Why Can’t Well-meaning White People Criticize African Americans Without Being Accused of and Feeling Like A Racist?
On May 17, 2004 for the 50 year anniversary of the signing of Brown versus the Board of Education, Bill Cosby made a speech where he told an audience that Black people needed to stop looking at the past for reasons why they are not successful today (a speech known as the Pound Cake Speech). He said that African Americans needed to stop blaming White people and to start to turn the mirror around to start to look inward for the solutions to African Americans’ struggles. The notion that one must take responsibility for one’s destiny is a common conclusion and a seemingly reasonable ideology. However, in my view it is not reasonable to blame the victim for things that he or she cannot control, or things that he or she has little control over (racism and institutionalized racism). I believe that conversations about the accountability of many African American’s for the condition of their lives today cannot happen in a caring and supportive context without also talking about the cumulative effects of racism. Bill Cosby in his remarks did not make mention of the historical and continued effects of racism on Black people. It is my belief that any conversation where one is giving advice or telling “them” how to “overcome”, one must also include and acknowledge the monumental effects of racisms. Many White people (students for certain) are now citing Bill Cosby in their conversations and papers. They are saying, “Look, this is what I was trying to say all along, see Bill said it so it must be true, I was right to think what I was thinking.” “Black people are where they are today, over-incarcerated, high dropout rates, lower socio-economic status, and lower test scores because of things that they have been doing, or are doing wrong.” Every time a White student offers advice for how Black people should “pick themselves up by their boot straps and move” on a shiver is sent down my spine. It also serves to put a hush on a discussion and people start nervously looking around to see if anybody over heard what was said. Comments like these are frequently followed by statements that are designed to distance oneself from the ugly specter of the “r” word. Soon after offering the above suggestion White people say things like “I am not a racist” or “my Black friends have told me…”. Comments like this help to prove that the speaker is not a bigot. Why do people feel the need to add these remarks after offering advice to a traditionally oppressed group of people? The answer is because most sensate people know that there is something wrong with doing this, but most don’t really know what it is. As I said before the notion that one be responsible for one’s own destiny is a common conclusion and a seemingly reasonable one, then why in most people does an internal alarm go off, the “politically correct” alarm? The answer in my view is this: conversations from a White person’s mouth about race are taboo and should not be talked about openly because conversations about race are off limits for White people. I believe the real reason people should be worried about this type of conversation is this, the listener cannot assume that the White person speaking knows and is sensitive to the subtle intricacies of racism and institutionalized racism. If one could assume this, then conversations where White people talk about how Black people should “stop blaming White people for their social shortcomings” would be more acceptable and more educationally productive. Though Bill Cosby did not mention this in his talk on May 17, 2004 he did mention this awareness in an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation on July 7, 2004:
We all know racism…there is a great deal of racism we all know that but then again there is a time when we have to turn the mirror around and look at ourselves.
It is perfectly reasonable to assume that Bill Cosby is intimately aware of the fact that there is racism in the world today and that he is fully aware of the negative effects it has on people. Cosby’s comments are coming from a place of understanding and support. I think few would find his remarks to be disparaging or degrading. Quite the contrary, I think most would say that his remarks stem from a great hope, optimism, admiration, and affection for African Americans. Cosby was widely criticized for his commentary on African Americans’ lifestyles, language, and ideals. From what I have read most of his detractors are African American scholars who feel that Cosby has provided White America with more fuel for their long standing stereotypes and biases toward African Americans. In fact, many of my White students (I am an educator) have referenced Bill Cosby’s comments as support for their beliefs that, “African Americans can only blame themselves for where they are to day.” As I mentioned before comments like these send a chill down just about everyone’s spine. Why is this? Why can Bill Cosby say these things and an audience will cheer him, but White student in my class says it everybody looks like they want to crawl out of their skin? I think I have already alluded to the answer. It is completely reasonable to assume that Bill’s remarks come from a position of understanding about the history and effects of racism, and that his comments originate from a paternal and caring place. This is because he is African American. This assumption cannot be made when a White student says this. We have no reason to automatically believe that a White student knows anything about the history of racism and institutionalized racism, or that their comments are originating from a truly supportive place, not a place of judgment and bias.
Black people are more sensitive about criticism when it is not balanced, or when it appears to be that they are being victimized by analyses that don’t pay attention to the precipitive events that led up to certain destructive behaviors.
-Michael Eric Dyson
That being said, a White student might very well be coming from a truly wholesome place when making such comments, but because of historical precedents that White person making these comments will bear the onus of going out of his or her way to make clear what his or her ultimate intentions are. Furthermore, that White person should also address whether or not he or she has experience to make such comments. When criticizing the military people who have served in the Army have more credibility than those who have not. The same is true for people who criticize teaching as a profession, for example saying, “those who can’t do, teach”. If you were once a teacher such comments hold a great deal more weight than if you never taught before. People who comment on race are subject to the same scrutiny. In a study done by Carol Trosset she found that White male college students felt the most apprehensive about getting involved in conversions about race. This was because they felt that they had the least to contribute on this subject having experienced little to no discrimination in their life times (Obstacles to Open discussion, 1998). In here lies the rub. White males, of all people need to be encouraged to get involved in this discussion. It is my belief that White males, when no other sources can be found, can reference the experience gained via others they know, television, or books. They could also admit openly that they have no experience but that they want to comment and get involved anyway. When a White male does this the burden is now on the mediator to keep the discussion calm, supportive, and balanced. White female speakers can usually draw on the discrimination that they have likely felt as a woman. We need to find ways to get voices heard not to silence them. However, when no effort is made to talk about a White speaker’s experience or lack of it, listeners can easily be put-off, offended, or outraged by the comments made. In my view the acknowledgement alone is enough to say to the audience, “yes we are aware of the fact that we lack experience on this topic, but we want to be involved anyway. We don’t think we know it all, we just want to learn more and to share.” When efforts like this are not made tensions can easily grow, communication breaks down, and learning grinds to a stop.
Other African American scholars like Dr. Shelby Steele have openly reflected about the social and political conditions of African Americans. Dr. Steele attacks many of the programs designed to help underrepresented groups. Steele criticizes welfare programs, affirmative action, and merit based assessments that enable some African American high school students to pass college entrance requirements. Like Dr. Cosby, Dr. Steele suggests that African American stop looking to the government for help and stop blaming White people for their current struggles. I often present excerpts from Steele’s book “White Guilt” to my students. During this talk I criticize Black people for not fully taking advantage of a free K-12 education system, for not organizing effectively, and for not using the resources offered to them more diligently. At the end of my talk there is that familiar hush over the room. Most in the class are not sure where I am coming from or what to make of what I have just said. This is because to them all of it strikes a familiar tone, the tone of racism. The last slide in my PowerPoint talk is a picture of Dr. Steele himself at the lectern, when my students see him they all breath a sigh of relief. Why is this? The reason is the same, as a White person no one can assume that my advice and my messages to or about Black people are coming from a truly supportive place. When students learn that I have just relayed the thoughts of an African American and not my own or those of a White author all are relived.
In a perfect world when there is good advice to be given one should be able to give it, no matter the color of the speaker or the audience. However, the phenomenon that I have described above stands in the way of open and potentially productive dialogue between people. This concerns me. In my experience problems between people do not go away without conversation. I think in order to facilitate more open and honest exchanges between people of different races we should start by addressing the question that is the title of this essay. The reverse question is also equally valid and important for us to be able to ask. Why can’t Black people criticize White without being accused of and feeling like a bigot? Conversations about race and between the races are very complicated to facilitate. People all too often go into these dialogues with their guards up. Peoples’ apprehension ends up stymieing both listening and learning, therefore if we can work to create safe and comfortable atmospheres for talking about difficult subjects, then much can be gained. In my view one way to help create these environments that are conducive to learning is to address openly with participants the following points. First, when White people criticize Black people they need to be clear about where their intension lie, are they trying to be productive or just belittling? In this case Black people should do the same. Next, when White people are offering suggestions or questioning the way of life of African Americans, White people need to first express what understandings they have of the history and power of racism and institutionalized racism on minorities in America. Without such an acknowledgments audience members are not able to assume that the speaker has any legitimate right to offer any advice on this subject (except of course if the speaker is good friends with the audience members). In my view Black people need not make such a prelude because it is widely known that they as a group have suffered wrongfully as a result of racism.
Sadly African American and other “minorities” have enduring experiences with racial oppression whereas most White people do not. Therefore, White people need to be sensitive to this fact. A White person’s advice (even if it is good advice coming from a caring place) may not be well received by Black people and this explains why. Again, to counter balance this White people should state their overall intensions for offering advice and they should share what knowledge they have of racism. Finally, when speaking about difficult subjects, from politics, to drugs and alcohol, to racism and oppression people need to be respectful, courteous, and open. Once more, speakers need to be alert to changes in emotional climate in the room and not allow tensions to get too intense before addressing them. People should arrive with a positive attitude and hopefully they should leave feeling the same way or better. Dialogue is the only way to solve problems like racism. Without conversation people resort to aggression which is always unhealthy, unproductive and it only makes matters worse.