style? Hair? Dialect? We inherited this legacy.
If I like it- it should be mine.
It belongs to me.
And this brings me to Coates’ question: How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you?
I felt a deep and genuine sadness when I read this question. (Not the White-woman tears, hand-wringing, whaddoido?? sadness- I promise.) Sadness because the question invokes a cycle that seems unbreakable. The more defiant Coates is, the more liberal Whiteness claims him.
Black resistance is harvested and consumed, nourishing the same White supremacy it intends to defy.
And Humble Vito asks us;
“What exactly are these Wypipo in the crowd taking away from this conversation? What were they internalizing about the status of Black America and our discontent with White supremacy and White people?”
I can’t answer these questions definitively. I don’t know if making assumptions about every White person having a monolithic experience of Black discourse is particularly helpful, even though I’m as guilty of generalizing as the next guy. Also, I have come to believe that White supremacy is something we embody, and that we all have a range of ways we can embody White supremacy or anti-racism, even in a given day. So what I can offer is this:
If we as White folks are operating from a place of Whiteness, we are taking away a sense of ownership and participation in Black discourse. We are proving to ourselves, our social media feeds, our families and friends, just how woke we truly are.
We are signaling our virtue.
Now I don’t think White folks need to stay away from spaces of discourse around the Black experience. I genuinely and fully believe in the need for truth-telling and White listening. Nothing about my life would be the same without it. But I think we can do a better job asking ourselves this question when we enter a Black space:
Am I here as invader, tourist or guest?
This is a question posed by sci-fi writer and blogger Nisi Shawl. I love the essay this question is pulled from, and you can find it here.
Shawl is writing from her perspective as an author that envisions and creates universes. And isn’t that what we do as anti-racist communities? Don’t we ask questions to imagine universes and worlds yet unseen and unlived? And I know that may sound like a stretch, but I genuinely believe that we cannot imagine a new collective relationship between Black and Latino people and White folks until we deeply understand, then scrap most of what has narrated that story in the past.
And lest I leave without some ideas for good places for us White folks to start, I’d invite anyone to add to this very partial list of things I’ve tried after consuming some kind of Black excellence; be it in the form of a talk, a book, an article, a panel, a song, a film, a friend telling me some shit over dinner, etc.:
- Call your mom. I love to talk to my mom and step-dad about Black excellence in all of its forms (intellectual, artistic, etc.) and I think my family is my first line of responsibility in anti-racist work.
- Attend spaces of Black discourse with a Black or Latino friend. (Don’t have any? Make some! People are awesome. Just be cool. Don’t try too hard and keep the receipt-pageanting to a minimum. [Receipt-pageanting is when we White folks dress our anti-racist receipts up like pageant contestants and march them across the stage for all to see.])
- We can frame how we talk about the excellent talk, article, song, etc. from a place of humility. The Latin root of humility is humilis which just means “low.” The easiest way to test our humility when we’re talking about something is to see if we’ve made ourselves BIG or small in the context of the story. Like; “FINALLY, someone manages to articulate the impossible paradox of Obama’s presidency like I was saying all along!- Well done, Coates!” Content: anti-racist. Form: racist.
- Do nothing.
This may sound strange but I mean it. There’s a scene from the movie Malcolm X where a White girl walks up to Malcolm and says something about how much she supports and gets behind his mission. Then she asks what she can do, and he says; “Nothing.” Doing nothing is an action. Choosing NOT to speak, not to insert ourselves or to invade, not to post pics of ourselves at the latest Black-centered event, not to have all the answers, to not sit in the front row, not tell people what to think, do or say, to give love not advice… are all possible ways we potentially do more by doing nothing.
One thing that I’m so grateful for in this otherwise shitty week is the opportunity to be pushed to better understand my own motives- to truly examine what seeds I’m watering when I do what I do as a White person. Where am I operating from? And what am I doing with the information I’m gaining?
Shout out to Humble Vito and Ta-Nehisi Coates for the gift of desperation this week.
Once we dig down to the deepest point, there’s nowhere to go but up.