Tag Archives: discrimination

The Moderate Protester

Some of what’s said at protests makes me uncomfortable. Why, as a leader, It’s not my job to “police” others’ anger

My maternal grandfather, the late Oscar Stewart, served seventeen years as the chief of police at Texas Christian University. A black man in charge of the TCU campus police force, the flags at TCU flew at half-staff when he died, in 2013. While in college I drove to Fort Worth and spent a weekend with him. We played a couple rounds of golf, his favorite post-basketball pastime; on the course we ran into some of his white former police colleagues. They shook my hand and, laughing, told me to root for Missouri less–and TCU more. I was 20, six feet tall, and black, yet those chuckling white, Texas-accented men on the golf course made no attempt to make me feel less human.

I struggle when I hear protestors chant “fuck the police.” I struggle when all cops get thrown under the proverbial bus. I understand, though, where that feeling comes from. My life experience–having lots of white friends and being treated mostly well in society–must not be used, by myself or anyone else, as a weapon against other black and brown folks speaking their truths.
Since Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown on August 9th, I’ve emerged as one of Denver’s leaders in the fight to end systemic police violence and brutality. We’ve held rallies, forums, protests at grocery stores, and marches through the streets.

You name it, and we’ve heard it. There are those who believe in respectability politics—that “black people must love ourselves before the police or white people can love us.” There are those who want us to “be more like Martin and less like Malcolm.” We are often implored to “stop killing each other first.” Self-proclaimed leaders have called for calm, for us not to show too much passion, because it will scare moderate white people away from our side.

And we’ve heard that all police are evil, that voting is useless, that black pastors are worthless, that “we should be openly violent in return.”

Never mind that calm protest has never changed anything. Never mind that black people who kill other black people get thrown in jail, unlike cops who kill unarmed teenagers. Never mind that we needed both Dr. King and Malcolm X, and that they were not as far apart as their posthumous caricatures suggest. Never mind that passionate nonviolent protest—and, frankly, the looting—is what made Ferguson into a national story in the first place.

This is not an argument for moderation. We have had enough of that.

Those of us with a propensity towards moderation—towards decorum, towards respectability—I implore you–us–to hold it in. Black people are being killed. This is no time to be calm. This is a time to disrupt, a time to move beyond silence.
Some have called on myself and other leaders to “control the message” at these events. We have our opinions on what works best, but rather than unilaterally deciding, I invite a broader, truly democratic conversation on best practices.

As soon as we in leadership positions tell other people how to feel, we are lost.
If you don’t like “fuck the police” as a chant, get some friends together and start “black lives matter.” If large numbers of people would rather chant the former, be honest with yourself that maybe that’s not the rally for you. That’s okay. There are events at which I don’t feel comfortable.

And lastly, to my white protesting family: By now, you’ve likely read articles about why “all lives matter” isn’t the point. Black lives are the ones in question. I ask you, here, to evaluate how often you take the bullhorn or microphone. If you’re frustrated with black people who don’t seem radical enough, remember that we are more likely to have police retaliate against us and/or keep us in jail longer.

But at an event, I’m not going to tell you what to do. If you want to do that work on your own, it will be warmly welcomed.

It is often said that we have to work together for this movement to work. Indeed. But “working together” doesn’t mean silencing anyone who disagrees with us. Working together doesn’t mean men silencing women. Working together doesn’t mean older civil rights activists running over younger ones. Working together doesn’t mean white people taking the mic or otherwise telling black folks how to respond.

Working together means understanding not just how each of us is disadvantaged but also how we are privileged. Working together means knowing when to talk, and when to listen. Working together means having hard conversations.

I am a moderate protester. It is an honor to march with ‘radicals’ as well as (relative) conservatives. We are showing up, and it’s a start—though we have more work to do, both within and without.

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Dreaming of Heroes

“Dad, what in the world am I supposed to say to him? He talks to world leaders!”
“How about ‘hello’?”
I sat at a table with my father at a Washington, D.C. restaurant, but eating felt like an impossibility. Nerves overtook me. I felt sick.

In an hour, I’d be meeting the president of the United States.

Never had I been more nervous. My dad, a former Clinton employee from the late 70s, had received an invitation to the White House from his old boss. All of eleven, I joined him.

As a child my friends read comics; I read little history books. Children’s stories of civil rights leaders, of women like Ida B. Wells and Susan B. Anthony, and American icons littered my room. The women and men in those stories kept me up at night. How did Harriet Tubman not lose hope? How did Rosa Parks get her courage? What gave FDR strength?

Maybe most children don’t pore over books about women’s suffrage, but nearly every young person spends time dreaming of heroes.

Back then I made little distinction between mainstream, elected leaders—like President Clinton—and those who challenged the status quo, often at great cost.

After meeting President Clinton in the Oval Office, I decided I’d go into politics. I wanted to be, I told my mom, a “real-life superhero.” And, as I became a teenager, even through bouts of severe depression, that hope persisted.

In my sophomore year of high school Spider-Man 2 came out; one scene still gives me chils. Many know it as the ‘Aunt May scene.’ Peter Parker asks her why a neighborhood boy, Henry, wants to be Spider-Man. She replies:

He knows a hero when he sees one. Too few characters out there flying around like that, saving old girls like me. And Lord knows, kids like Henry need a hero. Courageous, self-sacrificing people. Setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer.
I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.

“I believe there’s a hero in all of us.” It’s that line that has, over the years, kept me believing. But Aunt May got a couple things wrong.

When a person is truly courageous and self-sacrificing, they draw disdain, even rage. Everyone may love Dr. King now—or, at least, love to quote him, no matter their political views—but in life, many reviled him. When Dr. King spoke out against the war in Vietnam, other black leaders criticized him, and President Johnson felt betrayed.

A hero cannot be in it because she wants people to line up for her, cheer her, scream her name. Whether it’s in comics or in real human rights movements, heroes are not celebrated. Heroes are despised. Heroes are ignored and, so often, unknown. And sometimes, heroes are killed.

To be a hero means speaking truth to power. Heroes advocate for freedom, not the status quo; for hope, not hate; for the presence of justice, not the absence of tension. Heroes call us to be better versions of ourselves.

Here at the end of 2014, I find myself, again, dreaming of heroes. I look around at the public sphere and, at first glance, I don’t see many. The actions of officials—local and state—in Missouri surrounding the Ferguson situation have been troubling. A ‘peace’ “won” with tanks and riot gear is no peace at all. Too many appear more interested in policing the actions of poor and working-class blacks than with working with them to help improve their lives.

While politicians get the credit, they have almost never been the true heroes. The Kennedy brothers and Johnson were good-hearted men—men who waited a long time to get involved in civil rights issues. They did so because they were pushed and prodded, by Dr. King and by thousands of others. Black people (and a few white ones) were being attacked and sometimes lynched, and yet they waited, because they feared losing the South.

I met one of my childhood heroes, Bill Clinton. I later learned he was willing to hurt people by cutting (though he called it reforming) welfare. He was willing to compromise and buy into—or at least not challenge–myths about people, from poor blacks to folks in the LGBT community—to score political victories.
Mr. Clinton was incredibly kind to me in the White House that day in 1999. By most accounts, he genuinely loves people. But is he a hero? Is Barack Obama? Are any politicians? I’m not sure.

I don’t think (most) politicians are evil. Politics is complicated, and messy, and requires compromise. Yet I still dream of heroes.

And if we look harder, we will find them—being shouted at, harassed online, and ignored or shamed or misunderstood by the public. There’s one other thing Aunt May got wrong: heroes need not give up their dreams. Heroes inspire us to join their dreams.

Frederick Douglass dreamed of a day when black folks could truly celebrate the Fourth of July. Sojourner Truth dreamed her society might answer her “Yes!” when she asked, “Ain’t I a woman?” Mary White Ovington dreamed her white people such as herself would join the struggle for racial equality. Ida B. Wells dreamed of a nation without lynching. James Weldon Johnson dreamed we might ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.’ At the March on Washington, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson implored Dr. King to “tell ’em about the dream, Martin.”

And today: sportswriter Jessica Luther dreams of a sports world without intimate partner violence and with people in power who believe the victims. Elon James White dreams that men will take responsibility for their public actions. Anita Sarkeesian and others dream of a gaming community less hostile to women.

The day after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, I scoured the Internet every five minutes to see if someone in Denver had organized a vigil or protest to honor Mr. Brown’s life. I checked church websites and searched on Twitter. Nothing. Finally, I saw one. I tweeted out seeing if anyone would join us in a peaceful vigil.

A few people responded. We’d meet near Civic Center Park. I told my roommate Kierstin about it, and ten minutes later, she came downstairs with markers and posters. “Let’s make signs.”

That first night, there were nine of us out there. Numerous cars honked their support. Two people heckled us. Bolstered by Kierstin’s support, we kept tweeting. A few days later, over 100 showed up for a vigil. A few days later we held a march through Denver in solidarity with the Ferguson protestors, at least 300 strong.

On those days, and many since, Kierstin has been a hero. I’ve met many others. They are not famous. Many do not have official titles and positions. But from them I have learned: heroism means showing up. Heroism means pushing officials to do better, to be better, to build a more inclusive world.

Our country, our world–we need leadership. We need heroes. This can be done without hating the “other side.” It can be done through love, even of our adversaries. But it cannot be done without the willingness to be despised, to be heckled, to be ignored.

After all this time, I still dream of heroes. And despite the hateful rhetoric, despite the fear that rules so many, I still believe there’s a hero in all of us.

Who Are My People? A Black Unitarian Universalist on Selma and Ferguson

“Man, I don’t have any people. I’m with everybody, Julius.”
–Louie Lastik, Remember the Titans

Wintertime in Houston sneaks up on you. As children we sweated in our Halloween costumes and, some years, played the big Thanksgiving Day basketball game in shorts. That first 40-degree day in early December alerted us it was time to ask our parents for money for Christmas shopping.

It was such a 40-degree day in my ninth year, a Sunday, when an adult said words that still stick with me.
“It means so much that your family worships here with us, Kenneth. It shows how far your people have come.”

Baffled doesn’t quite say it.
I thought the folks at church were my people.

I am a proud lifelong Unitarian Universalist. My roommates will tell you that some days I sing Spirit of Life to myself as I make breakfast. Coming of Age and YRUU summer camps brought me ever-mingled comfort and stress.

I am also black. The struggle for black freedom has long held a grip on my soul. In adolescence not even complicated high school romance got me feeling quite like Toni Morrison and Lorraine Hansberry could.

I love being Unitarian Universalist—I think.
I love being black—I know.

During college I joined a great UU congregation. They were thrilled to have me, and I them. Older adults had me over for dinner and looked out for me on campus. When my mom died, church staff and members alike wrote cards and weren’t afraid to ask me how I was doing.
There were also only two black men active in the church, and the other gentleman’s first name was my last. Though he was older than my father, it took some folks two years to stop getting us confused. Sometimes it was funny and sometimes it hurt, but it always reminded me that I was not fully at home.

In Soul Work: Anti-racist Theologies in Dialogue, UU minister and scholar Rosemary Bray McNatt relays the story of the time she talked for an hour with Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. King.
Mrs. King told Rev. Bray McNatt, “Oh, I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin. And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston.”

Mrs. King continued, “We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.”

The first time I read that, during my failed attempt to do seminary and become a UU minister, tears came down my face like a mighty stream. Night after night I read that passage from Rev. Bray McNatt’s chapter in the book. Night after night I wept.

I cried because I understood. I understood why they would choose to root themselves in a black church, and with a suffering God who could help black people and tell them He would never forsake them or give up on them, even in death.

I teared up also because I’ve often wished I could leave UUism. Sometimes I feel so alone because of race. I need church, though; almost by default, this faith is my religious home. I believe in God, but don’t call God ‘He.’ Unless Jesus somehow finds me, I cannot in good conscience join a Christian church.

Experience has taught me that being black and UU means feeling great most of the time, yet waiting for the next microaggression, the next moment of non-belonging. It is to feel profoundly uncomfortable in the midst of the familiar.

Growing up I needed to figure out how to navigate a mostly white society that accepted me quite warmly, so long as I did little to rock the boat. I had no real black community to help me out, save for a few friends and two extended family members. Talking about race with many white UUs too often means shouldering their insecurities, patiently answering their questions, making the fight for racial justice appear warm and inviting.

It isn’t.

On Facebook I am quite active; on Twitter, I have few followers and mostly listen/read. I follow young adult activists who fight for racial equality, champion black feminism, and struggle for change. Mostly they are people of color, often also members of the LGBTQ community. They are not conciliatory. They regularly call white people out, challenge PoC men’s sexism, and support one another.
They live out theologian Allan Boesak’s words from The Courage to be Black: “No one person has the right to take our life into their hands, and to exercise the power to give our life to us or to withhold it from us.”

For them the way is clear and straightforward, albeit difficult. For them white people, even (or perhaps especially) well-meaning white liberals, mostly get in the way, re-center themselves, and derail conversations. These folks are mostly done with the mainstream society that blindly trusts conventional authority. I mostly agree with their analysis and support them with favorites, retweets, and small financial contributions.

All the community they need is with each other.

Nothing is so straightforward for me. Most people in my life are white. I cannot so easily dismiss them, nor do I want to. White individuals have caused me stress, and others have been there for me. White people have told me awful race jokes I never again want to hear, and white people have marched alongside me at rallies and protests.

Some may read this as internalized racial oppression. It is. I am shaped by my upbringing. Many privileged black folks revel in being accepted by white America, in opting out of blackness (see: Raven Symone and Pharrell). I want no such thing. I am black and proud; being authentically black, for me, means something a bit different.

When Mike Brown was killed by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in August, something fundamentally shifted within. I felt called to act, to organize rallies and vigils in Denver.

Planning those rallies terrified me, but not because I feared the inevitable white backlash. I worried that I wasn’t “black enough.” I thought my being a Unitarian Universalist would put me on the margins of the movement.

I was wrong.

A black, Christian pastor I met at a Denver rally said to me, “As long as you’re not ashamed of your blackness, you can be one of them and one of us at the same time.”

And so it is.

At rallies for racial justice in Denver, UU ministers and laypeople have shown up. I have looked out and seen “my people.” They are black folks and white UUs.

This is, it seems, less true nationally. Our faith has a complicated racial history, and a less than stellar record on race presently. St. Louis-area UUs put out a call for ministers and UUs to come to Ferguson, to be present for Ferguson October. Some, like Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley and Rev. Julie Taylor, were there and proved vital. But not enough.

Hundreds of UUs are planning to go to Selma, AL in March 2015 for the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed writes in The Selma Awakening that, after years of absence, UUs came through and journeyed to Selma. Rev. Morrison-Reed argues that in Selma, “Unitarian Universalists’ values in practice snapped into alignment with their espoused values.”

Last summer I went to Selma as part of a moving road trip through the South. With a friend I walked from Brown Chapel to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a muggy June evening. On the way we stopped at the marker honoring Rev. James Reeb, the white, Unitarian minister from Boston who was killed after answering Dr. King’s call for clergy to come to Selma.

Kneeling in front of Rev. Reeb’s marker drove me—to tears, and to an understanding of history’s importance. Finally, after ignoring the race problem for years, we showed up in Selma. But fifty years later, if we UUs show up in Selma in 2015 but not in Ferguson right now, and not for all those black and brown victims of police violence in the sadly inevitable future, we will not have learned from our past.

The harrowing truth is that I could be the next Mike Brown. My household had two parents. I have a college degree and a job. My pants don’t sag. When I’m out protesting or canvassing, though, none of that matters. I cannot opt out of blackness, and I do not want to. In the wrong situation, though, my respectable nature may not save me—from a racist police officer or citizen, nor from the ensuing character assassination. I would go from the decent, reasonably friendly guy some of you know to a mentally deranged (I have depression) Harvard dropout who was “no angel” and deserved what he got.

I know some of my people—black people—would come to my defense. Some UUs and other friends would, too. But would there be a broad movement on my behalf? Or would faith members send my dad and sisters thoughts and prayers before moving on?

These questions keep me up at night.

There are so many things to fight—and fight for—in the world. We mostly do a great job on climate justice and immigration. Our LGBTQ work has saved and changed lives. Black lives, too, are worth fighting for. When the next Ferguson happens—and sadly, it will—we can and must do more. We have to show up, be willing to follow others, and be willing to change ourselves.

Unitarian Universalists, you are my people. And UUs, my ‘other’ people—of which some of you are—need you. We need you to show up. We need you to listen and go beyond platitudes. Not everyone can travel hundreds of miles, but we can all do something—something beyond what we thought we could do. Oct. 22 is National Day Against Police Brutality, and several cities are hosting events.

The next call to action for racial justice has arrived. My people: Will we answer?

My people want to know.

Race, Power, and #CancelColbert: A Conversation with Matt Bieber

Matt Bieber over at The Wheat and Chaff is a funny, almost absurdly brilliant human being. We went to graduate school together and have engaged in some terrific discussions about gender, race, love, and more through the last two years.
Over the past couple weeks, Matt and I exchanged messages about how the media handles race, through the lens of the #CancelColbert controversy. It spawned a great conversation. I invite you to take a look.

Matt Bieber: You have some really interesting thoughts about the whole #CancelColbert episode. Can you briefly recap the sequence of events? And what did you make of Colbert’s response?

Kenny Wiley: The Colbert Report Twitter account put out a tweet referencing the bit they did lampooning Dan Snyder’s “Original Americans Foundation.” The bit used stereotypical Asian/Asian-American words, and it quickly garnered a great deal of attention. Activist Suey Park, previously known for her #NotYourAsianSidekick hashtag, took issue with what she viewed was the racism and white privilege latent in Colbert’s words, both in the skit and on Twitter, and criticized the show by, among other things, starting the #CancelColbert hashtag. It took off and became a huge story.

There are two things that make this story noteworthy to me. First, Suey Park quickly came under fire for starting #CancelColbert. She received heat from white liberals, fans of Colbert, and also from many people of color. There were several journalists and other people of color who leapt at the opportunity to dismiss Park’s claims that Colbert’s satire was ineffective and racist.

I am a Black American. I found this “ganging-up” on Park by Asians and other people of color on Twitter and other forms of social media to be fascinating and thoroughly disconcerting. I know that there exists for many of us a desire to come across as ‘reasonable’ and ‘measured’ when it comes to racial issues. We don’t want to seem angry, and mainstream America rewards those of us who maintain our composure. I argue that many writers of color used Suey Park as a device to prove their “reasonableness.”

I’ve done that in the past, and really regret it. Suey Park simply strove to begin a dialogue about the appropriateness of a rich white person, even in character, using tired stereotypes about one ethnicity to score political points. It’s been said that “good satire points up [in terms of power structures], not down.” I believe tearing down other people of color for the benefit of white people proves that these power structures exist, and also maintains them. I’m disappointed, not that people of color had the temerity to disagree with Park’s analysis, but that many did so viciously. They seemed more interested in challenging Suey Park than in analyzing Stephen Colbert’s work.

That brings me to my second thought. A narrative emerged, from white folks and people of color alike, that Suey Park and those who agree with her were “fighting the wrong battle.” Dan Snyder was let off the hook, so went the conventional wisdom, because Park directed her energy at Colbert and not at the absurdity of having an NFL team named the Washington Redskins.

This is a dangerous argument, especially coming from those white people who self-identify as liberal. Telling Suey Park and others, “I’m on your side,” while simultaneously discrediting their views and opinions, seems incongruous. However one feels about The Colbert Report actually being canceled, Suey Park spoke to a very real pain for many people of Asian descent and other people of color: being used as a punchline over and over and over hurts. Watching a white male profit off of racial humor, even in character, pains us. The “I’m on your side” response discredits such a viewpoint, and says, basically, “get over it.”

As someone who has heard the same tired, worn racial jokes throughout my life, I can tell you that getting “over it” just isn’t that simple. Many people believe racism, and other forms of discrimination, to be limited to isolated, horrendous actions by individuals. When one comes to see that racism is a system that involves and impacts everyone, it becomes crucial to critique everyone – because we’re all complicit. I am a black male and I think prejudiced things against my own race, and others. I’m not a bad person. Harboring racial prejudice doesn’t make anyone a bad person, because we all have it. It’s out of our control.

What we can do is listen to those people who harbor opinions we are taught to discount – women, and people of color. We can fight the urge to immediately dismiss their claims.

I now turn to you with a question. I’ve often heard it said that people like Suey Park are “injecting” race and gender into a particular situation such as the Colbert controversy, and that they need to “learn to take a joke.” How would you respond to the view that sensitivity is weakness, and that we need to stop injecting gender, race, etc. into the public discourse?

MB: People dismiss sensitivity as ‘weakness’ so that they don’t have to listen to what others are sensing, experiencing, and living through. In other words, disparaging sensitivity is the true act of weakness. It’s a declaration of indifference (and underneath, fear).

This whole controversy has been confusing to me, in part because of something I went through as a teenager. My high school’s mascot is a Native American ‘warrior,’ and a group of my friends and I sought to get it changed. As we made our case, I sometimes asked people how they would feel if the mascot were of a different race or ethnicity. I would give examples. What if a student dressed up to look like a stereotypical Jewish person – yarmulke, big nose, curly hair, long beard and payot? And what if that student then danced around the football field with sacred Jewish religious paraphernalia? What if we sewed those same stereotyped images into our wrestling uniforms and plastered them on our scoreboards?

I was trying to make the same point Colbert was making – that we would never feel comfortable taking some other group of citizens and turning them into caricatured symbols for sports teams. But we’ve been doing that to Native Americans for decades, and relatively few people seem to notice.

I’m wondering, then, whether you think there’s any difference between what I was up to and what Colbert did. One thought that comes to mind is that, save for a few letters to the editor, we were mostly trying to persuade people in one-on-one situations. And that meant that we could approach things differently depending on our audience. Generally, I was wary about using examples that implicated the person I was talking to, because I didn’t want to risk hurting them in the name of making my point. On the other hand, though, this sometimes felt like it was the only way to make the point real to people. (Either way, I’m sure I made mistakes: I was 18 and full of self-righteousness.)

I’m wondering if it works differently on TV. The target of Colbert’s satire was Dan Snyder, but he was broadcasting to millions (including many Asian-Americans). He had no way to get a sense for his audience, because he had no way to know who was watching or to gauge how they might feel.

I’m wondering if this is related to your point about privilege – that by just going ahead with his joke, Colbert was expressing a kind of indifference to the possibility of hurting Asian-Americans (and others who are tired of being caught in the crossfire of white people’s humor).

But perhaps this is another difference – that Colbert wasn’t just trying to illustrate his point using a provocative analogy. He was also trying to be funny. And if he hadn’t been so interested in getting laughs, he might have been more sensitive to the hurt his words might cause. (He’s certainly overlooked this kind of thingbefore.)

In his response to the controversy, Colbert suggested that the furor only started when one of the jokes got taken out of context in a tweet. But you’re saying it’s more than that – that plenty of people were already frustrated, and that the joke wasn’t okay even in context. And I think it feels that way to me, too.

This leads me to wonder – would it feel different to you if he hadn’t made a joke? If he had used the same example, but in a way that expressed more overt solidarity with Native Americans? If he had done something like what a Native American group did in this recent ad?

KW: To your last question: I believe using the premise of the joke as sober commentary would feel quite different – but it also wouldn’t feel like Colbert. Colbert pokes fun. That’s what he does, and now he will apparently be doing it as CBS’ new host of The Late Show. So your actions in high school also strike me as far different from Colbert’s joke. Using equivalence as a debating strategy can be tricky, because the other person(s) may just not see anything wrong with racial humor in general. I have seen it be effective, however – provided the other person has some appreciation for anti-racist rhetoric.

In a way, Colbert-to-CBS feels inevitable. Another white guy moving on up. While some people of color (and some others) argue for the cancellation of Colbert, he gets a massive job upgrade.

Media in our society exists to entertain; even more fundamentally, media aims to make money and perpetuate itself. CBS sent a message loud and clear that using people of color as props is profitable and acceptable, and as long as you toe a racial line, getting critique from “fringe groups” doesn’t matter.

Media coverage of the Colbert controversy and of race more generally deeply frustrates me. I came across a quote from Elinor Tatum, editor-in-chief of the New York Amsterdam News, that deeply moved me. She said of race-related stories in America, “There is no such thing as objective journalism. There’s always a point of view.” I buy that. When too many of us don’t understand power dynamics, we fail to see that the privileged position is seen as the default or ‘objective’ stance. So only white folks can be unbiased about race, only men are unbiased about gender, and so on.

Such viewpoints stymie us as a society. White viewers of Colbert and/or the Colbert controversy could simply dismiss out of hand Suey Park’s claims instead of doing any sort of introspection on their own thoughts or biases. She is a woman of color, and therefore had two ‘inherent’ strikes against her credibility even before she said anything. People – indeed, not just white folks, but also people of color more interested in respectability politics than in asking tough questions – tuned her, and those like her, out.

Somewhat relatedly, I recently learned that people we would now consider die-hard racists – Bull Connor and other white supremacists – told media outlets that they weren’t racist. I believe, as Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry does, that we need not equate the systemic racism of today to brutal Jim Crow segregation of the past in order to make our point. It is frightening, though, to consider that “I’m not racist” is as old as racism, and perhaps nearly as insidious.

I’ve started thinking, then, that maybe we ought to stop using terms such as “sexist” and “racist” when discussing systemic prejudice and supremacy, because they cause such a visceral reaction. People essentially stop listening as soon as you suggest they have prejudice against women. “I’m not sexist – I love women,” some men say. Media and individuals focus on horrific, isolated, seemingly outdated instances of overt prejudice. I believe that lets us consumers off the hook, to point fingers at “those racist people” or “those homophobic people” without examining how we help perpetuate these invisible (yet super-visible) systems of inequality and discrimination.

How do you think we move the conversation away from “Look at those sexist people!” to “Look at this system of sexism”? Relatedly, I saw a poster this week that said “We need feminism because our campus teaches ‘How not to get raped’ instead of ‘Don’t rape.’” The poster deeply moved me. I’m interested in moving conversations and more accurately analyzing systemic realities. I’m curious as to your thoughts on how we do that, and anything else.

MB: Thanks for being so honest about your feelings here, man. I often feel a kind of exhaustion with the sheer level of callousness and meanness in our popular culture. I have a sense that the fatigue you experience is deeper, though, because you’re a target of much more of that meanness. It takes courage to share those feelings, and I admire it.

In general, I think I agree with you about the terms ‘racist’ and ‘sexist.’ They seem helpful for describing systems and situations, but they’re often counterproductive interpersonally. Not always, though. When I was growing up, my mom stopped me short several times by suggesting that my casual adolescent slang was sexist. If you’re talking to someone who’s both concerned about uprooting their own racism or sexism and capable of taking that kind of direct feedback, those words can work. But probably not on TV (where people are much more likely to get defensive).

As for how we have the kinds of conversations you’re seeking, I think the answer is to just keep having them! Because the more we do it, the easier it is for everyone else to jump in. We do our best to point out the shortcomings of the existing narratives, and we push as far as our courage and insight will take us. And then we sit back and hear what others think. Speaking of which, perhaps we should do that now!

KW: I also believe in the power of conversation. What I think matters is that we’re all striving to improve, rather than just marginalized groups carrying most of the load when it comes to conversation, education and activism. About a week ago a white friend reached out to me wondering if I’d share my thoughts with him regarding the Steve Utash mob beating in Detroit in early April.

My friend wasn’t coming from an overly negative space, yet the request still rankled me. To him, I believe the Utash tragedy was an example of “reverse racism,” of angry blacks beating a white man nearly to death. He wondered why I hadn’t written about it, and why black activists hadn’t made a big deal of the situation.

As with most things regarding race, the case wasn’t that simple. Indeed, Steve Utash was horrified that he’d hit a black child with his truck, and stopped to check on him. Utash was beaten by black people – and a black person saved his life. If anything, the case showed how messy any and all of these issues can be. But I was struck by my friend’s demand that black activists speak out against the violence, yet there was no mention of retired nurse Deborah Hughes’s heroics.

The more I read about the Utash/Hughes tragedy and the more I read my friend’s message, the more I thought of W.E.B. Du Bois’ words in The Souls of Black Folk. In 1903, Du Bois asked a set of questions that, for all our progress, still remains unanswered today:

“Here, then, is the dilemma…What, after all, am I? Am I American or am I a Negro? Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American?”

The people who attacked Utash are described as young black men. Deborah Hughes, a black woman, is described as an “American hero.” They are all black. They are all Americans. That disconnect in description saddens me deeply, and it concerns me. I don’t know what to do about it. Talking about this discrepancy, and so many others like it – with race, gender, sexual orientation and so many others – is of the utmost importance.

Let’s keep talking, my friend.