Talking racism; Or, Getting Under Someone’s Skin

by Tom Idema

If you really want to
get under someone’s skin, reduce everything he does or says to the color of his
skin. Being labeled “white” takes away the comforts of unmarked personhood: the
conditions that allow oneself to simply be a person, a human being, general and
unspecific. Furthermore, to many, whiteness conjures up histories of violence
that shatter the image of the West as the pinnacle of civilization. These
histories, in the plural, render the past uninhabitable—they problematize the cultural imaginary of a singular
national history as a solid ground for ethnic identity. At the other side of
the equation, being labeled “colored” can be interpreted as a reminder that the
privilege of abstract, unmarked personhood is ultimately unattainable, due to
the natural fact of one’s bodily color. And here too, history is evoked as a
site of struggle, a history that all too easily marks the subject in question
as victim. The widespread, common-sense response to racism, then, is not just
to avoid it, but to deny it. When it comes to talking racism, everybody loses. 

image

If you really want to
get under someone’s skin, reduce everything he does or says to the color of his
skin. Being labeled “white” takes away the comforts of unmarked personhood: the
conditions that allow oneself to simply be a person, a human being, general and
unspecific. Furthermore, to many, whiteness conjures up histories of violence
that shatter the image of the West as the pinnacle of civilization. These
histories, in the plural, render the past uninhabitable—they problematize the cultural imaginary of a singular
national history as a solid ground for ethnic identity. At the other side of
the equation, being labeled “colored” can be interpreted as a reminder that the
privilege of abstract, unmarked personhood is ultimately unattainable, due to
the natural fact of one’s bodily color. And here too, history is evoked as a
site of struggle, a history that all too easily marks the subject in question
as victim. The widespread, common-sense response to racism, then, is not just
to avoid it, but to deny it. When it comes to talking racism, everybody loses.

But getting under our skin is just what
Ta-Nehisi Coates wants to achieve in his 2015 manifesto-cum-epistolary
non-fiction book Between the World and Me.
Coates, MacArthur Genius Award-winning
journalist of The Atlantic,
has found a way to turn his anger about racism in US society into a form that
is at times literary. Addressed to his 14 year-old son, and written in the
second person, the author awkwardly relates to the reader as a father. I would
argue that it is Coats’s ability to bring racism to life through a combination
of writing strategies—dramatic anecdotes, historical surveys, news facts, and
passionate appeals—that has led to the wide acclaim for his book, which won the
2015 National Book award
 and was a finalist for the 2016 Pullitzer
prize
.

Unavoidably, I think,
the mixing of history and autobiography, factual analysis and passionate critique,
gets under the skin of some commentators. Perhaps it is a common response to this
kind of text: who are you to tell me about my world, my society? Writing for
The Guardian, Sukhdev Sandhu complains that “his
prose seems increasingly ventriloquized and his insistence
on Afro-American exceptionalism a kind of parochialism
”.  In a review in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani observes that “There is
a Manichaean tone to some of the passages in this book, and at times, a
hazardous tendency to generalize
”. Even if we acknowledge these criticisms, I think they
expose a practical impossibility of being African-American: one must vanish
into the melting pot (rather than promote racial exceptionalism and
parochialism), but one must also refrain from “generalizing”—laying claim on Americanness.

Critics are
right that Coates is unabashedly inward looking, culturally as well as
personally, and that the book is not without elements of self-aggrandizement. Coates
deliberately projects himself on the firmament of Afro-American cultural,
academic and political icons, quoting from W.E.B. Dubois, James Baldwin,
Richard Wright, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, Nas, and KRS one. His happy
reminiscences of his time as a student at the predominantly black Howard
University are indeed parochial, celebrating his love and knowledge of
literature, philosophy, history, and other fields. Having learned about
Coates’s tough early life in the streets of Baltimore,  one can imagine the exhilaration of being
able to follow one’s curiosity while feeling safe, at home.

But besides
the many citations, Coates also invents aphorisms of his own. Here’s one: “Race is the child of racism, not the father” (7). Paraphrasing
virtually all the canonical Afro-American thinkers, Coates hammers home the
point that the color of one’s skin and the texture of one’s hair only come to
be connoted as negative because of racist ideology. He reminds us that if racism makes no sense from the vantage point of liberal
democracy. At the same time, however, Between
the World and Me
shows that racism literally makes sense: it is a key marker of difference that allows us to
create cultural, social, economic, and psychological meanings. Both capitalism
and the state were built on and through racism, and the strategy of racism denial
has been essential for these systems to keep functioning in the wake of the
abolition of slavery and the various emancipatory waves. The sorting mechanisms
of our societal systems (who gets to be, have, do, and say what) still work on
the software of racism (and sexism), disguised as the hardware of race (and
sex).

Coates has understood
well the necessity of writing a book on racism that is both rhetorically
appealing and palatable to a large audience. The aesthetic dimension is just as
important as the message: “poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and
useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words
were not separate from loose and useless thoughts” (510). The paradox is that
exactly by bringing in literary suppleness and subtlety, Coates has been able
to communicate the raw violence of racism in the US.

image

Even if not all ideas in
Between the World and Me are
refreshing, the creative weaving together of history and biography, literature
and manifesto, is compelling, and the appeal to talking about racism again is
urgent considering the continued devaluation of non-white lives in the US and
elsewhere. For Coates, the most pernicious idea is the belief in our own
innocence, the unquestioned, simple rationality of one’s own ideas, and
ultimately the idea of just being oneself.
If race is not of our own making, the same goes for our ideas about race: they are
the products of impersonal systems. And so an honest appreciation of the problem
of racism does not so much require moral introspection: “’Good intention’ is a
hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream” (33). An
honest appreciation of the problem of racism, instead, means reading, writing, talking,
producing, buying, voting, governing, and so on, in full awareness of racial
inequality as constitutive of US society. Thus, the white American may
recognize that his father is, at least in part, black.

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