Ta-Nehisi Coates: a discussion on power, race, and getting past White guilt

Words by: Meerah Powell, Photo by: Sean Carter Photography, Creative Commons


[dropcap]“I[/dropcap] don’t think guilt helps anything,” says Black author and Atlantic National Correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates to a group of about 80, mostly White, students at the University of Oregon campus. Coates spoke intimately to a mix of mostly journalism and communications students, as well as members of the Black Male Alliance, a few hours before addressing a crowd of almost 10,000 in Matthew Knight Arena as a part of the School of Journalism and Communication’s Ruhl Lecture on Feb. 3.

When doing Q&As at predominantly White colleges like UO, Coates says he finds people usually feel the need to “confess their privilege” to him — first saying they acknowledge their situation as a straight, White male, or whatever other combination of identities, before addressing him. But Coates doesn’t see himself as some all-knowing educator on race who needs to absorb people’s White guilt. If people are aware of their situation, that is adequate. “It’s better to have privilege and be conscious than to have that privilege and not be conscious,” says Coates.

“I didn’t write Between the World and Me to make White people feel bad about themselves,” he says.

As a Black person, and journalist, myself, I find that the topic of White guilt comes up frequently when discussing Coates’ book. When privileged, mostly White, people discover the disadvantages of marginalized groups, some tend to place the blame on themselves — which, as Coates says, “is not a particularly constructive thing.”

No matter the intent, Between the World and Me has become an infamous piece of literature, especially for White people dipping their toes into topics like ethnic studies and racial justice.

Between the World and Me is a 2015 National Book Award Winner, Pulitzer Prize finalist and UO Common Reading Program pick. The book is a letter to his teenage son in which Coates details his life as a Black American — consistently facing bodily harm on the street, White supremacy embedded in institutions, and the loss of the “American Dream,” or rather, the systematic inability to even pursue it in the first place. Because of its content, Coates’ work — specifically this book — has been critiqued to have a bleak or hopeless outlook.

In response to being called racially pessimistic in past reviews and interviews, Coates says, “I’m doing what writers have always done; there’s nothing particularly pessimistic about me when you consider me next to other writers.”

He adds, “If you consider me next to some image of what you feel like Black public figures have a responsibility to do, then maybe you feel a little different.”

To study Coates and his work, it’s necessary to consider the perception of him by his audience — specifically the White demographic; this is crucial when thinking about his visit to Eugene.

Although Coates rejects the idea of himself as a “Black public figure” because of Between the World and Me’s function as an accessible look into Black life, it’s inevitable his White readers would take him to be so. Thus they put this responsibility on him to educate them as well as feel this deep-rooted guilt they must confess to him.

As a Black person who exists in mostly White spaces, I can say these situations are abundant. When the topic of say, slavery or African-American hardships come up in classes, I’ve had educators glance at me as if for input as I am sometimes the only person of color in the room.

These lofty expectations of assuming one person of color can speak on the experiences of a whole race are unrealistic, and Coates undeniably faces this when visiting mostly White towns.  

As for being accused of being pessimistic, that would be the last word to come to mind when actually hearing Coates speak. Passionate, humble, and realistic could work as some of the first few.

The cultural aspects of being Black, Coates says, define him as a person. He grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and during this time, he says, “I just didn’t have anybody who wasn’t Black around me at all.” He went on to go to the historically Black Howard University in Washington D.C. In fact, Coates says, “I didn’t really have any social interactions with White people until I became a writer, until I was about 20 years old.”

To be a Black woman growing up in Eugene, this is something almost incomprehensible. Now 21 years old, I can still count the number of Black friends I have on my fingers. I don’t know if I can weigh how Eugene’s racial demographics affected me in the long run. On one hand, I love the friends I do have — regardless of race — but, on the other, the amount of times my self-confidence was shattered as an adolescent, not having people around who looked like me and thus measuring myself to a beauty standard I would, and will never reach, were countless.

“There is no definition of Black and White, or race period, that can stand the test of time,” says Coates.

When Coates’ experiences are thought of on the flipside, for example, a White person in Eugene rarely, or even never, interacting with a Black person, it’s a way more understandable situation. The lack of diversity here is normalized. This is why it’s important to acknowledge Eugene’s reaction to Coates; to some, not all, Eugeneans, an educated, eloquent Black man like Coates is seen as some sort of racial Messiah, not just a normal writer, which can be tokenizing and harmful.

Regardless of race, it’s clear the cultural situations we’re raised in shape who we are as people.

The act of existing as a Black person in the world does not rely on one’s skin color, though, as Coates touched on. There are Black people who can “pass” as White in the world — Black people who look White, whether they’re mixed-race or not.

“The popular understanding is if I say ‘White,’ I am referring to someone of fairer skin, blond hair, green or blue eyes…” says Coates. “But there are Black people in America who look like that. There are literally people who are called Black who look like that.” Race, as we know it, even though a huge part of identity and how humans categorize each other, is a social construct.

This fed into one of Coates’ most poignant topics during his lecture at Matthew Knight Arena — the fact that people are actively trying to make “Arab-American” a racial category that can be checked off on employment or education applications. This horrifies Coates, as it’s a way to justify “taking things away from people.”

African-American people were not called or regarded as “African-American” when they arrived in the Jamestown Colony in the same way that Jews, Italians, and Irish people weren’t regarded as “White” as they are now.

This categorizing is inherently harmful, but it’s what humans — specifically humans with oppressive power — have been doing for centuries.

“There is no definition of Black and White, or race period, that can stand the test of time,” says Coates.

“I am Black right now, happily, sitting here in Eugene, Oregon,” he says. “But if this were 200 years ago and I was in New Orleans, they might call me something else. If I were in Brazil looking as I look right now, they might call me something else. If I were living in Apartheid South Africa, they might call me ‘colored.’”

“There’s no consistent thing except this: One group has power and one doesn’t,” Coates says. “There’s no real understanding of race without power.”

Although Coates rejects the tokenization of him as an omniscient racial educator, Between the World and Me — and his other works — have become a tangible stepping stone for many White people to peek into what life is like for the “Other,” and that tends to be the lens that the book is viewed through.

For me, as a person of color, Between the World and Me wasn’t shocking, pessimistic, or guilt-inducing. It is an eloquent and comprehensible slice into the real lives that I and so many other people live everyday.  

Regardless of whether the process of learning about the experiences of marginalized groups is accompanied with guilt or not for White people, at least it’s a start in a world where racial differences — although man-made — are, at this point, inherent and should be celebrated, acknowledged, and protected —  not ignored.


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