By Howard Ross, Founder and Chief Learning officer

I have just had the extraordinary privilege of spending a bit less than four hours listening to an audio version of Ta-Nehisi Coates reading his new book, Between the World and Me, a dazzling personal statement of his experience of being Black in our country, written as a letter to his 15-year old son. I have always found Coates’ writing to be profound, and have heard people compare Coates to James Baldwin. After reading this book I believe that Baldwin would have been proud of that comparison.

I also read New York Times columnist David Brooks July 17th response to Coates, Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White. As a rule, I tend to appreciate Brooks. I often disagree with him, but I find him to be less doctrinaire than most columnists, and more willing to explore the nuance in human dynamics. Brooks praises the book as “…a great and searing contribution to this public education. It is a mind-altering account of the black male experience. Every conscientious American should read it.” He then goes on in his piece to challenge what he calls Coates’ “…rejection of the American dream.” A characterization that I suspect Coates would accept.

I am not particularly interested in the controversy about whether or not Brooks should have had a difference of opinion with Coates. As an author myself, part of the process of putting a book out into the world is that people will have, and voice, opinions about it, and Brooks has every right to do so.   But there is a profound truth in the differences of view that Coates and Brooks express that I think is worth looking at: The notion of “agreeing” or “disagreeing” is folly, because White Americans and Black Americans do not live in the same reality.

In his book A Separate Reality, the anthropologist Carlos Castaneda wrote:

“We talk to ourselves incessantly about our world. In fact we maintain our world with our internal talk. And whenever we finish talking to ourselves about ourselves and our world, the world is always as it should be. We renew it, we rekindle it with life, and we uphold it with our internal talk. Not only that, but we also choose our paths as we talk to ourselves. Thus we repeat the same choices over and over until the day we die, because we keep on repeating the same internal talk over and over until the day we die.”

We think that we can “understand” the world that we live in, but in a real sense we do not understand it at all. We live consumed by the visceral experience of our world. We embody our experience in everything we do, say, and interpret, and our world largely ends up looking the same. I know that in even my own experience as a white, Jewish man, having spent virtually my entire life studying dynamics of race, working on racial reconciliation, doing everything I can to try to “understand” the African American experience, I still will never feel it in my body in the same way that Coates describes it. I will never “feel” the fear that is present every day in living Black in this country. I never worried when any of my four sons left my house at night that they would be arbitrarily stopped by a police officer and then killed. I never worried that my sister or mother or wife would be pulled over and then brutally assaulted and jailed for changing lanes and not being willing to put out a cigarette, only to end up dead…

…and on, and on…

It is not that we are “bad people.” We may have the best intentions and do everything we can to “correct” these wrongs. In fact, personalizing it in that way actually diminishes its impact. It is a system that has locked all of us into our places. As white people, we may feel similarly that we are not “gotten,” but rather treated in a way that feels inconsistent with our sense of our selves. But as the dominant cultural group, that misunderstanding is less impactful on our lives. Less threatening to our everyday existence. And, in order to survive, African Americans, as the non-dominant group, have to try to understand us in order to survive. We may hear the recitation of the history of racism as blame, however it is just our history. For us to accept the truth of the Black experience in America, we have to realize that everything we are, have and stand for, was built by the subjugation of Black people.

The economy of the United States was built on slavery.  Slaves built the White House and the Capitol buildings. They have provided low paid service in every area of life since this country was created.  They have been robbed, raped, and killed far beyond their numbers.   That is the reality of history, as painful as it is for us to acknowledge.  It doesn’t go away simply because we now see the error of our ways, or even if we were to try to now live equally, because the result of that history lives in the reality that African Americans suffer in every single area of life that one can think of: education, health, housing, criminal justice, jobs, wealth, and, perhaps most importantly of all, self-esteem and respect. And it is true, to some degree, even for those of us whose ancestors came to this country long after the end of slavery because it is so enmeshed in the experience of the social and economic fabric of our country that it benefits us today in the way we are seen and treated.

Brooks, while I think genuinely trying to honor Coates account, writes, “I think you distort American history. This country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis and a Harlem Children’s Zone for every K.K.K. — and usually vastly more than one. Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America.”

But, of course, that is the very point of Coates’ song. There was a Lincoln for every Davis, but Lincoln was still a racist. And there is a Harlem Children’s Zone, in the heart of one of the most underserved Black communities in America. We can have the luxury of relating to centuries of indignities when they might occur to us as a series of “mistakes,” or “bad decisions” committed by “evil people.”   We can afford to applaud the good works of some, even though they touch only a tiny percentage of those who are suffering, when we are not the ones left suffering. It is a far easier perspective to take when your people are not the ones who have been enslaved, lynched, discriminated against, incarcerated, and shot down in the streets by policemen, the enforcers of a culture that, at every turn, has treated you as “less than.”  When even those who “make it” suffer indignities that no one else has had to suffer before, as when a President of the United States is the subject of active attempts at humiliation, or the greatest tennis player of her time is called “too aggressive,” or when hundreds of studies show that we still subtly exhibit bias in every area of life. It is natural for those in the dominant group to see incidents. Those who are impacted see an entire system that is designed to undermine them in every way.

Imagine, for example, that somebody had abused you and your family for generations and then “saw the light” and wanted a “fresh start” without ever paying for the pain they had caused you?  “Let the past be the past,” they might say. “Don’t wallow in it.” How forgiving do you think you would be, while they were still living on the property that they took from you?  How willing to trust the future with that person?  How willing to believe their promises, especially when, with painful regularity, they make a “mistake” or an “exception” happens and you are abused again, and again, and again?

The true history of the treatment of African Americans, and Hispanics, Asian, and Native Americans for that matter, is confronting to many of us as white Americans because it creates a fundamental challenge to our sense of “American Exceptionalism,” this perpetrated notion that America is and must be the “chosen” country, the “golden city on the hill” that stands above all others in its nobility. Coates, in his brilliant prose, forces us to look at the fundamental legitimacy of who we are as a country, and as a people, and to see that there is a reasonable historical case to be made that we are not who we think and say we are.  It is a place in which, if we allow ourselves to look, we have to acknowledge that the dream of the United States of America has been differed.  In fact, perhaps, a place where that dream has never really existed at all for a significant percentage of our population. When we personalize that reality we cannot help but feel shame, and shame will cause us to resist and defend against that reality.

That is why the notion of “white privilege” or “white supremacy” creates such lathering palpitations among the Bill O’Reilly’s of the world, who see it as a “radical liberal” assault on the very foundation of who we are, and who are insulted by the very notion that we might hold ourselves responsible and accountable for our historical sins. America, in their view, means never having to say you’re sorry.

This is not a call for condemnation. It is not a call for blame and shame. It is rather a plea that we recognize that we are part of a system that is bigger than any one of us. That creates a worldview and mental models in each of us about each other that go beyond our personal experience and sweep us away in a tsunami of fear. In that sense, the notion of “agreeing” or “disagreeing” with the experiences of each other is in itself folly because we do not, and can never REALLY know the other’s experience.  It would be like a German trying to understand what it felt like to be a Jew during the holocaust.  We can at best offer our compassionate listening and attempt at understanding what each other’s experience is, and realize that, despite our best wishes, it is who we are.

What we can do, however, is to bring a far greater degree of humility to our experience. We can forgo our guilt and shame and instead take responsibility for the history that we are the heirs of. We can realize that there is much we do not know, and far more that we will never really feel about each other. We can, perhaps, get to know ourselves at a deeper level and work each day to be present to the legacy that we are. I will never give up hope that we can someday get closer to that dream. That, as Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

But I can afford that hope. I am white.


To read more of Howard’s writings, check out Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives and ReInventing Diversity:  Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance

Twitter: @HowardJRoss

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