It was the morning before Martin Luther King Day and I, a white-ish Canadian dude of Jewish heritage, was lost deep in the layered and rippling repercussions of the black experience in America.
I had been working on a perfect lazy Sunday, ripe with Korean food, until Ta-Nehisi Coates messed it all up. With compact eloquence this piece in The Atlantic on the Bill Cosby rape allegations and our history of inherited and passed-on subjugation showcases Mr. Coates’ talent for seeing behind cultural curtains and pulling out uncomfortable perspectives we didn’t know we were missing.
It is necessary reading. Not only for members of the black community still grappling with the fall of one of their more cherished icons, but for all of us. Because as much as Coates’ writing seems to be black-centric, and while the specific subject of “colored” life in “white” America indeed still requires explicit inspection, to see the uncovered insight only in those binary shades would be a waste.
Coates’ article is a look at the motivations and consequences of violence and dismissiveness, specifically the psychology behind those defending Mr. Cosby. Recently some relatively well-known African American celebrities have come out with defenses of the disgraced comedian and doubts on the legitimacy of his accusers. They sound something like this.
“Did he rape these bitches?” comedian Eddie Griffin questioned rhetorically and more than a bit smugly in a recent interview. “All of them said the same thing—‘We went to the room.’ Why would you go to the room of a known married man?”
“How big is his penis that it gives you amnesia for 40 years?” Damon Wayans wondered, likewise making sure to address these potential victims of rape as “bitch”, lest we forget their appropriate designation.
And there seems to be numerous other Cosby “truthers” defending America’s former favorite sweater-wearing father, using everything from sentimentality to white America Illuminati conspiracy theories.
Yet Coates’ purpose is not simply to critique some callous commentary; his larger points lie in the parallels. And they are biting.
“It is always particularly painful to see those who have been victimized by a habitual looking away to then turn around and do it themselves.”
At a time when structural violence against black Americans is in the spotlight, when questions of white privilege and the insidious effects of long-term oppression are finally being discussed in the mainstream, how is it that those who’ve been oppressed by power (black Americans) so easily and cruelly dismiss the pain and legitimacy of the powerless? (women, victims of rape.)
Coates’ larger work (see: Between The World And Me) dives into race and power and brutality in terms of the stories and fabricated designations we like to create for ourselves, both white and black. In his Cosby piece we are moved directly into this viewpoint and showed how the violence faced by black Americans can only be justified, can only continue to exist, by the perpetuation of a narrative, of a fiction, that is believed by those who perpetrate the crime and accepted by those who look away.
Thugs wearing hoodies, big black demon-faced delinquents – no matter that they’re unarmed, that they’re teenagers, that they’re 12yr olds, that white kids pull the same shit everyday – the story has been told enough times and the upper ends of the hierarchy feel comfortable with their elevated position and so it sticks. Just enough to let it all keep going on.
Black folks know this. They’ve lived it. Felt it not only in the police brutality and tragic murders, but in the daily micro-aggressions, in the stories of their parents, and grandparents, and history. Most would nod in agreement at the realities Coates unravels for us.
“The scorned enjoy no rights that the powerful must respect.”
“And like all powerful elements seeking to sanctify their use of violence, these apologists employ history selectively.”
“…there has always been some sort of legitimate system for hearing and adjudicating plunder.”
Yet when it comes to hearing the voice of apparently abused women, of innocents been made powerless by the more powerful, their bodies plundered, their lives wickedly redirected – from some people there is no sympathy, no empathy, no validation of suffering or recognition of fellow victim.
“In fact, there is no real difference in claiming that a woman in a married man’s hotel room forgoes the right to her body, and asserting that a black boy wearing a hoodie forgoes the right to his.”
“Only tribalism and power can explain the theory put forth by Cosby’s defenders. . . We, too, are capable of fictions because, as it turns out, oppression confers no wisdom and is rarely self-improving.”
It’s a scathing calling out, delivered by a black man who has not only lived it but spent a lifetime trying to understand what has been imposed on him. Those offended by the frankness and personal implications have no easy retreat into defensiveness. The legitimacy of the messenger forces you to hear the message, and face it.
Our stories are old and our allegiances with them symbiotic; we sustain them as much they do our self-image. So you can be forced into a different light, shown a new manner to view the world, but in the end one must want to change their perspective.
“So strong is the power of the legitimizing narrative, that even those who are victims of these violent fictions are rarely deterred from crafting justifying fictions of their own. In the 19th and 20th century, the old discriminations against white ethnics—“no Irish need apply”—did very little to prevent those same white ethnics from engaging in anti-black racism. Yet for a starker example, it may well better to look closer to home.”
Coates uses this to introduce how the fragile human ego will try to validate itself by any means necessary, even by passing one’s experienced injustices onto others. And while I joined him as he examined the specific phenomena of African Americans doing onto others what evils had been done onto them, I couldn’t stop there. I was stunned and gladly dragged further into the new light, coffee mug dangling in my hand.
How many more of our social and political and personal relationships are dominated and directed by this impulse? Just as Coates parallels the dismissiveness and injustice faced by blacks in America to what women face in the ever-present reality of sexual abuse, we can extrapolate this enfeebling inclination to almost any human interaction.
The next day celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday, a national holiday I suspect this Canadian took more seriously than most Americans. I devoted myself to a bit of research, watched the film Selma, listened to some of Dr. King’s speeches, and read up on the cause of civil rights and civil abuse in America.
“And when his (the white man’s) wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.” — Martin Luther King Jr, 25 March 1965. Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March.
And everywhere I saw everything else.
People barely a generation removed from their immigrant parents, willing to turn away desperate refugees.
Jews, the last people to be put into ghettos, now themselves ghettoizing others.
Catholics vs Protestants. Sunni vs Shia. Straight vs gay.
Some shade of something judging some shade of something else.
Donald Trump, son of a Scottish immigrant, grandchild to German immigrants (originally Drumpf) successfully using anti-immigrant rhetoric to campaign for leader of a nation of immigrants. Divisions. Demonizations. Demagoguery. Cheering crowds so very desperate and thankful for the opportunity.
From caste systems in India dividing people into levels of human worth, to the harsh words you casually dropped down on a loved one – how often and easily we place others beneath us, how simple and base our motives.
Like scared little children in the schoolyard laughing at the kid who talks funny, like bellboys in hell perpetually carrying around whatever shitty baggage unwillingly bequeathed to us, we will do almost anything to make ourselves feel just a little bit superior, more secure, less hurt.
Shouldn’t all who’ve at some moment in their lives been put down by our self-sustaining system of class innately care when someone debases another just to elevate themselves?
Yes, we should. But that would require an empathy stronger than our ego’s myopia. And we’re obviously not there yet.
White/Black/Male/Female/Queer/Other…and a million arbitrary shades in between.
Is this our scale? Who is at the bottom?
I don’t know, but it seems like we’ll always find someone.
Check out the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece at The Atlantic here