Fine-Tuning the Racial Contract.

“Do you know the difference?”

Without even a comment, Ray Winbush sent me the link to Jay Smooth’s most recent illdoctrine vlog post, “How To Tell People They Sound Racist.”

Oh, my: It’s a thing of beauty.

No, scratch that: It’s almost a piece of counter-racist science.

I’m floored and humbled by this clip, because it does so much that I’ve been trying to do for so long, but does it so much better. Besides being excellently produced, written, edited, performed, and shot, what’s so wonderful about it is that Jay describes a common, discomfiting moment—the one after somebody makes a racist statement—but does not linger there.

“Everybody’s talking about race!”Instead, he makes specific suggestions on how to handle the situation, mechanically—the way to address it, given the likely response of denial—so that, when done, you aren’t left standing there wondering, “What happened?” You know: The usual way the bar closes.

The smartest part of Jay’s whole construct, though, is his breaking down your possible response paths into one of two kinds: “What They Did” vs. “What They Are.” The first “focuses strictly on the person’s words and actions,” notes Jay. The second “uses what they did and what they said to draw conclusions about what kind of person they are.”

Avoid the latter one like the plague, he says, calling it “a rhetorical Bermuda Triangle,” because it forces the accuser to prove something as invisible as intent.

Or, pulling from my own personal code of speech, Never call a person a racist, unless that person says they are one first.

This is where a lot of people get tripped up. They get locked into a debate about the kind of person the suspected racist might be, doing so with the only person who actually has any credibility in that area: The person they’ve accused of racism. How do you know, for example, that they didn’t just make a mistake?

Even more, though,

When you say, ‘I think he’s a racist,’ that’s not a bad move because you might be wrong. That’s a bad move because you might be right. … Even though, intuitively, it feels like the hardest way to hit him is just run up on him and say, ‘I think your ass is racist,’ when you handle it that way, you’re actually letting him off easy, because you’re setting up a conversation that’s way too simple for him to derail and duck out of.

Likening the racist statement-maker to a petty thief, Jay urges,

When somebody picks my pocket, I’m not gonna be chasin’ him down so I can figure out whether he feels like he’s a thief, deep down in his heart. I’m gonna be chasin’ him down so I can get my wallet back. I don’t care what he is, but I need to hold him accountable for what he did, and that’s how we need to approach these conversations about race: Treat them like they took your wallet, and focus on the part that matters: Holding each person accountable for the impact of their words and actions.

Racism is a really hard thing for many people to talk about. It seems to have so many simultaneously moving parts.

What Jay has done is take one aspect of the race system and flash-frozen it, pointing out its diverse components, diagramming it like a sentence, instructing the unsure on how to interact with it, linking its necessary outcomes to justice, and doing so with great charm and more than a little humor, half of which I wish I was, somehow, blessed.



#1 Liam on 08.01.08 at 9:36 am

Jay Smooth runs a great blog, definitely worth checking out

#2 Juliette on 08.03.08 at 6:55 pm

make ‘them’ own their crap……

#3 Asiba on 08.04.08 at 9:24 am

YES! Just like the victim getting back the wallet that was stolen, the victim of racist aggression must get back or maintain their personhood. In order to do this, all human beings who work to be free of oppression of all kinds, must be able to understand its chronic nature, which will then provide the power to name or put words on the evil deeds no matter how innocuous. In other words, it’s hard for a child to stop a child abuser who is coercive in committing the violation because the child has difficulty naming what’s going on which is exactly what a perpetrator exploits. Racism is chronic and exists pervasively in this society an can be difficult to describe while the victim can still feel violated. The sooner we are able to understand the chronic nature of racist assault, violation, or hurtful words, we will be able to do exactly as Jay Smooth suggests, tell what offender did and then act so that the evil deed can’t be done again.

#4 Kathy K on 12.02.09 at 11:48 pm

A friend linked me to your blog and I’ve been reading for the last hour. I am a white woman, born and raised in the south, who tries her hardest to be fair, accepting, and respectful of all peoples. I consider myself “progressive”, or at least I strive to be. I am trying to teach my children to be fighters for equality and justice. But often I feel like the blind leading the blind. We read Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry together..we talk about Dr King and the Civil rights movement…but I often feel like the blind leading the blind. What do I know or understand? Very little.
What you are writing is so important. As a white woman, there is so much I don’t know and don’t understand about the black perspective. No matter how many black friends I have, or how much I want to strive for real equality for all people…I will remain in the mindset of a privileged white woman unless someone teaches and opens my eyes to other experiences and perspectives.
Thank you. Please keep writing.

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