Musings on a Particular Discussion Dynamic
Ta-Nehisi recently wrote:
As an aside, I think there’s an essay to be written about why any accusation of a racial offense is so often reduced to “Are you a racist?” It would be as if my wife said, “You forgot to check Samori’s homework” and I responded, “I’m not a bad father.”
But that piece isn’t for me to write. It’s for some white person daring enough to plumb the depths of their soul. I don’t think this is something that can be explained from the outside.
Now, I certainly don’t think that I’m particularly daring and my soul doesn’t go that deep but I’ll try to answer the question. Sadly, we’re in “I need to tell you this story before I can tell you that story” territory. It may feel like these stories are completely and totally unrelated to the question but, seriously, they set up the background for the answer that makes the most sense to me.
My father died in 1982. He had a malignant melanoma that metastasized to his brain. Now, my dad got sunburned all the time and he had a fair number of moles that got sunburned. My entire family learned a great deal about the theories and links between moles and sunburns and cancer that year. That’s the first bit of background.
In 1994 or 1995, I was hanging with some of the folks in my philosophy class and we went to hike some trails, drink some wine, and while I was up there, a friend pointed out that he had a couple of tabs of Lucy and, hey, I had never done it so why not? Well, from a day in the wilderness, I was dirty and sweaty. We took a trail that had a lot of trees so I wasn’t sunburned or anything but the dirt and dust made me look like I had spent the day in the sun. My mom pointed this out as I walked through the door. “Looks like you got a lot of sun today.” I looked down at my arms and, with the help of the tabs, said “It’s dirt, not cancer.” After a few more questions, Mom figured out that I was tripping and, jeez louise, that day just turned crappy like you wouldn’t believe after that.
In any case, I think that that was a similar dynamic to the one that Ta-Nehisi was talking about.
I knew that what my mom was saying was *NOT* “Looks like you got a lot of sun today” but “you know your father died after a malignant melanoma”. More than that, she was saying “You know that sort of thing runs in the family and I worry about you.”
Instead of answering “Yeah, it was a great day!” or pointing out how I had, in fact, applied sunscreen before we set out on the trail, my vocabulary was limited and, yep, I went straight to the heart of her concerns. “It’s dirt, not cancer.”
Now, when it comes to discussing race honestly, it feels like a minefield. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I betray that I’ve got a lot of privilege by saying something boneheaded? I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings and I don’t want to be accused of anything and we’re on the internet having a discussion and this feels risky to me and if it goes pear-shaped suddenly we’re no longer talking but you’re yelling at me and I can’t say anything at all because I have more privilege than you do and that means that you automatically win the second we move from “discussion” to “argument” and so the second someone makes an accusation of racial offense, it’s like mom saying “looks like you got a lot of sun today”. That’s *NOT* what she meant, though it was what she said.
And, like they’re tripping, I figure that people respond to that by pointing out that it’s dirt. Not cancer.
Which, of course, could be an indicator that they’re on something and, golly, that conversation is really, really going to go downhill.