Polite White People Are Useless

The Help screenshot
The Help screenshot

I’m not quite sure if Glory is a great movie. I know that I enjoy watching it. I know that it featured one of the greatest movie scores of all time. (So great that the then-11-year-old me actually went out and bought the soundtrack on a cassette tape. Which probably explains why I didn’t have a girlfriend.) I know that Denzel’s tear deserved its own special Oscar. But considering that the entire movie was told from the perspective of Matthew Broderick’s Robert Gould Shaw instead of the runaway slaves-turned-solders making up the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts—which probably would have made for a much more compelling movie—I’m not quite sure if it could (or should) still be considered great.


It did, however, have many great individual scenes. Including one when the 54th crosses paths with an all-white Union regiment that just lost a battle. Words are exchanged, and a small skirmish begins. During the altercation, Morgan Freeman’s Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins attempts to break up a couple of fights. One of the white solders notices the stripes on Rawlins’ uniform—indicating that he’s an officer—and quips, “Stripes on a nigger? That’s like tits on a bull.” Of course, the root of the solder’s insult was that a black officer is a paradox. What blackness meant to him and what being an officer meant to him were such opposing and incongruous concepts that a black man with stripes was obscene, absurd and ultimately useless.

Polite white people—specifically, polite white people who call for decorum instead of disruption when attempting to battle and defeat bias and hate—aren’t as paradoxical as tits on a bull. But they’re just as useless. They provide no value, they move no needles, they carry no weight (metaphysically and literally) and they ultimately just get in the way. They’re humanity’s tourists: the 54-mile-per-hour drivers in the left lane refusing to get the fuck out of the way so others can pass. And if you get enough of them in one place, they cause accidents.

Unfortunately, they’re every-fucking-where. They’re on Facebook threads and sitting behind you at work. They’re your neighbors and (sometimes) your family members. They’re Academy Award-nominated actresses on Twitter and college professors named “Mark Lilla” peddling terribly premised books about identity politics. Sometimes they ask for level heads, lest we become what we’re fighting against. Which is like saying, “Hey, don’t kill that fly, man, because you’re going to turn into a fly.” Sometimes they misquote MLK. Or Gandhi. Or Mother Teresa. Or Papa fucking Smurf. But you can always find them somewhere, attempting to defeat violence with the devil’s advocacy and danishes.

Of course, these are not bad people. At least not Martin Shkreli bad. They’re just so goddamn inert, and that inertia is dangerous. It’s unwise to mistake their lack of movement with futility. Because this type of idling does make a difference. Just the wrong kind of difference. It can be seductive and sublime. Who doesn’t want to believe that love bombs are enough to devastate hate? Who wouldn’t want to know that good manners win if the manners are good enough? Think about how much less stress battling white supremacy and police brutality would induce if all you needed to do to defeat it was drink a bottle of Pepsi.

Ultimately, this laser focus on niceness and decorum is just a way of policing behavior. Politeness in the face of violence, and terror is a privilege exclusive to them. They just don’t have as much to lose if everyone stays polite and kind and sober. If things happen to change while we’re nice as fuck to each other, great! If not, well, great, too. It’ll still be Wednesday. And bulls still won’t have tits.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)



Case in point: I’m in the office break room decompressing while CNN drones on in the background. A co-worker comes in and we talk a bit about the hurricane and whatnot - we both have family in the Houston area. CNN cuts to Trump telling the Gov. of TX something to the effect of “After this is all said and done, we will be congratulating each other..” She scoffs loudly and says, “Can you believe this guy?” I don’t know why I actually answered, but I mumbled “I fucking hate him.” She quickly cut back that I shouldn’t respond to hate w/ hate, unless I wish to become the very thing I want to defeat. If only I could have taken a picture of the facial expression she gave.. Yep, you right white lady, my bad.