A couple of weeks ago, I sat on a Black History Month panel along with Supriya Dwivedi, Sylvia Maracle, and Nikki Clarke. It was a pretty awesome panel, and one wherein Ms. Clarke, president of the Ontario Black History Society, gave us the priceless phrase "Black is the new Black." After we finished the recording, Nikki asked if I'd be interested in joining OBHS and helping to revitalize the organization. I'm not sure all of the words had left her mouth before I said yes.
If there's one thing that black people who do any sort of public work understand, it's that we will get hate messages. Consistently. For activists, the annoyance is a cost of living, like mosquitoes in the summer. Tweets, emails, Facebook messages, you name it. Racial slurs, accusations of being the "real racist," being called ungrateful for being allowed to live and breathe in this great country that let runaway slaves in... after a time, all of it blends into background noise. The sound of a jackhammer and the smell of asphalt are irritating, but after weeks and weeks of outdoor construction, you hardly even notice it.
Every once in a while, a certain message stands out. Not the ones that come packaged with the threat of assault or death; those are special unto themselves and reserved primarily for women doing this difficult work. What I'm talking about are the hate messages that make you wonder, Who actually put the time and effort into writing this?
I'm talking about the long, winding blocks of text where you can feel the author pouring his—and I say his, because there is always something distinctly masculine about the arrogant tone—heart and soul into the work. And as he clicks "send," he imagines the recipient opening the message and falling to his knees as the torrent of objective facts, logic, and unnecessary ellipses annihilate their will to live.
When I said "yes" to Nikki Clarke's offer to join the Ontario Black History Society, I also said "yes" to more hate mail. As I said, I didn't give this much thought, but I suppose what surprised me the most is that the authors of OBHS's hate mail and my own hate mail don't have much overlap. I thought people involved in the type of work that I do (and I won't name them; they know who they are) absorb all of the garbage that humanity has to offer north of the 49th parallel, but there's actually a separate subset of racists who spend their free hours harassing OBHS leadership. Nikki passed one of those emails my way, and I have to admit, I'm flat-out impressed the author was able to spend this much time on a piece of writing, and get almost every fact and assumption wrong. Just flat-out wrong. And while I normally don't write back to people who want nothing more than for me to shut up and learn my place, I had to make an exception in this case.
Here is the letter, sent on Valentine's day, of all days, by a fellow claiming to go by the name of Denzil. I've added notes and corrections in situ.
I have been wondering about why Whites are racists, and no other race is......
Good start, Denzil. Before you hit your first set of ellipses, there are already two false assumptions to unpack: 1) That such a thing as "Race" exists, and 2) Among the taxonomy of races, there is one group that can definitively be called "White." I could also make the argument for a third false assumption, 3) That you don't actually wonder why "Whites" are racists, and no other race is. If you did, in fact, wonder why whites are the only race exercising racism, the following would be an analysis of white supremacy, colonialism, and class divides.
Your letter is not, in fact, an analysis of any of those things.
Proud to be White
Michael Richards, better known as Kramer from TV's Seinfeld, does make a good point. This was his defense speech in court after making racial comments in his comedy act. He makes some very interesting points...
This is false. Snopes has the full rundown on this hoax, but to make it brief, Michael Richards did not go to court for this trainwreck. He did not launch into a passionate speech in defense of whiteness, like some reverse-Flash version of Atticus Finch. What he did was appear on David Letterman and deliver this bizarre stemwinder of an apology before disappearing forevermore. But let's go with the Earth-2 Michael Richards for a minute:
There are African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Arab Americans, etc. And then there are just Americans.
If there is one central feature of white supremacy that will never not be funny, it's the unspoken demand that white people be considered the default population of western nations, coupled with the confusion that nonwhite groups would also use words to describe themselves. As though Mexican and Asian and Arab Americans aren't looking forward to the day when they can be "just Americans" too. But let's keep it moving.
You pass me on the street and sneer in my direction. You call me 'White boy,' 'Cracker,' 'Honkey,' 'Whitey,' 'Caveman'... and that's OK..
But when I call you, Ni**er, Coon, Towel head, Camel Jockey, Beaner, Gook, or Chink .... you call me a racist.
Let's put aside the fact that I don't believe black people are going out of their way to call you—among all of the white people they encounter on a day-to-day basis—a "cracker" or a "honkey."
Let's also put aside the fact that prejudice, discrimination, and racism are not synonyms.
Where did you get the idea that anyone would consider that OK? When I was about 12 years old, I got into a scrap with one of my white classmates. I don't even remember what it was about, but a bit of shoving in the change room led to a brawl that spilled into the hallway. Later that day in the principal's office, my gym teacher explained to my parents that it wasn't just the fight that was so out of character for me, but my use of the word "white boy" among other curses.
At no point during this conversation did either of my parents contest the need to apologize for both the fight and calling that boy's whiteness to attention. And I'm positive that, had I called him a cracker, honkey, whitey, caveman, ofay, oyinbo, or otherwise, I'd have to apologize for that too. And I'd have to do it for the same reason you'd be called a racist for using that kind of language. Because calling people by derogatory names makes you an asshole. So just why are you so eager to be an asshole?
You say that whites commit a lot of violence against you... so why are the ghettos the most dangerous places to live?
Well Denzil, violent crime is most often a matter of proximity. Ever heard the phrase "familiarity breeds contempt"? As it turns out, after centuries of enslavement and state violence against black people, decades of plunder of black wealth and resources, and herding black people into the least desirable neighborhoods, the byproducts of poverty and trauma emerge. Hence, crime in the ghettos. Black people tend to live near each other, and thus tend to commit crimes where it's convenient to do so. But this isn't unique to black people; violence against white people is, for the most part, committed by other white people. But I suppose that depends on what you consider dangerous, and to whom. I grew up in a neighborhood you might consider "ghetto," and I feel perfectly safe walking around at night.
You have the United Negro College Fund. You have Martin Luther King Day.
You have Black History Month. You have Cesar Chavez Day. You have Yom Hashoah. You have Ma'uled Al-Nabi.
You have the NAACP. You have BET....
I know, right? All of these things are awesome.
If we had WET (White Entertainment Television), we'd be racists. If we had a White Pride Day, you would call us racists.
If we had White History Month, we'd be racists.
If we had any organization for only whites to 'advance' OUR lives, we'd be racists.
Well Denzil, White pride days do exist. For example, St. Patrick's Day and Columbus Day.
Yes, yes, Irish and Italians were once not considered to be white. Well, as the dark art of white supremacy worked its inexorable magic, Irish and Italians enjoy the full faith and credit of whiteness. White pride month also exists, and it's called Oktoberfest. White entertainment television exists, and it's called television. And organizations do exist to advance your lives; in most western countries, they are known as the right wing.
We have a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a Black Chamber of Commerce, and then we just have the plain Chamber of Commerce. Wonder who pays for that??
Uh... local businesses pay for the chambers of commerce to which they belong? Was this a trick question?
A white woman could not be in the Miss Black American pageant, but any color can be in the Miss America pageant.
I sense a pattern here.
Non-white women were barred from participating in the Miss America pageant until the late 1950s. The first black pageant contestant didn't show up until 1970, two years after the first Miss Black America pageant. The first black woman to win the tiara, Vanessa Williams, did so in 1984. White people have had a pretty good run of celebrating their beauty to the exclusion of all others, and now have the fashion industry and the internet itself putting in some heavy lifting. In the meantime, do you think black people should just sit on our hands until white-run organizations acknowledge the beauty of black women?
As it stands now, when the beauty of black women isn't being maligned, or stolen from, it is seldom recognized. So what, precisely, is your problem here? That we call black women pretty? Or that black people carve out spaces for ourselves? This is actually a question that's nagged at me for some time. What is it with white people, having already enjoyed the benefit of exclusive socioeconomic spaces for centuries, all while inflicting violence and trauma on other groups, needing access to spaces those groups created for themselves?
If we had a college fund that only gave white students scholarships... You know we'd be racists.
Well, yeah. Even other white people have a problem with that.
There are over 60 openly proclaimed Black Colleges in the US ... Yet if there were 'White Colleges,' that would be a racist college.
Yes, there are Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) in the US. They are called Historically Black Colleges and Universities because they were the institutions, at the time in history when they were founded, that provided higher education for black Americans who were discriminated against and even barred from entry to—check this out—primarily white institutions.
By the way, if you'd like to attend an HBCU, there's certainly nothing stopping you. They have always accepted non-black applicants. You should go visit one, the parties are lit.
In the Million Man March, you believed that you were marching for your race and rights. If we marched for our race and rights, you would call us racists.
You are proud to be black, brown, yellow, and orange, and you're not afraid to announce it. But when we announce our white pride, you call us racists.
That probably has something to do with a reliably horrific history of violent hate crimes happening right after white people announce their white pride.
You rob us, carjack us, and shoot at us. But, when a white police officer shoots a Black gang member or beats up a Black drug dealer running from the law and posing a threat to society, you call him a racist.
Me, as in me personally? Listen, my car insurance is high enough as is, without tacking grand theft on my record. But I assume by "you," you mean "you people."
Well here's the thing. If a black person robbed you, carjacked you, or shot you, I think we can agree your hypothetical criminal wouldn't be feted by the community. He wouldn't be celebrated as a defender of the law, and teachers certainly wouldn't show up to your niece's classroom with T-shirts bearing his name. He'd very likely go to jail. And we probably wouldn't like him very much.
And here's the thing about police officers—we trust them with badges and weapons because we hold them to a much higher standard than we do robbers and gunmen. We trust that, when confronted with a choice to use violence against a suspect or de-escalate in a way that everyone goes home (or to jail) alive and unharmed, they would choose the latter. This is what we, the governed, consent to when we dress a man in a uniform and call him an officer of the law.
But hey, you may believe the purpose of a lawman is to punish and kill. Agree to disagree.
I am proud.... But you call me a racist.
Well, I'm not sure. I've met proud Brits, proud Australians, proud Italians, Irish, Ukranians, Russians, Quebecois, and otherwise. I've met plenty white people proud of their white backgrounds, and I don't consider them racists. If it were agreed that national pride is inherently racist, we'd have much more to talk about this Olympic season than mosquitoes being the most fucking awful creatures on this earth.
But of course, that's not what you're talking about. You're not referring to national pride; you're referring to racial pride. And now we're back to square one. Against historical and scientific evidence, you believe race exists, and that within the taxonomies of race, there is a clearly defined subset that can be properly called "white."
You subscribe to the religion of white supremacy, read from the catechisms of racecraft, and fault me for not being a believer. You're not "proud," Denzil. What you are is a zealot. And race zealots have, for me and everyone who looks like me, had a profound genocidal impact for centuries. So as to your statement that I call you a racist: if the hood fits, wear it.
Why is it that only whites can be racists??
Because, as a much smarter man than me once said, they think they are white.
There is nothing improper about this e-mail...
IT SHOULD BE OK ALSO TO BE PROUD TO BE WHITE!
Think of passing these edited more reasoned thoughts on.
While I'm not sure what to make of the last part of your email, Denzil, I think I've done far more than my part to pass edited and reasoned thoughts on.
And on a parting note, I really hope you enjoyed the attention. All hate mail, from this point forward, will be answered either with dick jokes or silence.
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