Last month, a woman tweeted her discomfort with a New Yorker comic saying, “I’d like to know what people of colour think, esp. @GeeDee215.” The specified Twitter handle is that of Gene Demby, co-host of NPR’s Code Switch podcast (and, full disclosure, a friend of mine), and he wasn’t too happy to be singled out by this woman, a complete stranger.
(The tweet has since been deleted, but as with everything put out on the internet, it was preserved and screenshot by at least one person following the conversation.) What followed was a thoughtful back and forth between Demby and his Twitter followers about the frustrations that come with being a prominent thinker about race and politics—namely, constantly being expected to answer questions from random white people who haven’t bothered to do their homework first, or, as Demby succinctly put it, serving as white folks’ “racial confessor”—and how white progressives can be better allies to people of color.
I recently asked Demby, my Slate colleague Jamelle Bouie, and sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom to expand upon their thoughts shared during that Twitter conversation, and we chatted via Slack. Below is an edited and condensed excerpt from that conversation. —Aisha Harris
Gene Demby: Folks’ emotions have been so raw, and they’ve been having all these feelings at us, as one of my colleagues said.
Aisha Harris: That’s the thing, though, right? It seems like postelection, white people’s emotions are so raw and opened up in a way they maybe weren’t before this election? At least that’s the way it seems to me—that SNL sketch with Chappelle and Rock at the election night viewing party feels too obvious, but it also had a point: that many “good white liberals” are in shock, and even with the best of their intentions, it falls upon POC to carry that burden.
Tressie McMillan Cottom: Oh yes. Black people have one primary job: to manage white people’s emotions. Their emotions are high right now and we’re being overtaxed with it. And our various levels of individual privilege circumscribe how much we can push back on managing their emotions. So, it is all over the place.
Jamelle Bouie: You’ve spoken to this, Tressie, but for many white readers and followers, we are the only consistent black presence in their lives. And so there’s a kind of expectation that we will be there to manage their emotions, whether it is calls for hope or outlets for anger.
McMillan Cottom: The National Black Friend. My people joke that I am probably the black friend for half of the white people who lie and say they have one. Their other black friend is Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Bouie: Who, it should be said, faced a backlash when he explicitly said that he wasn’t their “black friend.”
McMillan Cottom: Well, Jamelle, you messed around and had expertise in what they considered their bailiwick: political science. That made the backlash very particular for you, I suspect.
Harris: This conversation came about on Twitter after someone, a white woman, tweeted about feeling “resistant” to a New Yorker cartoon and wanted to know “what people of color think, especially”: you, Gene. She @-ed you.
Demby: Yeah, she @-ed me, and I was a little spicy with her—spicier than I should have been, maybe—because it felt like the 400th such request to help someone make sense of their emotions. And to Jamelle’s point, we are actually the only black people a lot of people “know.” I’m thinking of that study by Robert P. Jones at the Public Religion Research Institute that found that 75 percent of white people had no nonwhite friends.
McMillan Cottom: I HATE those @s. I ignore them and sometimes now I block them. “I wonder what Tressie would say!” Tressie would say you owe her $5.
Harris: What kinds of things are they wondering about?
McMillan Cottom: The biggest one with me is they read something by a black person who sees something differently than I do. They want an official, singular black opinion to mediate them all. So, “OMG Ta-Nehisi said this WAS reparations and you said it wasn’t!”
Harris: Good lord. I’ve had that happen to me before—it feels like they’re also trying to pit us (black folk) against each other, too. Or they’re just so surprised that two black people can have differing opinions.
McMillan Cottom: They absolutely are. And I refuse ... unless you’re Don Lemon. Him I’ll trash.
Or, they have discovered some “new” thing about race or race/class/gender and want to know what to think. The most recent one was something about black women voting.
Bouie: I am often asked for my advice or guidance on how to achieve racial healing, as if I have or have evinced any particular expertise. To borrow from Tressie, once you have attained some level of visibility as a black writer, there are people who think you become a kind of MLK surrogate.
McMillan Cottom: They really feel safe with you, Jamelle.
Bouie: Yes, there is a level of comfort with me that is understandable, but also results in real anger when I remind my readers that I am a black person and have lived my whole life around black people.
Demby: Twitter as a medium confounds this idea about friendship—it’s an informal space and so people sometimes get things twisted. I’ve noticed this even more since the Code Switch podcast launched. The intimacy of that medium is why it’s so powerful; you’re in people’s homes while they’re cleaning and their earphones on their commutes. I’ve been listening to the Slate Gabfest for at least 8 years, and sometimes I forget that I don’t know Emily Bazelon for real, for real. But yeah, that’s how you end up with people digging up your personal, nonwork email to send you long emails about why, postelection, she was wearing a safety pin—which is a thing that happened.
McMillan Cottom: Oh, the emails I get from people are epic. It has the extra gendered dynamic of expecting black women to midwife white women in crisis. For example, I suspect you guys get inappropriate emails about how stupid you are, or appeals to your fictive friendship. I get that, plus emails about their personal relationships with black men, their biracial children, their former black nannies, and the expectation that we should be able to talk about this “woman to woman” because black women are uniquely equipped to be their sassy black friend. One woman sent me pictures of her half-black children. Another tried to get me to email her black boyfriend for proof of her racial bona fides.
Bouie: I occasionally get emails of people describing their identity and relationship to black people, and even in my hate mail, readers seem to want to emphasize their relationships with people of color. Citing every possible person of color they can think of.
Demby: And it seems like they’re doing the race inflation thing, right, Jamelle? A Negro lady and I have an occasional conversation on our respective commutes! Are y’all really friends, though? Black person whose existence you acknowledge does not equal friend.
Harris: That’s something I find really interesting—this dichotomy between reading/social media and real-life experiences. Combing through the many responses on that Twitter thread, I noticed a lot of folks debating about whether or not it’s enough to just read Coates, Baldwin, listen to Code Switch, etc. (I personally don’t think it is.)
Demby: I think one of the things that both Jamelle and Tressie are pointing to is the starting premise of the ask, right? I want to have a conversation with you, but I need to first be assured that the conclusion of that conversation is broadly, unrealistically optimistic.
Bouie: Exactly. Which means it isn’t a conversation as much as it is a request for emotional validation.
McMillan Cottom: Absolution. White readers want absolution. They also want to manage all the risk of interracial contact in a way that minority groups can never do. It is a really privileged ask.
Harris: Maybe this is a terrible comparison, but it feels to me akin in some ways to college or just-out-of-college kids asking you to meet them for coffee, out of the blue.
Demby: That’s actually a GREAT comparison.
Bouie: It really is.
McMillan Cottom: That’s it. An assumption of access that isn’t assumed of everyone equally.
With Jamelle and Gene especially, I think these people think they are friends when they are really fans. Social media has collapsed the difference. And then this is refracted through racist assumptions about black people and black men specifically.
Demby: Tressie, can you say more?
McMillan Cottom: If the medium were books or something then people would be less inclined to think you’re “friends.” Social media fleshes you out. We see glimpses of your humor and personal life, etc. For white people that gives just enough safe familiarity of a group they’d usually think is superdangerous. That heightens the appeal of thinking you’re friends.
Demby: Yeah, that makes sense. And there are lots of Twitter conversations that I’m in that aren’t about race—the NBA, Insecure, whatever—that definitely make it seem informal. People have actually tweeted at me—and emailed NPR—to complain that they were annoyed when I tweeted about sports. “That’s not why we follow you.” Like, “RACE OR GTFO!”
McMillan Cottom: You’re the race whisperer!
Harris: Do you guys also feel frustrated, in some ways, just purely as professional writers? In that, to some extent, you hope that your work can speak for itself, and that you shouldn’t have to explain more than what you’ve already written, or willingly expounded upon on Twitter/podcasts, etc.?
McMillan Cottom: Aisha, yes. All the time, yes.
Bouie: God yes. I think I am pretty clear in my work. And yet, people reach out with questions that can be easily answered by ... reading my work.
McMillan Cottom: You are clear. I think we all are, for the most part. I suspect it isn’t that readers are unclear about what we said. It is that what they read or heard made them feel an emotion.
Harris: Based on my own experiences, as well as watching each of yours play out on Twitter in various circumstances, it seems as though they think they may get you to change your mind about what you wrote. (Or admit you’re a fraud!)
Bouie: Ha. I don’t know about the rest of you, but the number of people who want me to admit that I am a fraud is astounding.
McMillan Cottom: LOL I tell people all the time on the Twitter machine that the only way for us to come to terms is for me to agree with you that I’m stupid. Never gonna happen, dawg. Never.
Bouie: The most frequent email I get is some variation on “you are a token who doesn’t deserve what you have.”
McMillan Cottom: I see that. Again, you compete with them in a very particular way. You talk their talk. And they are nasty when you talk it differently. I get it when I do economics type stuff. The violation is that if you’re going to do “real” social science or real writing then you had better agree with them. Retracting your bona fides is how they remind you that you are black.
Demby: I find the “you’re a fraud” people easier to deal with than the “I need your take RIGHT now” people. You can block the trolls. But the other people ain’t got no home training, and there are way, way more of them.
Harris: So, say someone reads your work, but does happen to have (a) black friend(s) with whom they want to discuss it. Do you feel for that (those) black friend(s)? Is it preferable in your mind for them to talk to someone they already have a concrete, established relationship with about these things, or do you think they shouldn’t throw that burden on any black people? (Or, more generally, people of color?)
Bouie: I think it is preferable for them to have a concrete, established relationship in which they know they could get roasted. I think people need to accept that an honest or open conversation about race could result in a roasting.
McMillan Cottom: Because of that race inflation Gene described, I’m disinclined to think someone’s black friend is where I want to start. I’m more interested in black people’s white friends. Who WE say are our friends. Those people should be invited to talk. Those other people aren’t ready for any kind of substantive discussion. I have white people who are close enough to me that they can be un-PC with me. I give them that permission. A random white person who thinks we’re friends because we share a desk at work doesn’t qualify. The real challenge seems to be getting white people to risk social closeness and then the hard work of talking about race. Whew.
Harris: That right there—actually socializing with POC—is where I think a huge chunk of the disconnect lies. Which brings us back to why folks feel the need to ask POC they’ve never met in their lives to sort out their feelings.
McMillan Cottom: It’s precisely because they’ve never met them that they feel safe-ish. Here’s the calculation, I think: They assume that racism will preclude us from cussing them out or similarly making them feel vulnerable. White majority around us, the police serving their interests, etc. Maybe that feels less safe in an intimate relationship where they’d feel more conflicted about calling on that racism to control the interaction? I’ve been thinking about it since that woman on Twitter told Gene (and me, by proxy) about how she couldn’t talk safely to her black friends so she had to ask him.
Harris: Is this the same woman who sparked that thread? (And yeah, everything feels safer behind the comfort of a screen.)
Demby: That lady said, explicitly, that she wanted to talk about race, but she said she, as white woman—her words—had to make sure she was safe. I guess I appreciated her candor.
McMillan Cottom: Girl, she needed to be honest and silent.
Harris: But here’s the rub—whenever they are told this, they use that as an excuse, that when they do try to be candid, they immediately get “shot down,” or something to that effect. And then they stew about it.
McMillan Cottom: Yes! “I tried once in the eighth grade!” I hate that so much.
Demby: It’s a callus I think we take as a given, though. We’ve been thinking about this stuff—in our professional and personal lives—for a while. Tressie has five degrees in it!
McMillan Cottom: Just two, smarty pants. And yes—I just can’t accept the extra work given I’m already underpaid in my actual work. Too many black taxes!
Bouie: Right. I was just saying to someone recently that people vastly underestimate the extent to which our lives are filled with a level of racial stress most white people simply couldn’t deal with.
Demby: And we’re having conversations with people who are sometimes well-intentioned and just starting to wade into these conversations and grapple with these ideas. And so it’s hard to figure out where to start, because we’re not in the same place.
Bouie: What’s more, there’s often an implicit demand that we presume their racial innocence.
Harris: That “innocence” is really just willful ignorance in about 99 percent of cases, I’d say. To Gene’s point about not being in the same place, one final question for you all: How best do we deal with the well-intentioned folks who are in our lives already (and not Twitter/FB ghosts) and not scare them away but also not give up too much of our souls in the process? Because it’s draining, obviously, to be the racial confessor. You are not priests or therapists—you did not sign up for this.
McMillan Cottom: Well, I’m a little different here. My job is to teach the willfully ignorant, to a certain extent. I teach race 101 for my day job. I refuse to teach it in my personal life or even to my colleagues and peers. That’s a privilege of my job, though. I can make a semilegitimate claim that my colleagues are responsible for knowing this stuff in a way I couldn’t in other jobs. A prerequisite for being my friend is that you can’t be precious about things that are really life-and-death issues for me. If you can’t deal with me talking honestly about racism, then we aren’t friends. And in my public role I’ve evolved on this. I only owe people as much good faith as they extend to me. Part of that good faith is Googling before you waste my time because you value me and my time.
My momma always said that until people asked the right question, they weren’t ready for the right answer. If you ask me a broad, unspecific, basic-ass question, then you aren’t ready for a serious answer from a serious person.
Bouie: That is an approach I might have to adopt.