There are invaluable life lessons passed down through generations of black people like invisible family heirlooms. Some are instilled by parents, experience or society, but the most critical ones are learned through a mysterious black osmosis. The first time I heard “soul clapping,” I knew exactly what it meant and how to do it. When I witness Caucasian children screaming at their mothers in the cereal aisles of grocery stores, I wonder why my mother never had to sit me down and explain to me why I shouldn’t do that.
But the most valuable black precept of them all, I learned at an early age. I don’t know if anyone explicitly taught it to me or if I just picked it up. Perhaps I was a lesson-learning prodigy, or maybe I’ve forgotten the day my grandmother pulled me aside and gave me the key to life:
Know when to shut the fuck up.
Shutting the fuck up is a complex art form with an infinite number of permutations. There is nothing particularly magical about keeping one’s mouth closed; it is knowing when to be quiet that is important when you are black. One first learns to do it “when grown folks are talking.” It is an important skill to master when you are around people smarter than you.
The final, graduate-level course of life teaches us that the most important time to shut the fuck up is when you don’t know what you are talking about.
I used to think that keeping one’s mouth shut was a universal attribute embedded in all cultures, but I was wrong. Perhaps it is a trait that comes from ancestors who were tied to whipping posts for talking back to slave supervisors, or from great-grandparents who huddled in the hiding spaces of the Underground Railroad, that predisposes us to the lessons of necessary silence, but I eventually learned that this virtue does not necessarily cross the color line.
It is hard to define white privilege.
It sometimes manifests itself as oblivious entitlement or disregard for others, but its notable identifying characteristic is that privileged people always think the rest of the world must hear and respect their opinions. Even when they are surrounded by people who have more experience and knowledge, they believe that their voices are important. If white privilege is a germ, then the easiest way to isolate and diagnose it is in black spaces, because even in the depth of discussions about race, culture and blackness in general, privilege endows wypipo with a belief in their right to an equal voice in all matters—even the ones that don’t involve them.
Wypipo don’t know when to shut the fuck up.
It may sound harsh to my Caucasian brethren, but right now black people are reading this and nodding in agreement. One doesn’t even need to venture far to find an example. If you Google any article about how whites voted en masse for the SunnyD dictator and scroll through the discussion section, at least 63.91 percent of the comments are variations of “not me.” It doesn’t add anything substantive or even superficial to the conversation; they just want the world to know “not this white woman.” They want the recognition and the credit. They think they deserve it. That is what privilege looks like.
Most of the time, they don’t have malice in their heart. They simply aren’t aware of the recessive privilege gene that makes them feel that their opinions are valid and important. Perhaps the most cringeworthy, chalkboard-scratching, frustrating example of this happened twice this week, when well-meaning, liberal wypipo felt the need to dissect and explain to black people how race and racism work.
First, The Root published two pieces this week on the phenomenon of “Dolezal-ing”—when whites (in this case, Paris Jackson) decide to “identify as black” based on ... well ... because they can do whatever they want. In both cases, a melaninless mob of readers dashed like extras in Braveheart toward the comments section to explain why “race is a social construct” (which I have repeatedly told cops, corporate human resources departments and white women in dark parking lots, but it never works) and how such articles further divide us. But most of all, they explained how we’re confusing “culture” with “race.”
The second incident happened at the Sundance Film Festival during a celebration of women in film. Things got awkward when film icon and super-progressive Shirley MacLaine tried to explain to Jessica Williams, a black woman, how racism and sexism were the results of personal internal conflict. When Williams asked MacLaine, “What if you are a person of color, or a transgendered person who—just from how you look—you already are in a conflict?”
MacLaine responded with what may be the most useless, privileged piece of advice on race ever uttered:
“Right, but change your point of view,” MacLaine offered. “Change your point of view of being victimized. I’m saying: Find the democracy inside.”
Then actress Selma Hayek interjected to ask Williams: “Who are you when you’re not black and you’re not a woman? Who are you and what have you got to give?”
Listen, dear wypipo: Blackness is not a full-body jumpsuit that we can take off at night and objectively examine the stains that racism in America inflicted on it that day. There is a reason that one of the biggest and most successful film festivals in the world wanted to have a conversation about race and gender. There is a reason a site like The Root came from nowhere and commanded an audience of hundreds of thousands of readers. It’s because everywhere else in the world, your voices drown everyone else out.
Whiteness is loud and interrupting. People want and need spaces like these to have these conversations without your voices. No matter how you may feel about a certain subject, there are times when your input isn’t needed, or even credible. I know it may seem contrary to the concept of privilege, but it is possible to listen, process information and accept the fact that, even though you have a difference of opinion, yours doesn’t necessarily matter.
There have been times when my opinions as a hetero male have been challenged by my feminist friends, and more than once I have changed my thoughts after listening to someone from the LGBTQ community explain what was wrong with something I said or did. In those instances, instead of interrupting with, “Here’s where I disagree ... ” I tried to absorb the lesson because I have never been a woman. I have never been gay. So I channeled the spirit of my ancestors and did what I have always done when grown folks were talking or when I thought I might learn something:
I shut the fuck up.