It started, as all these situations do, with a stray comment on a stray Facebook post. The post conflated Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling for the National Anthem before NFL games to protest police violence against communities of color with the idea that he was being offensive to veterans. Pretty common stuff for that period.
And then, someone disagreed. My wife, to be exact. Pointed out the nature of the protest in Kaeprnick’s own words and the racially problematic nature of the third verse of the Anthem. Some discussion ensued and then, with the proverbial theme music, in came a guy (not the poster, who took a couple days off of Facebook after posting) to clear up how wrong-headed and ignorant anyone not agreeing with the post were being.
You know the guy. Keyboard Hero™.
Dude trotted out common sense and moral failing and “you’re upset because I don’t agree with you” with no actual discussion of the comments he’s “responding to,” just half-assed, unsupported assertions of his rightness.
So I dropped in and try to get a sense of what his issues were, issues he said our culture won’t respond to because it would paint people of color as the reason for their own suffering. (You can guess the issues: black-on-black crime, dropout rates, teen pregnancy.) You know, just flat incorrect assumptions and lack of any work to find out that, yes, actually a lot of study has been done on those very subjects.
In response, I linked about 15 sources responding to each of the points he made, all of which popped on the first page of Google searches with a couple variations of key terms (I am an academic, after all). He read one, proceeded to double down on racial stereotyping, made some poor attempts at gas lighting me (“you’re an associate professor who gets paid for this kind of ‘knowledge?’), and shifted the topic three more times, quoting a really flat, racially troubling read of FBI crime stats. I responded with a few more articles for his new directions, only one of which he engaged and then said he was done reading.
That’s right, after two dissenting voices he was ready to proclaim his almost completely baseless claim that systematic racism no longer exists and black people are basically the source of their own suffering the Truth™.
That’s it. No more attempts at engagement. No more conversation. Just a full family block on Facebook from him and his wife. Not once did I get insulting. Not once did I tell him he was a bad person. Not once did I call out his unwillingness to see dissent as a personal moral failing. I really wanted to see what he did with the research he said wasn’t being done to address the issues he’d already decided he knew enough about.
It left me sad. This is so much of America. So many of our neighbors. So many people afraid to take seriously the deep racial rot that pervades the cultural fabric of this country. I understand the desire to wish things were different. To live colorblind lives alongside other colorblind people. To really and truly believe systemic racism collapsed under the weight of the Civil Rights Movement.
But I also understand the real harm caused by that fantasy. The real consequences of blinding ourselves to the legacy and present reality of racism in almost every facet of culture. I understand this because I’ve listened and read and studied. I understand this because of the life my daughter is living, not because of the one I am.
I spent the next few weeks thinking about the conversation, not so much replaying what was said as trying to tease out the guy’s absolute refusal to engage any of the sources I sent him. Even more, I wondered why he didn’t respond with sources of his own. I speculate that he didn’t have many to respond with, but that is an unsatisfactory, surface-level assumption on my part.
Mostly, I thought about what I know is true: it’s hard to get people to read in general, let alone to read about what they have no personal experience with. And that is a tough hill to climb when it comes to what it will take to break down the barriers racism has erected in our culture. It starts with relationships, but those are hard to make interpersonally in our self-segregated, digitally-mediated worlds.
That’s why reading voices of color is so important. So necessary. These are the first relationships many people like Facebook guy need to have in order to change their perspectives.
This has always been my experience. Reading opens doors I didn’t see were there and introduces people I would never have met on the other side. And those introductions lead to changes in how I see the world and how deeply I feel for what I find there.
And that’s where my Black History Month books project came from. I thought through a list of texts by black authors I’ve read that continue to reshape how I see the world. Then I posted one a day for the entire month.
The list was never intended to be exhaustive, merely present a number of doors I hope people who haven’t yet done so will take the time to open.