A Q&A With My Comments Submitted by White Readers

Like many writers, I tend not to respond to comments. But it’s time for some exceptions.

Photo: Javier Zayas Photography/Getty Images

I have been told several times over the years that, as a writer, I internet wrong. That seems to mostly hinge on a personal rule I put in place a few years back: With rare exceptions, I don’t respond to comments on my work.

There are several reasons I’ve installed such a defense mechanism. The primary one is that people who post replies are generally a fraction of the people who read an article — and statistically speaking, those who make the time to comment do not mean the writer well. I spend hours writing, researching, and experiencing whatever I write, setting out thousands of words in the process, while the typical commenter reacts with the intellectual equivalent of “You suck.” Then there’s the fact that by the time someone reads and comments on an article I’ve written, I’m already on to the next thing. Turnaround is serious business in my line of work, which means I literally can’t afford to get bogged down in counting how many times someone thinks I’m missing my own points, let alone responding to them.

Making matters worse, I hate repeating myself. Because of this, I approach writing as one big conversation — a tapestry comprising essays, books, poetry, even social media posts. When I write about a thing, I see it as contributing to an official meta-record of my thoughts on a subject, and if you put the pieces together, you can probably find the answer to your question in something else I’ve written. I know it’s not a convenient way for readers to get the level of context they may be looking for — writing another book would be easier for everyone concerned — but anybody who comes to a single online essay expecting comprehensive analysis of a big-picture subject is asking for a lot.

All that said, I get that it’s important, if you put work into the public sphere, to make time to read through comments when bandwidth allows. Sometimes the planets align and the internet serves its intended purpose as a marketplace of ideas. Occasionally (rarely) there’s even gold in them thar hills. So every once in a while I dive in and pull out a few questions to answer. Sometimes the questions are well-meaning and legit; often they are not. Where even a poorly asked question gave me an opportunity to settle a point definitively and for the record, I took it.

Turnaround is serious business in my line of work, which means I literally can’t afford to get bogged down in counting how many times someone thinks I’m missing my own points, let alone responding to them.

The questions below are all real, though they may have been nipped and tucked for clarity. All names have been removed. I make no promises toward politeness.

Q: I’m not racist, but I truly don’t know what to do. If I befriend black people, I don’t do it “right.” If I march and try to show solidarity, I’m not doing that right either. Nothing I do is right. I can’t snap my fingers and erase history. I can and do stand up and say something when people behave racistly. But what else is the answer?

I get that for many White people trying to help it can often feel very damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But I have to tell you that the way you describe your attempts at anti-racist work smack of trying too hard, which can block one’s ability to catch cues and listen. So maybe don’t treat your anti-racism work like a checklist of validations. Black people don’t have a cheat code for friendship, so if you’re struggling to build relationships with them, you’re probably coming at us all wrong. Here’s a test: When meeting a Black person you want to be friends with, do you bring up race in the first 30 minutes? Does the Black person? That’s a tell either way. I have a few White friends. They didn’t become my friends by having me stamp their Black passport. And any time you have to clarify that you’re not racist, you’ve probably done something racist. Even in this question.

Q: At this point in time, or any point in time really, what is the most important goal for a political agenda: To accommodate all of society or to aim to appease only a specific segment of society based on race? To do what you say wouldn’t we need to build inequities into our system consciously and willfully and isn’t that exactly how we got here in the first place?

This is a question that had an answer when it came through, but let’s not focus on the author’s willful obtuseness and instead parse out the actual point of this question. What they’re presenting is a false equivalency, that somehow addressing the needs of Black people specifically is somehow reverse racism and just as bad as the things that have been done to Black people. As if affirmative action in college admissions is equivalent to generations of crippling segregation. As if Black people are going to spend our stimulus checks somewhere that isn’t in White America. As if helping Black people wouldn’t make society better as a whole. When you see Black development or reparation as discrimination, you’ve missed the point by at least seven generations.

Q: What is this horse 💩? You’re implying that Ice Cube fans are stupid, which is a bit condescending.

This question is in response to my essay “Ice Cube Isn’t Winning at Chess — He’s Losing at Poker,” which was penned last October in response to Cube’s “Contract with Black America” hitting Donald Trump’s desk for consideration. I say a lot of things in that essay, but at no point do I suggest that applying a chess metaphor to Cube’s political machinations makes one stupid. Wrong, yes. Not clear on the rules of the King’s Game, sure. But not full-on anti-intellectual.

And while we’re here, let’s get something else straight: I disagreed with Cube’s attempt, but he’d have to do a lot worse than that to make me give up Death Certificate. That record saved my life when it came out. I owe him that much.

Q: Have you ever invited King to your class or sent him any of your articles? This article really made me stop and think- I would love to know how receptive he is/is not to actually getting woke. [See: “Stephen King Needs More Black Friends,” 1/15/20].

And:

Q: [What’s up with] Morgan Freeman in Shawshank Redemption? I suppose the narrator’s back story isn’t that important, but were Maine prisons desegregated before WWII?

I am not a fan of snitch-tagging, so no, I’ve never tugged Stephen King’s sleeve and suggested he check out my lecture or essays on Magical Negroes in his work. I can only guess what his reaction might be, but I think it would go a lot smoother than most people might expect. He’s not oblivious to the connection. In fact, this is what he had to say about it in Playboy in 1983:

Both Hallorann, the cook in The Shining, and Mother Abagail in The Stand are cardboard caricatures of super-black heroes, viewed through rose-tinted glasses of white-liberal guilt.

So I don’t think it’d be a particularly long conversation.

As far as the segregation of Maine prisons during the years that The Shawshank Redemption takes place (1947–1975), the answer is a provisional yes. While Morgan Freeman’s character Red was originally White before transitioning to the screen, a Black Red would have been found in the very real Maine State Prison, which in 1927 had four inmates of color… a full 12 years before WWII kicks off.

Q: I’m confused [about what you wrote on gentrification]. The only way current residents can stay is if: 1) it stays bad, or 2) it gets upgraded, yet magically at no cost, so no one needs to raise rents to get a return on their (risky) investment. So neighborhoods should never be improved? And if they are, how do you think that gets done for free?

See, this is that trash I don’t like. What people like this aren’t admitting is that 1) they like the perks that often come with gentrification; and 2) they don’t care what it takes to make it happen. So they create false binaries where poor people are simply part of a natural process of urban advancement: You either want things to stay like crap, or you want to create a welfare state. Neither of these things is true of any critic of gentrification I have ever encountered, yet they are the first two things that come out of its proponents’ mouths. They also conveniently dismiss many cities’ direct hand in depressing areas that they wish to gentrify.

What I have always lobbied for is development and reinvestment in existing communities. So no, I don’t think neighborhoods that have fallen on hard times should stay that way. Yes, I do think many of them should be upgraded, but no, I don’t think it should happen for free. It should happen as a function of a city that cares about its citizens. It should be addressed by combating unfair loan practices and creating opportunities for renters to become owners if they choose. It’s called development, and cities do it all the time in the areas they want to. Investing in depressed areas is a longer-term investment than the quick-grab that pillaging provides, but the potential cultural benefits over time are worth it. You just have to live in a city whose charter agenda is designed around people before greed.

Long story short, if your response to criticisms of gentrification are that people are asking to keep poverty, bad schools, tax abatements for the rich, overpolicing, broken window policies, and redlining, you’re playing games. Just say you like microbreweries and leave it at that.

Q: Are there any white guys that are ok? What does he look like? Or does the past and present inequality make that particular white guy an impossibility?

Yes. He probably looks a lot like comedian/actor Billy Eichner, who listens, reads, and advocates long after the marches have stopped and regularly hands his 2-million-strong mic over to oppressed people. The inequalities of the past and present aren’t what prohibit the creation of decent White people — not wanting to part with the benefits of privilege does that. Not listening does that. Not caring does that.

Writer and poet holding down Columbus, Ohio

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