I'm still processing everything I read in Ta-Nehisi Coates' latest, influential book Between the World and Me. I'd been wanting to read it for the last year, given the whirlwind of press it had received from critics, social scientists, and fellow writers; but even with the fervor that surrounded the book, I was not prepared for the way it would affect me on a very personal and emotional level.
Finishing this book left me with a sense of urgency; it made me want to put a copy into the hands of every person I know. And yet, in that urgency, there was despair; in fact, maybe the latter informed the former. Because this book gives you a glimpse of what is at stake, what is happening all around us: people are drowning and we are afloat on their bodies. You see it and yet you still don't know how to fix it. Because that is usually where we, as a nation, leave it; afraid that acknowledging we are using black bodies to keep ourselves afloat, as we have done since before our nation's inception, would leave us wet. As Coates puts it:
“They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world.”
Instead, we cling to our "whiteness" and all of the benefits that go with it, and it is ignorant and it is selfish and it is cowardly.
As a child, Coates' mother would have him sit down and write about his bad behavior; to question the motives for his actions. She fostered in him a sense of self-reflection, even if it did not change his immediate behavior. I feel as though this entire book can be viewed through that lens. Coates is not attacking people who "think they are white" for doing so but he is challenging us, the Dreamers, to develop a greater self-awareness around our whiteness and why we cling to it with such ferocity. He writes:
"Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world."
If there was ever a jumping-off point for addressing racism it would be here: to at least acknowledge that it is real, that it exists all around us, and that we - by believing we are white - are complicit. We are complicit to the suffering of nearly 40-million people, who live in a society where they must work twice as hard for half as much; where they can do everything right and still be gunned down because of the color of their skin - without recourse. Race objectifies and dehumanizes, yet we - those of us who think we are white - cling to this idea of race because we benefit. And while a self-awareness of those benefits might not end racism, it might at the very least create greater room for discussion and growth.
The first step is admitting you have a problem - something America is reticent to do, even 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation - but take a look at Michael Brown and Tamir Rice; take a look at our prisons; take a look at the Trump campaign. We have a race problem, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.
So I encourage anyone who reads this to go pick up a copy of Between the World and Me, from your local bookstore or your nearest library. Read it and ask yourself some hard questions about the role race plays in your life. There may be no easy answers but I suspect, as Coates says, "the pursuit of [the] question ... ultimately answers itself."