“If I were white, the first thing I would do is be really quiet. And read a lot. I would read a ton. And I wouldn’t tell anybody I was reading. I wouldn’t go up to my black friends and say ‘Hey, I read this book Between the World and Me, have you seen this?’ I wouldn’t do that. I would just read a ton and I would study and I probably wouldn’t say anything. I probably would spend a lot of time searching,” said Ta-Nehisi Coates, while visiting Cleveland, Ohio, in 2015.
White People — and I include myself here — we need to talk about white people.
Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism and Jonathan M. Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland arrive at roughly similar ends. We need to talk about racism. Moreover, we need to stop equating a talk about racism with a talk about black people.
We need to talk about white people because, as Metzl demonstrates in his studies of gun issues in Missouri, health care issues in Tennessee, and public education in Kansas, we are making decisions, especially with our votes, that are both harming ourselves and our children.
Metzl explains that “American human frailty is in part man-made, rendered all the more tenuous not be invasions of them, the immigrants or pathogens, but by political choices made by us, the white electorate.” We do this, he contends, because of “white America’s investment in maintaining an imagined place atop a racial hierarchy – that is, an investment in a sense of whiteness” or privilege. We are so intent on protecting our privilege that we are literally, as Metzl proves in the section about gun suicides, killing ourselves.
We need to start the conversation, Diangelo says, by “[n]aming white supremacy [because it] changes the conversation in two key ways: It makes the system visible and shifts the locus of change onto white people, where it belongs.” The vocabulary of white supremacy culture is becoming more familiar — but we still resist.
For example, we say, “There must be trust between us. You must trust that I am in no way racist before you can give me feedback on my racism.” Even when we condescend to sit at the table for a discussion about racism, we still want to establish the conditions for our participation.
Of the two books, I found Diangelo’s more readable. However, I feel more confident in my ability to navigate discussions of gun issues and public school funding than I do in participating in the difficult conversations Diangelo prescribes. More than once, I recognized myself in her descriptions of white people who want to do good (and be recognized for doing good) but still cling, albeit subtly, to shreds of their white privilege.
Metzl’s narrative writing is impressive, and his inclusion of excerpts from interviews he conducted adds to the value of what he has to say. The quantitative chapter filled with statistics, formulas, and graphs, makes for difficult reading, though, and I didn’t study them as carefully as I undoubtedly should have.
Ideally, you should read them both. Put them in conversation with each other.
“Attention,” as Arthur Miller wrote, “must be paid.” Otherwise, we’re killing ourselves quickly in Missouri, slowly in Tennessee and making everyone’s children suffer in Kansas. And as those three states go, Metzl and Diangelo seem to agree, so goes the country.