Tag Archives: racism

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.

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race depression

I have depression.
I am young and black.

These two basic truths of my existence do not directly correlate, nor did the latter clearly cause the former. Yet the statements ought not be separated. I am depressed. To the extent that depression ever has a ‘cause,’ mine is both chemical and situational.

Long have  questions and thoughts about race consumed me—and, for nearly as long, I have wished I could stop caring. During my childhood small books on Rosa Parks, SNCC, and the March on Washington littered my room.

Even as I came of age in mostly white external spaces, from school to church to friend circles, questions of race—of supremacy and history and inequality—did not let me alone. In high school I grappled with black voices across the political spectrum, trying to find my way without a guide. I read books from Toni Morrison, Malcolm X and Shelby Steele, feeling pulled to the left but willing to entertain anyone who would at least discuss race openly.

After a history teacher first pointed me to W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, one sentence brought me, night after night, to tears.

How does it feel to be a problem?

I felt like a problem because I had what my parents called “an obsession with race.”
I felt like a problem because depression had twice nearly killed me.

I was black, depressed, and race-conscious. And few people wanted to talk about any of it.

Even among well-meaning friends, bringing up depression often stops conversations short. People don’t want to say the wrong thing and mentally search for the perfect words. Those of us who suffer learn to speak of it sparingly, and to frame it carefully when it does come up. We share our pain and end up consoling our friends.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be okay.”

Those who battle depression also fight stigma, of course. We combat feel-good messages of positivity. Just feel better. Think happy thoughts. Think about your past successes.

These suggestions sound ludicrous to us, but we try them anyway—and then feel disgust with ourselves that they didn’t work. Something must be wrong with us, and not with the suggestion.

Those feelings of shame create a culture of silence. Depression becomes our burden to bear twice over. We feel it, alone, before dueling the ensuing shame.

That feeling—that people are okay with knowing that you have depression, as long as you don’t talk about it—mirrors some of what blackness has meant in the post-civil rights era.
It’s okay that I have blackness, as long as I don’t talk about it, or “act black” in any way.

We know the lines:
“If you want racism to end, stop talking about it.”
“I don’t see race.”
“Nobody brings up race except you.”
“Stop bringing race into this.”

Which brings us to Ferguson, Mike Brown, and battling injustices many people can’t, or won’t, see.

Most of what’s transpired in Ferguson, Missouri since Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown on August 9th has been utterly predictable, from the slandering of his character to the justification of his murder, to the disproportional focus on the looting by a relative handful.

47 percent of white Americans believe race received “too much attention” during the heat of the Ferguson situation (Pew). 37 percent agreed that Brown’s death raised important issues about race. Those of us who took to the streets to protest yet another black death at the hands of police were told to “wait for the facts.”

Don’t make it about race. 

Had Mike Brown been white, he could have acted exactly as he did, store theft, jaywalking and all—and he would almost certainly be alive today. That may not be provable; however, while the Aurora theatre shooter was taken into custody, John Crawford III held a toy gun and was killed in a Wal-Mart.

We speak up and get told we are race-baiters, or opportunists looking for attention. We want to keep racism alive so we can have jobs and get on TV.

Those comments sound a lot like what some say about those who dare speak of their depression. “Attention seeking.” “Wanting the spotlight.” “Not to be taken seriously.”

How does it feel to be a problem?

Talking about being black makes people uncomfortable.
Why do you bring up race so much?

Talking about depression makes people uncomfortable.
Just don’t focus on it, and you’ll feel better.

Talking about inequality makes people uncomfortable.
Stop bringing race into everything.

I once wished I could ignore it. But I will not—and we cannot—any longer be shamed into silence. Rarely does ignoring any issue actually make it go away. Audre Lorde told us her silences had not protected her, and that ours will not protect us.

And so rather than opt for silence, I choose to speak. I choose to speak my truth. My truth is this:
I am depressed. I am depressed because of chemical imbalances in my brain. Medicine and therapy have provided some relief. Friends and ritual have also helped. I am depressed. I likely always will be, to some extent.

I am depressed also because, despite us having a black president and a black attorney general, and despite living in a society where I can play ultimate frisbee with white people and high five white strangers at football games and work at a white church and have lots of white friends, black lives still matter less in America.

I am depressed because I watched many of my friends go blissfully about their lives, seemingly unconcerned as police pointed guns and deployed tear gas against their unarmed fellow citizens.

I am depressed because black men have devalued the moving, vital leadership of black women going back to Sojourner Truth, who said in the mid 19th century, “There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about colored women.”

I am depressed because black editor Thomas Fortune’s 1883 words still ring with truth today: “The white man who shoots a negro always goes free, while the negro who steals a hog is sent to the chain gang for ten years.”

I am depressed because those who speak up are labeled as The Problem, while the issue they strive to solve goes unchallenged and often unseen.

Shame is powerful. Depression makes us intimately familiar with shame, with doubt, and with fear. Supremacy, though it no longer requires supremacists to operate, teaches us the same lesson.

Depression and supremacy aren’t satisfied with our shame. They want our silence. And as much as it hurts–as often as we’re told, verbally or otherwise, to shut up, as many times as we curl up and cry or bury our faces in our pillows–we have to keep going.

Audre Lorde said, “only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”

At rallies and protests and forums around the country, we are fighting doubt and finding truth—in her voice, and in ours.

How Long is 50 Years? My Civil Rights Trip Through the South

“Darnell! It’s so good to see you, honey. Give me a hug.”
My plate of collared greens, cornbread and two kinds of casserole still minutes away, I had only the glass of sweet tea to feebly distract me from the table to our immediate left.
Darnell, a young black man, had emerged from the kitchen, cleaning supplies and all,  at a popular diner in downtown Oxford, MS–much to the delight of the middle-aged white woman I’d only been vaguely aware of thirty seconds prior.

had previously noticed the man who turned out to be Darnell. He’d looked tired, even bored–but now his expression looked intimately familiar, as though he’d studied my face to learn its proper form. As the woman talked excitedly to him and introduced him to her group, tears approached my eyes. Her warmth and her friendliness reminded me of my now-deceased mother, and, at first glance, showed how far America has come from the days of Jim Crow. Fifty years is a long time, I thought.

And then I kept looking–at the woman, at her table, at Darnell, at the patrons in the restaurant, at our nation–and the question, sitting everywhere and waiting to be acknowledged, found me.

How long, really, is fifty years?

I left Denver Monday morning, June 2, with my friend Jen. We stayed a night in Oklahoma City before driving to Arkansas and beginning our tour through the South. Jen and I–twenty-somethings, a white woman and a black man–started with a pretty specific itinerary and ideas about what we’d find.
Over the ensuing thirteen days, we walked through parks and museums, looked at statues and rivers, and wandered small towns and big cities. Our reasons for going were complementary yet not identical, which worked for us.

I grew up “southern-ish,” spending my first fourteen years in the Houston metro area and my college days at the University of Missouri. Living in Denver and Boston helped teach me that neither the history of racial discrimination nor its present effects are limited to the South. Yet I suspected that I might find in Montgomery and Birmingham answers, and questions, that I wouldn’t find in Houston or Columbia.

And so we journeyed. The question–how long is fifty years?– proved omnipresent.

We didn’t need to travel the South to know this, but even so: America has changed. A young black man and a young white woman toured the South without major incident. We clicked with a white historian at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery and danced to an unforgettable cover of ‘Proud Mary’ with an integrated, middle-aged crowd on Beale Street in Memphis.
We toured famous black Baptist churches, large UU congregations, and worshipped at a black Bible church. We walked the elaborate, glitzy National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and stood alone in Money, Mississippi, at the marker where Emmett Till was abducted and killed in 1955.
We stayed with a white mentor of mine in Oklahoma City and a black mentor of mine in Little Rock. We took photos for white families in Athens and black families in the Smokies. We stayed with a black rower in Clemson and a white basketball stud in Atlanta. An older white woman offered me a tissue as I teared up inside the elder King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

And fifty-two years after James Meredith overcame a violent scene to become the first black student to enroll at Ole Miss, Jen and I sat in the Oxford, MS diner with white and black Ole Miss football players eating together on one side of us, and, among others, the woman who so liked Darnell on the other.

I looked at Jen and knew she, too, had her eyes on the scene. We’d found it: the personification of post-racial America. Then I shook my head and looked around. Patrons filled nearly all the restaurant’s tables, yet the only visibly black folks in the place were Darnell, myself, and an Ole Miss football player. I again looked at Darnell’s face, and again registered the familiarity of his facial expression.

His expression was a mask, a mask I put on too often.
At once, I understood: fifty years is a long time, but it’s not long enough.

The 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery did not start right at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, famously the site of Bloody Sunday. They began less than a mile away, at Brown Chapel A.M.E. church.
The marker at the church reads:
The demonstration that led to the most important advance in civil rights for millions of Black Americans began here March 21, 1965…This is a tribute to those who planned, encouraged, marched, were jailed, beaten, and died to change Black Americans from second class to first class citizens.

Brown Chapel stands in a mostly black housing project on, predictably, MLK Street. The walk hundreds made for freedom fifty years ago is now littered, metaphorically and otherwise, with evidence that the march both lifted millions up, and left millions behind. So many of us in suburbia grew up looking at pictures of the Brown Chapel steps in textbooks. Freedom was won there, we were told. The view out from the steps narrates a far more complex tale.

We walked silently from the church steps down MLK Street, past the James Reeb memorial and over to the Pettus bridge. Walking over the river and under the bride’s infamous sign, the font unchanged in fifty years, brought me more than goosebumps and tears. Darnell’s mask–my mask–swam to the front of my mind. The mask and the shoddy neighborhood surrounding Brown Chapel; the bridge and the simplistic tale of civil rights permeating our country’s racial discourse; my own racial frustrations and the disdain some people in my life have for me whenever I mention them–everything felt connected.

We grow up being told that racism is a matter of the mind and heart. Being racist is an individual action. Racists are somewhere, and someone, else. Racism, and racists, are mostly a thing of the past. And we grow up learning that Rosa Parks and Dr. King challenged white folks’ hearts and changed them. It’s clear that things are different, and we must acknowledge that. Jen and I can travel together, tour SEC campuses together, and sit on the steps of the Alabama state capitol together. Fifty years is a long time.

Fifty years has gotten us here: to the mask I saw on Darnell and know well myself. We are welcome, conditionally. We’re welcome in mainstream society, and welcomed, if. We’re welcome if our diction is like mine. We’re welcome if we smile a lot. We’re welcome if we don’t show anger. We’re welcome if we assimilate, if we don’t speak up too much or talk too loud. So many black folks are never given the tools to learn or the education to make it, and then people ask why they never made it, why they won’t do anything with their lives.

The next fifty years won’t automatically bring improvement. Contrary to popular belief, racism won’t end “one funeral at a time,” as ‘old racists’ die off. The next fifty years won’t be about the racial prejudice in our hearts or in our minds. The next fifty years will be about the racism in our policies, in our housing laws, in our school zones. Most of us don’t hate each other anymore–we just don’t know each other. We don’t understand each other.

And as someone who spends a lot of time as the only black person in spaces, I wear a mask. I wear a mask that talks sports and The West Wing, 90’s TV shows and Star Wars. My mask smiles often and patiently explains why something hurt me. My mask loves ultimate and doesn’t mind that I’m one of a handful of black players. My mask isn’t a lie, but it’s far from the whole truth.

I wear the mask to hide my loneliness, my weariness at always sticking out, my sadness that my attempts to change things get cast as race-baiting or ‘holding onto the past.’ I wear the mask to get along, to get through the days and weeks. I wear the mask because, in a strange way, it’s comfortable. I know it well, and it knows me.

The mask, which some black folks know well and I suspect Darnell at Ole Miss had on, gets to come off sometimes. It comes off when I talk with a handful of friends, most of them black. It comes off when I call my Aunt Michelle, a professor in California. And it came off in Selma, halfway between Brown Chapel and the Pettus Bridge, as I wept in front of the memorial for Rev. James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who was killed trying to help the march.

What we have to fight–redlining, police brutality, microaggressions, sexism, educational inequality, mass incarceration–it is different from what Rev. Reeb and others battled. It may feel less urgent to many.
Kneeling in front of Reeb’s marker just steps from the Bloody Sunday bridge allowed me to feel my purpose. In my own way–with patience and clarity and love of all people–I am supposed to continue the struggle. I am supposed to continue the march. Luckily, there are plenty of people from all races and backgrounds, gender identities and personality types, who are already walking.

We all have our roles. Mine is to ask, and try to answer, again and again:

Just how long is fifty years?

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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.