When the Example Isn’t One You Should Follow

Some time ago, I mentioned that when the right time arose, I would return to the Reading Words category. Friends, that time is now. Before you read any further, please take some time to carefully investigate the following: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/22/how-racist-was-flannery-oconnor.

Thanks for doing that. It’s critical to understanding what you’re about to read, something that after considerable thought, I cannot remain silent about. As with many things in life, we should all learn to listen and digest fully before we respond, but equally important as knowing when to “shush up” (as we say down south) is knowing when speaking out is the reasonable thing to do. Usually it’s in moments where there’s a truth that needs to be delivered and someone won’t be ready to hear it.

With that spirit in mind, I must confess that I am more than a little disappointed with The New Yorker and Paul Elie. And yes, I am disappointed with both, separately. That matters here, for folks who are newly entering these sorts of conversations (welcome, by the way!).

First, the undercurrent notion that we are ALL just now taken with the central idea they share suggests that for many, many, many years, many, many, many people have not been. Or at least presupposes it, which is almost worse. Perhaps in some areas, by some folks, this is true. Perhaps for Elie. Perhaps in New York or D.C. (Elie’s haunts). But if that is the case, why not just say so? Meanwhile, to oversimplify or otherwise obfuscate who racism is relevant to, EVEN AND ESPECIALLY using academic language, is to miss a point so large that the author might’ve been better off remaining silent.

Don’t worry, it gets worse.

Second, the article makes plainly clear another troubling but longstanding trend: Northeastern Bastion of Liberalism Giants telling the “uneducated masses” (many of whom already live and Do The Work in their daily lives) how it is that they should think, speak, and feel on the issues these Giants are only more recently starting to care (speak/act) about in any real, concrete, constructive way. Read that again, slowly. I know it’s a lot to digest. But it must be digested.

Sure, there’s been a lot of very public attempts to “understand” this issue, but like so many other troubling “studies,” rarely if ever are the voices of those who live this reality given an equal platform, compared to those who seek to distantly finger-wag whilst they hide every mirror in their homes from themselves.

Curious behavior? You bet.

And third, Elie’s limitations in his understanding of whiteness and critical race theory are so loud that they scream off the page. He doesn’t even have to say that much for the critically-aware reader to see it. Contrary to what Elie would have you believe, understanding the effects of racism on white culture (and vice versa) is absolutely, without a doubt, CENTRAL to dismantling racism. And understanding history and southern culture, whether or not Elie likes it, also matters a great deal.

The especially troubling takeaway here is Elie’s hubris. Not just in his refusal to award any merit to the previous points, but in his belief that attacking others’ attempts to address them somehow “counts” as him doing the work he needs to do. Writing about the work is not the work, Mr. Elie, Sir. Especially when you’re determined to take a deliberately half-informed view.

Is that an uncomfortable realization? Sure. Is it necessary? Absolutely. As a white man of considerable northeastern privilege, and as someone who has devoted his professional life (with much acclaim, I might add) to the study and publishing of Great American Literature, Elie is the last person who should be taking the easy way out, wagging his Ivory-Towered Finger at others’ attempts, as messy and complex as they are or aren’t.

Perhaps most damningly, the work he presented is just backstory to the work he should have written, that The New Yorker should have published, that we should have had the privilege of reading from someone whose voice is well-regarded and the holder of considerable power. But Ryan, I hear some of you asking, what should the work have been? Simple. A courageous look inward.

How Racist IS Paul Elie? How Racist IS The New Yorker? Hiding behind the article that got written is academically sloppy, personally lazy, and culturally tone-deaf beyond belief. I expect better. You should too. Instead, for now, we must settle for another pandering excuse of the one they’re willfully hiding behind. Ain’t it a damn shame … again.

P.S. Want a better example? See here.

TIME got it closer to right.

A long time ago at that.

Thomas’ “The Hate U Give”

“What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”

Starr Carter, p. 252

The Hate U Give

If your skin is white like mine, for most of the hours of most of the days of your life, you probably won’t think about your whiteness. Why? Because the culture white America created over centuries makes it really easy not to on the daily. And, in fact, it makes it that way precisely so you don’t think about it … ideally at all. If you did, things might be very, very different.

If that makes you feel uncomfortable, good. It should. It means you’re thinking. It means you’re on the journey to awareness. And from that point, you have the potential to make a serious difference — not just make things different. Yes, that subtlety matters. A lot.

I came to this uncomfortable realization for the first time in middle school, when I was given a chance to study the life and works of two incredible Americans — the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Maya Angelou. The realization I had from these studies bothered me. Not so much because the reality itself was hard to acknowledge (though it was), but because I knew, without having the vocabulary to properly vocalize this yet, that I’d have few — if any — other white people to talk about it with. So I kept my feelings and opinions close to my heart. That’s about as far as they went back then, and since then I’ve learned lesson after lesson about the importance of speaking truth to power.

I could cite countless other examples of uncomfortable realizations like this. Between school and work, across three states and six cities, and yes, also in my personal life, confronting race in a post-racial America has been challenging. This means it’s worthwhile — and ultimately, of importance. But I’m not here to give you a run-down of these moments. The point is that I have them, and yes, white America, you have them too, whether or not you’re aware of it yet.

What I am here to do — in this post, but more globally on the blog — is to remind us that life is about understanding and compassion, rather than hatred or fear. Life is about striving for justice and equity, rather than perpetuating systemic oppression (in all forms!). Put more simply, life is about learning to love, choosing to love, and then, critically, actually doing it.  And sometimes love means we must do difficult things, uncomfortable things, things we aren’t sure we’re brave enough, ready enough, smart enough, strong enough, anything enough to do. That is usually when we need to try the most.

In the spirit of that message, I’d encourage you to read Angie Thomas’s masterful work, The Hate U Give. It’s been nominated for a National Book Award. It’s a best-seller. And, if you’ve been following the news, you may have heard that it’s becoming a major motion picture. It stands on its own.

But much more importantly, and I don’t say this lightly, it’s the essence of life itself. It’s a call-to-action we all must learn to answer. Not just for one person, or one movement, or one pivotal moment in history, but all the time, everywhere, for everyone. It’s that important. Please read this book. And when you’re ready, go in peace to speak, write, act, and generally L-O-V-E. Just remember that peace doesn’t have to mean silence.

***

P.S. Interested in other voices who’ve joined this conversation?

Here’s a few. I encourage you to find more — or even better, contribute alongside them:

(1) The Atlantic’s review of T.H.U.G., available here.

(2) An interview with Angie Thomas and Balzer+ Bray/Harper Collins, her publisher. Heads-up, their chat is about 20 minutes long, but you’ll want to listen all the way through over here.

(3) A Huffington Post review, available here.

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle