Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2019 | 8 minutes (2,132 words)
They have a deep emotional investment in the myth of “sameness,” even as their actions reflect the primacy of whiteness as a sign informing who they are and how they think.
—bell hooks, Black Looks (1992)
I’m experiencing some deep angst about this essay. That anxious feeling where you’re standing on the edge of a cliff on a perfect day — no wind, no sound, no bird of prey — and you’re almost certain you’ll throw yourself off. Every time I email a black critic for this article, it’s even worse because I can’t even tell if I’ve jumped or not. Like I’m dead at the bottom of that cliff, but I have to wait for a reply to be informed. That I’m dead. This is what white people call “white fragility,” right? “Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race,” Robin DiAngelo wrote. (As book critic Katy Waldman noted, many people of color could have written White Fragility in their sleep.) I am in fact biracial — my father is white, my mother is Pakistani (she grew up in England) — but I pass. I barely identify with my Pakistani side, except when I see a group of Pakistani people. Then I’m like Hey. I know you. (Even though I don’t.) I don’t think this when I see a group of black people. Although, what’s that line in Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist? “To be an antiracist is to realize there is no such thing as Black behavior.” To be an antiracist is to realize there is such a thing as White behavior.
White behavior is writing an article based on a premise that’s already false: How do I as a white critic cover black culture? First of all, why am I even asking that question? I could start by deferring to critics who don’t have to. And, as a cultural critic, I could question instead the way I see race as a whole. There’s a word for defining people by their race alone: essentialism (that’s the academic term, but racism works too). In The New York Times’ 1619 Project, Wesley Morris spelled it out: “Americans have made a political investment in a myth of racial separateness, the idea that art forms can be either ‘white’ or ‘black’ in character when aspects of many are at least both.” That sounds like the opposite of the bell hooks quote that opens this essay, but they are actually complementary in that they are both myths: We are neither entirely the same, nor are we entirely different. None of us are, regardless of race. But our society, as progressive as parts of it pretend to be, is built on myths like this and the failure to diversify criticism perpetuates them. “Postmodern multiculturalism may have genuinely opened up a space for the voices of the other, challenging the authority of the white West,” Richard Dyer wrote in White (1997), “but it may also simultaneously function as a sideshow for white people who look on with delight at all the differences that surround them.”
“The other.” Dyer, who wrestled with his own whiteness before many others thought to, used that term to designate nonwhite, but his book ultimately dismantles the idea that white is not itself a color. “As long as race is something only applied to non-white peoples, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm,” he wrote. “Other people are raced, we are just people.” The “just”-ness of those people camouflages whatever they choose to take — or, more accurately, steal — from the other. I think of all the music Morris mentioned in his 1619 essay — from the Rolling Stones to Beck — that for so long I just saw as white music, siding with the thief without even noticing the thieved. There were so many famous white musicians, why wouldn’t all that stuff belong to them? Black people had rap, right? That was me as a kid, spying machine guns and a naked ass on my brother’s Ice-T record. I didn’t listen to that. I listened to Madonna. To white music. I saw all those gay black dancers in Madonna’s bed in Truth or Dare but I didn’t really see them — I just saw her. hooks wrote that Madonna was “endorsing and perpetuating” white supremacy. I didn’t see that as a kid, but it’s all I see now.
I know Carvell Wallace’s work. I’ve read his cover stories in The New York Times Magazine, in Esquire, in GQ. They’re all about pop culture, but since the celebrities aren’t white and the magazines kind of are, they’re also about race. I emailed him to talk about how white critics should cover black culture and he didn’t tell me to fuck off. The reason I expected him to was because it’s not the job of a black person to guide a white person through their racism. I was asking for a favor, and he and the three other culture journalists I spoke to did not have to help me, but they did. I didn’t need to talk to other white journalists. They’re everywhere. I see how they’re handling this (to varying degrees of success). What I wanted to know was whether their colleagues thought it was enough. Wallace did say that he had thought about white criticism, he just hadn’t dwelled on it. “Part of being a free black person in America is not thinking a whole lot about white people,” he told me. He doesn’t have a problem with white people writing about “culture that isn’t white,” he just thinks a lot of them do a shitty job of it. It’s like they know how to be journalists — to research, to report — but forget when it comes to the ins and outs of cultures that aren’t their own. When art falls under their purview, it falls under their race too. And because that’s the approach we see all the time, the one that gets rewarded, we feel secure. “It becomes this cycle of ‘well, this is what good culture writing looks like because this other white person who is big and famous writes like this,’” he explained, “and no one told them that, ‘oh, but this other white person was trash too.’”
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By now it’s a truism that white people have organized America so that they dominate it. It’s as true of cultural criticism as it is of politics. But the popular culture that dominates our eyes and ears (and our wallets) does not belong to us. “Out of our unique isolation, both from our native cultures and from white America, we forged this nation’s most significant original culture,” Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in the Times Magazine. “In turn, ‘mainstream’ society has coveted our style, our slang and our song, seeking to appropriate the one truly American culture as its own.” Aside from those who command so much power they can’t be swept aside, black artists continue to be marginalized in white art, with white artists pleading “representation” in response. We love to use this word (“diversity” is another one), but in a vague toothless way that usually amounts to a person of color quietly popping up in a way that isn’t too disruptive — the black actor cast as a generic supporting superhero with next to no narrative, the trend of race-swapping established franchises without doing much to the story. When the work starts getting unwieldy in its “otherness,” like Black Panther or anything by Cardi B, rather than engaging with it on its own terms, it’s easier for white critics just to be “allies” and praise it.
Why is it that when I see Halsey on the cover of Rolling Stone I don’t think twice, while seeing Cardi B makes me feel out of my depth? My woeful lack of music knowledge is the same for both of them. If anything, I should feel more of an affinity for Cardi because I’ve actually heard a couple of her songs. But I don’t, because Cardi’s otherness eclipses everything else about her and becomes her identity — she reads insurmountable. Halsey, who passes like me, despite us having nothing else in common, plays less obscure. Is that racist? Cause it sure as hell sounds like it is. Whiteness makes even an alien piece of culture palatable. When that palatability is removed, when blackness (nonwhiteness in general) gets to own itself — which should be cause for celebration! — it confronts the world of whiteness you, if you’re like me, may not even recognize you live in; that world so potent it can even block out your very own nonwhiteness. “Our culture is so segregated,” Soraya McDonald, culture critic for The Undefeated, said when I interviewed her. She said it like a sigh. She also mentioned, as if it even needed to be, that obviously even she doesn’t “know everything about black people”: “I think what’s really necessary, especially for white journalists, is to be aware of their whiteness and to be aware that whiteness is not neutral.”
It’s embarrassing that I have to be told this. That as a grown adult I have to be told that everyone is human first. Minorities don’t have to be told this. Those whom white culture labels as “other” question their worldview naturally because the dominant culture has always forced them to, while failing to do so itself. “The point of seeing the racing of whites is to dislodge them/us from the position of power, with all the inequities, oppression, privileges and sufferings in its train,” wrote Dyer, “dislodging them/us by undercutting the authority with which they/we speak and act in and on the world.” That’s the critical shift — to acknowledge that your perspective, as Wallace put it, isn’t “the most logical, reasonable way.” It involves not just seeing your own race, but understanding that race alone doesn’t define everyone else. Of course, no one wants to be aware of their race all the time — just ask any person of color — but isn’t it the least we can do? “If radical change is truly desired in such a place, then those who have the bounty of privilege should shoulder the greater risk,” artist Xaviera Simmons wrote in The Art Newspaper this summer. Anyone, who, frankly, is not white, is regularly made to feel uncomfortable. To force ourselves to feel the same way, isn’t it the least we can do?
“I’m not saying go out and make yourself a black friend,” Aisha Harris told me, “but you have to broaden your network.” The new culture editor for the Times’ opinion section was responding to my lamentations about contacting black critics for their help, about my worry that I was coming across as someone who uses people of color like tokens. I felt like a child when this woman who is almost a decade younger than me had to tell me how to write about the world, that I have to surround myself with more diversity. I felt like a child when all four critics I contacted — including Keep It podcaster Ira Madison III — said we don’t have to be black, we just have to be informed. It means doing all the reading and the reporting and the interviewing that fills in the blanks of all the lives we haven’t lived. “When we don’t know things it’s our job to find them out!” said McDonald.
But first we have to know what we don’t know. Successfully dismantling white supremacy (internally and externally), explained Wallace, is “somewhere in the realm of just assuming you know a lot less than you currently think.” It’s knowing that much of the cultural knowledge you have about what you deem white culture was as passively learned as you must actively learn the cultures you have up until now deemed other. It’s also knowing when to take a seat. “Some white critics may not be able to relate to the themes presented, and the movie may not resonate with them,” Andreas Hale wrote in The Root about Black Panther. “But that’s pretty much how black folks have felt about the vast majority of films to which we cannot relate, but upon which are heaped tremendous praise by film critics.” If empathy doesn’t come naturally, McDonald recommends summoning Kendrick Lamar, a man who may not be a journalist, but who definitely has a Pulitzer. “Be humble,” he sings, “Bitch, sit down.”
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.