The Lie That Was Told About Them

I’m always hesitant to include videos in my writing, especially if they’re longer than five minutes or so. Most of our attention spans have been so addled by TikTok and Instagram Stories, that anything longer than that just doesn’t seem worth paying attention to (my attention span can barely make it through an entire .gif). But the video above held my attention. In fact, I can confidently say that this video of Representative John J. Deberry Jr. of Memphis, Tennessee, speaking about racial equality and civil rights, is the most valuable ten minutes of attention that you’re going to pay today.

If you’ve grown tired of seeing politicians and celebrities and other public figures too afraid to say that violence and hatred, even if they come in response to racism, are poisonous, this will be a breath of fresh air. If you haven’t grown tired of it. If you believe that the violence we’re seeing is an inevitable or even necessary response to the racial problems we face, I beg you to take the time to listen to this speech. There’s no false outrage here. No moralising or victimising. Just a man with the courage to point out what is wrong.

He speaks with a passion born of the fact that he cares deeply about these issues. This is a man who has experienced the horrific injustices that many of the people rioting and supporting violence use to justify their actions. This is a man who was forced to sit at the back of the bus, who was denied access to white-only spaces and water fountains, who had to use the back doors when entering public buildings. He didn’t just read about these things, he lived them.

And yet, or perhaps because of that fact, he is able to say clearly what so many seem too frightened to admit; there is no justification for the violence we’re seeing. No amount of rage or hurt makes it ok, or anymore likely to solve these problems. This is a man who has seen, first hand, the power of dignity, compassion, and determined, peaceful protest to change the world. Perhaps we haven’t seen enough of that in recent years. Perhaps we’ve lost faith in that power. Perhaps we no longer believe that we can change the hearts and minds with kindness and compassion. But as Rep. Deberry himself puts it:

“I saw men and women stand with courage and integrity and class, and they changed the world. They changed the world because what the world could see in them, was the lie that was being told about them.”

That black people are violent, and lawless, and stupid, is the lie that is being told about us. It’s the lie that’s been told about us from the start. It’s the lie that justified the belief that we were good for nothing more than to be worked to death as slaves. It’s the lie that convinced generations that the black community’s struggles with crime and poverty were a result of laziness and weakness, not discrimination and the legacy of Jim Crow. It’s the lie that encourages policemen to put their knees on our necks and bullets in our backs.

It’s a lie that’s so often repeated, that some black people have even begun to believe it themselves. So they act it out on the streets, and on their neighbour’s businesses, and on anybody who dares to disagree with them. I believe we’re better than this, and clearly, Rep. Deberry does too. We have the right to be angry. We have the right to demand justice. We have the right to expect to be judged by the content of our character, but the way that we pursue those rights is a reflection of that character.

This struggle isn’t just about hearts and minds, it’s about our souls. It’s about how to build a society which we can be proud to leave to our children. The status quo is clearly not the answer, but neither is a world which is divisive and violent and fuelled by rage. That rage needs to be put aside, not for the sake of those who want to oppress us, but for the sake of the people who will follow in our footsteps.

When we look back at Rep. Deberry’s generation, we see men and women who we can be proud of. Men and women who we can aspire to be like. Men and women who maintained their dignity during hard times, so that they could pave the way for us to live in easier ones. We see men and women who exposed the lie that had been told about them. What will the next generation see when they look at us?

You’re Probably Not Racist.

You might not have noticed, but over the last few years, there’s been a quiet war raging against the English language. As far as I’ve been able to work out, the enemy is any word that has a clear, unambiguous meaning. Notable casualties of this war currently include the word “Literally”, which can now officially be…continue reading on Medium…
"Meditation isn’t an escape from life. It’s an encounter with it."

I Wish My Blackness Didn’t Matter.

I was the second black student ever to attend my school. The first was my sister, five years earlier. I was told that this was important but I couldn’t quite understand why it mattered.  This trend continued throughout my education. I was the second black pupil my piano teacher ever had. The first was my…continue reading on Medium…

An Open Letter To People Who Write About What Is And Isn’t Okay To Say.

Allow me to begin by thanking you for the invaluable work that you’re doing. For years I’ve struggled with my utter social tone-deafness and an almost pathological inability to judge interpersonal interactions, so your insights have been invaluable.  In particular, I can’t thank you enough for your assurances that it’s fine to “Just Say Fat”…continue reading on Medium…
Why Christian Cooper chose not to aid the investigation of Amy Cooper.

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock (or are wise enough not to use Twitter), back in May, a black man named Christian Cooper was birdwatching in Central Park, when he noticed that Amy Cooper (no relation) had let her dog off its leash in an area where it was against the rules to do so.

Because the dog was frightening the birds in the area, he asked her to put a leash on her dog. Video of the incident begins with Amy asking Christian to stop recording her, and when he doesn’t, she says she’s going to call the police and “tell them that an African American man is threatening my life.”

Thankfully nobody was hurt, but the incident is a fairly chilling example of racism. A woman trying to turn a man’s blackness into a weapon that might literally have been used to kill him. So it might surprise you to learn that Christian has chosen not to press charges or aid the investigation. Here’s what he had to say:

I believe in punishments that are commensurate with the wrongdoing. Considering that Amy Cooper has already lost her job and her reputation, it’s hard to see what is to be gained by a criminal charge, aside from the upholding of principle. If her current setbacks aren’t deterrent enough to others seeking to weaponize race, it’s unlikely the threat of legal action would change that…

…would I consider it fair and just if Cooper were found guilty and sentenced to anti-bias training and some form of community service? Yes. But black people know all too well that the criminal justice system often doesn’t work that way — that an ambitious DA with an election next year, in the current social climate, might seek and achieve a sentence of a year behind bars. All for an offense from which I suffered no harm, physical or mental. That wouldn’t be a commensurate punishment.

In these divisive times, there’s a lot of talk about the need for compassion. But having the compassion to consider the impact a punishment might have on someone else’s life. Someone who was willing to endanger your life, over a rule they were breaking, is a standard many of us would fail to meet.

In fact many people, including his sister, have made it clear that they believe he has a responsibility to push for her to be punished as harshly as possible, as a deterrent to others who might endanger the lives of innocent people.

I’m not going to try to convince you of which view is more correct. Personally I believe that demonstrating our shared humanity is a more effective means of changing people’s hearts than the fear of punishment . It appears Christian does too. And I’m grateful for his example.

Seattle business owner pressured into chopping off her dreadlocks after cries of ‘cultural appropriation’.

The owner of a drinks shop in Seattle has issued a public apology today after being accused of cultural appropriation because of her dreadlocks.

…I have come to understand – far too late – that my hairstyle is harmful. It is clear that I have been stubbornly resistant, and I apologise to those I hurt. I am deeply sorry for the pain I caused to members of the African-American community, who have been and still are discriminated against for having dreadlocks, and I’m so sorry that it took me this long to admit and address my mistake….

Serious question; is there anybody out there who can point to the African-Americans who were harmed by this woman wearing dreadlocks? Is there anybody who genuinely cared enough about another woman’s hairstyle to feel actual pain? Because if so, I would like to gently suggest that they seek psychological help immediately.

There are real race issues worth fighting for in the world right now, real examples of discrimination which cause real harm. Let me say this very plainly. If you are focused on nonsense like this, you are not interested in fighting racism.

A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor.

It’s open season on public letters at the moment. First there was Harper’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate”. Then, a few days later, came a counterletter, which attacked the original not so much for what it said but for who agreed with it.

And now this letter by Joshua Katz, itself written in response to yet another (!) letter which was signed by hundreds of members of the faculty and students at Princeton university.

The most alarming part of this particular letter, as Joshua points out, is a call to create a faculty run committee that would oversee the investigation of all “behaviour, incidents, research. What qualifies as racist and what the consequences should be, would, of course, also be defined by the committee. Here’s the full quote from section 11 of the “faculty-level” demands:

Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.

Having never studied at Princeton, I can’t, with any confidence, offer an opinion on what it’s like to be a black student or faculty member there. What I can say, with great confidence, is that this le el of overreach, and the fact that it’s being demanded so brazenly at a university with the standing of Princeton, is actually pretty terrifying.

It’s difficult to say if this was just posturing, or whether there was even the slightest hope that this demand would be met, but either way, I would be deeply concerned with having staff that thought this way influencing generations of young, soon to be influential minds.

When Everything Is Stupid, Nothing Is.

Maybe you’ve been feeling it too, this creeping sense of horror at how stupid the world is becoming. Maybe you’ve been watching as fully grown adults throw literal “throwing produce out of their trolley” tantrums because they’ve been asked to wear a mask during a worldwide pandemic. Maybe you’ve read that claim that robots, dogs, climate activism, the White…continue reading on Medium…
Is Racism A Mental Illness?

An interesting piece in Vice on whether racism should be classed as a mental illness. It’s a tempting comparison to make, but as mental health advocates point out, classifying a failure of basic critical thinking such as racism, in the same way we classify genuine illnesses like depression and schizophrenia, is only likely to further stigmatise mental illness.

This video of Jane Elliot speaking on the Oprah Winfrey Show is priceless though, and I think her classification of racism as an illness is a reflection of the time when she made her comments rather than any attempt to dismiss real mental health concerns:

If you judge other people by the color of their skin, by the amount of a chemical in their skin, you have a mental problem. You are not dealing well with reality.”

NYC Community Education Council meeting devolves into chaos amid accusations of racism.

There’s a lot of talk about teachable moments lately. But it’s not every day that you see one and a half teachable hours. Especially from a group of teachers.

The video above is of a NYC Community Education Council meeting which quickly devolves into a shouting match laced with accusations of racism, privilege and demands for apologies form making those accusations. Almost nothing that could actually benefit a school or improve a child’s education is discussed.

Which side of this debate you find yourself sympathising will inevitably be a reflection of your biases. None of us saw the moment they’re arguing about, so none of us can say who is in the right and how much so. 

What we can say though, without any shadow of a doubt, is that this isn’t the way to have these conversations. The video should start at around the 40:22 mark, where the fireworks start in earnest, but the whole thing is worth watching and thinking very seriously about.