I am white. Always have been. I grew up upper middle class in a predominantly nice and white city. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of people of other races that went to the same public schools as I did and I was friends with some of them, but being white is what I know. It’s really the only thing I know.
Recently, for reasons stemming from Christianity to hip hop to present events, I have decided that it is best if I try to figure out what it means to not be white in America. Black people spoke a lot about how their American experience is different and I thought it was time to listen. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me has garnered wide praise, so I figured I would check it out. You see, it’s easy to say that I care about race reconciliation or understanding “the black experience” and then never do anything about it. I get it, it’s only reading a book, but it’s a start.
I was excited. The cashier at booksamillion told me that she really enjoyed the book. It was listed as an important book for understanding how some (all?) black people view growing up in America. So I lit my vanilla and citrus scented candle and cracked it open. Then I read this: “But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible–this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” (p. 7)
I had read some of the amazon reviews. Some people loved the book, it was exactly what people had chalked it up to be. Here was a prophetic voice who could tell white people what it’s like to be black in America. Others were not too pleased. They thought Coates blamed white people for everything. I didn’t dig too deep because I wanted to try and just listen to Coates, not preconceived notions of what he did and did not mean.
I believe I am white. I’ve always checked those or the caucasian boxes when I have had to fill out the form. I’ve always know I was a white kid. I mean, I’m even on the pale side of the white spectrum, so if I ever forgot that I was white, I could recall running for 30 minutes outside the previous summer without a shirt on and receiving a burn. I’m that white. And here it seemed like Coates was telling me that being brought up to believe I’m white (although I don’t think anyone ever had to point this out to me) was tragic and deceitful. That believing I was white was tied into “preeminence of hue and hair,” words which evoke Hitler’s master race in my mind. So was Coates saying I’m as bad as the Nazis? At this point, I had three options.
First, I could simply stop reading. There’s a ready-made defense: “Look, I really wanted to understand. I even listened to black people on what books a white person should read. I spent my hard-earned money on Between the World and Me. I gave him a chance, I really did. I was willing to listen. But out of nowhere he associated me (indirectly) with the Nazis because I believe I’m white. So don’t tell me I didn’t try.” And then I could perpetuate the cycle by saying I tried and thereby didn’t need to put any more effort to it so that I could keep myself insulated by never opening myself up to horizons beyond my world because they might change me in really uncomfortable ways. Speaking solely from human proclivities, it’s honestly not a bad option.
Second, I could have finished the book but not actually opened myself up to what he had to say. The book is short and well-written, so this would not take a big time commitment. Moreover, it would give me the added benefit of then being able to point out that I have read the book. This would give me the clout that we all so desperately want. And, once, again, it would have allowed me to stay within my own world and not be stretched in any way. Again, this is a good option.
Lastly, I could bracket for a second that I know exactly what he meant. Maybe Coates really does mean that I am similar to the Nazis because I think I am white. Maybe he really is blaming white people for societal ills. I suppose all of these are possible, but would that be the charitable thing to do right off the bat? Even if a Nazi analogy reading is obvious, the plain sense, or whatever to me, does that mean I should believe that reading instead of questioning I am reading rightly? This quote gave me an opportunity to embody interpretive charity, grace, and love, so would I take it?
The last option is the one I took. I finished Between the World and Me and I have thought about it a lot since. I’m still not sure exactly what Coates meant by that quote, although I have some theories. Reading charitably is often hard. It’s easy to take people in a pretty terrible light so that we can write them off. I have heard a lot about racial tension, how white people have negatively affected black people (and still do), and how if I think a certain thing whether it be about politics, economics, or some other topic, then that means I am racist. So writing off Coates would have been easy, and if I had taken the easy option then I would be worse off today: I would have failed to love Coates, understand others less, have a narrower perspective, and be less whole of a human being.
So interpreting charitably is difficult and I am sure I will fail to do so in the future, but, to echo Coates, maybe the struggle is worth it.