Tom Matlack asked his friend Steve Locke to write for us about race. He declined. Here’s why.
Thanks so much for asking me to contribute something to GMP. It has been exciting to see how this project has gone from an idea to a reality.
As much as I enjoy reading GMP and as much as I’d love to be a part of it, I don’t think I am able to write about race.
It’s not that I don’t know anything about it. I was on a social media site and I was looking at the post one of my friends shared. He was lamenting the fact that PSYCHOLOGY TODAY had printed an article saying that black women are “objectively” less attractive than other women. Others of his friends posted on his “wall,” saying that attractiveness was relative and that it was based on symmetry of features and the like. I posted a “sigh” and said that it was sickmaking, in 2011, that someone would even create a study to investigate humans in such a way, that the creation of the study was evidence of a bias, and the notion that peoples’ “tastes” and “preferences” are not affected by 300+ years of racialized bias was ignorant. Also, I have been told that black people are somehow deficient for most of my 48 years and that PSYCHOLOGY TODAY was passing this crap off as research was sad.
A poster responded that he didn’t see any racism in the research and that it was like comparing apples and oranges. He also told me that too many people say things are about race when they aren’t, and that maybe I was upset to be on the “losing” side of the article. He wanted me to explain why I thought the article was racist.
I told him that it is not my job to educate him about the experience of race in his own country, although as his darker countryman, I am called on to do just that. I told him that like most ostensibly white people his age, he wanted to locate a reason for thing in his own experience, probably so he would not have to have bad feelings about history, or have to acknowledge the privileges and benefits that he has received for nothing that he has done.
I am a college professor, however, so I gave him some texts that to read that would take him from Reconstruction to the current moment in culture and history. I told him that these would help him develop an understanding of how the caste system of the United States is racialized, and that the understanding of the American experience is structured through the creation, implementation, and sustenance of the racial boundaries through policy and culture.
Here’s the list:
W.E.B. DuBois BLACK RECONSTRUCTION
Ronald Takaki A DIFFERENT MIRROR
Eric Lott LOVE AND THEFT
Noel Ignatiev HOW THE IRISH BECAME WHITE
Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall AGENTS OF REPRESSION: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement
Alexander Saxton THE RISE AND FALL OF THE WHITE REPUBLIC
(B)ell hooks BLACK LOOKS
Douglas A. Blackmon SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME
Andrew Hacker TWO NATIONS: BLACK AND WHITE, SEPARATE, HOSTILE, UNEQUAL
The poster advised me that I was being racist by saying “most ostensibly white people.” I advised that I was going solely by his phenotype, which is what people do with me. I also told him to look up “ostensibly” and “racist.”
So you see, it’s not that I don’t know anything about the subject.
Tom, I don’t want to talk about race because it gives weight to a fiction that was created to oppress. It has no basis in biology and is a social construction in this country that was engineered to maintain access to free labor. The fiction created by race distorts the reality in which we live.
Plus, as a black person, I am called on often to speak for my “race.” I can never give an opinion without it being assumed to be that of a multitude. So when a white person asks me my opinion about an issue that can be related to race, I suspect that there is going to be a moment later when that white person is going to say, “Well, I have a black friend, Steve, who says…” And that will be the black authority on the subject.
Black people can’t talk to white people about race anymore. There’s really nothing left to say. There are libraries full of books, interviews, essays, lectures, and symposia. If people want to learn about their own country and its history, it is not incumbent on black people to talk to them about it. It is not our responsibility to educate them about it. Plus whenever white people want to talk about race, they never want to talk about themselves. There needs to be discussion among people who think of themselves as white. They need to unpack that language, that history, that social position and see what it really offers them, and what it takes away from them. As James Baldwin said, “As long as you think that you are white, there is no hope for you.”
When you went to Africa, you said “you were the minority for the first time in your life.” That’s not true. You have been the only adult in a room full of children, the only man in room full of women, the only non-incarcerated person in a jail. In America if you were a minority at a hip-hop concert in Compton, you would still have the privilege that accrues unbidden to persons designated as white, with all of the political, social, and economic access that comes with it.
What you experienced in Africa, Tom, was that the apparatus that supports the dominance of white skin was absent. It has nothing to do with being a minority someplace, you were free of the prison that is whiteness in America. You could have brought all that privilege with you and manifested it when you saw Cole with Protus, but you didn’t. Letting go of that allowed you to show Cole that he can connect with another person independent of the color of their skin.
Do you remember how Clinton was vilified for wanting to have a national conversation on race? People thought it was unnecessary, that he was a “race traitor,'” that it would lead to reparations for slavery, that it would make white people feel bad for things that were not their fault. White people don’t want to hear about race because the don’t want to be called “racists” or they cannot see how they are responsible for something they didn’t do. That report talks a lot about white privilege. It was no surprise to me that it was not widely read and discussed.
Whiteness to me is oppression. And it oppresses not just black people, but people who think it offers them something other than dominance over their fellow man. Poor white people have been sold a bill of goods that offers them white supremacy and takes away jobs and economic growth.
Tom, I have never, not once, thought of you as white. I think of you as a father, a husband, a brilliant businessman, a feminist, a Quaker, and most of all as a friend. You have never treated me as whiteness demands that you treat me. I don’t want to talk about race because if I do, I stop being an artist, an educator, a godfather, a gay man, and most of all, human.
So I appreciate the offer, Tom, I really do. I just don’t think I can write about it. I can write about art if you like. I know a lot about that.
Love to Elena and the kids, and to you, my man.
Reprinted with permission
More articles On Race:
Whiteness Is Not the Absence of Racial Identity Any More Than Maleness Is the Absence of Gender Identity
“the neverending story” 2007
oil and acrylic on panel
12 x 16 inches