The Root’s Clapback Mailbag: A Kinder, Gentler Mailbag

Something weird happened.

This weekend, the boys of Covington Catholic High School’s Junior Klansmen of America took a field trip to Washington, D.C., and...well... You’ve probably heard what happened. Apparently, everyone in America initially thought the Kentucky state racism champions were out of line. Then, after a well-organized public relations campaign, white America changed its mind. We even wrote about it.

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Usually, when a million or so people read an article we wrote about white people’s brave, unrelenting forays into unrestrained whiteness, we are deluged with letters about how racist the entire staff at The Root is and how we hate people who grew up attending casserole-based family dinners.

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But not this time.

Curiously, most of the letters we received from white people agreed that the little shitheads of Covington Catholic were being shitheads. Aside from making me wonder why the media coverage has been so disproportionately positive toward the Ku Klux Kids of CCH, it also inspired me to respond to some of the more positive emails, tweets, and DMs we received this week.

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There weren’t many, but we tried.


From: Hartely W.

To: Michael Harriot

Hey Michael,

I just want to say I enjoy reading your stuff on The Root, you bring a great sense of humor to topics that are obviously heartbreaking and often soul-crushing. I am a straight up mayo-boy; age 36, straight, white, male, raised in Boston suburbs, pretty much the full pedigree for problematic individuals in this country, and actually I really do enjoy mayonnaise.

While my immediate family has always been very liberal, the sad truth of having been in this country for a couple hundred years is that there is some troubling history on my father’s side going back to the deep south (I don’t know too many particulars, but there were several large homesteads in Louisiana that had our name on them, and I know there are members of the confederacy in the lineage).

Being an actual descendant of confederates makes it especially appalling to me when I hear the ignorant arguments of ‘preserving legacy’ or ‘saving history’ whenever talk about taking down confederate monuments arises - take it from an actual descendant, nobody in my family is interested in preserving any legacy of hate, we all think it’s absurd that any monuments were erected in the first place, and fully support complete removal of any and all monuments related to the confederacy. It’s pretty unequivocal, and anyone who wants to keep up a confederate statue (for any purported reason), is just racist. Pretty fucking simple.

This isn’t meant to be a #notallwhitepeople rant, just wanted to say thanks for the content and offer some feedback from someone who may not be in your typical reader demo. Trust me a lot of this crazy white people shit baffles me just as much as anyone, my first instinct is always to NOT call the cops. Anyway, I’m sure you have some capable white folks in your orbit, but if you ever want someone to bounce a thought or idea off of, or just be like, hold on, let me ask this white dude what he thinks of this shit, hit me up! Until then I’ll be looking forward to you laying the hammer down on all the Frightened Frannies and Privileged Patties that are mucking shit up for innocent black folks.

P.S. - I was thinking about the White Culture debate - basically the idea that white people have no true culture that wasn’t appropriated from some other group - I agree this is mostly true, but I think you gotta give us skiing. Popular in Maine, VT, Idaho, WA, Utah, CO - basically the whitest places on earth - an activity that will literally blind you with whiteness if you’re not wearing ski goggles. Of course, I would not be shocked if Native Americans or some other non-white group were whooshing all over the slopes before we claimed that shit as our own, but current ski culture is about the whitest shit ever.

Good luck with everything,

- Hartley

Dear Hartley,

Ever since I read your letter, I have been thinking about what you said and you were right. Though I still contend that the things we consider as American culture (blues, jazz, rock, dance, hip-hop, capitalizing off the hard work of others, racism) would never exist without black and brown people, I agree that skiing is a part of white culture.

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That got me thinking: Is there a white culture that I have overlooked? If so, what does it consist of? To help figure this out, I made a list:

  1. Writing Letters: White people love writing letters and I think it’s because penning a letter is the oldest known form of speaking to the manager. They love it so much that they figured out how to train pigeons just to deliver their screeds.
  2. Water Shit: Have you ever noticed that the first thing white people buy when they become successful is a boat? Then they get beachfront property. White people love doing things on water like skiing, tubing, parasailing, surfing, Transatlantic slave trading...It’s cultural.
  3. New Ways of Fucking: White people are the leaders in the imagination sex industry. Before them, the entire animal kingdom was satisfied with lizard style (yes, “doggy style” is cultural appropriation). But ever since Father Talbert Chalmers and Sister Rebecca Sneed sneaked into the back room at the cathedral and invented the missionary position, white people have been innovating in the fucking sector. From autoerotic asphyxiation to the virtual porn, it’s definitely some white shit.
  4. Roughing It: They will leave a home moments after they paid the mortgage to go sleep in a tent. They put on camouflage and go deer hunting as if you can’t buy 88 pounds of meat at Costco for $4.79.
  5. Ghost Shit: The Caucasian curiosity makes it impossible for them not to investigate things. Whether it’s a weird noise in the attic or a poltergeist, they want to know the entity’s purpose and reasons for haunting, which is weird. Considering what they’ve done to enslaved Africans, the continent of Africa, Native Americans, South Americans, India and all the other places brown people live, I would think it would be wise for them to let sleeping genocides lie.
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Every now and then, the staff at The Root will receive a letter sincerely asking for advice. Here’s one:

From: Adam

To: The Root

Hello,

Let me start by saying how much I love your site. I think that the journalism that you put forward is some of the most insightful and necessary writing about the intersection of race, politics, gender, sport and culture that I’ve had the good fortune of reading. Not that my opinion draws a whole lot of water in the world, but I figured you’d at least like to know how much of a fan I am. I appreciate the anger, the eloquence, and (maybe above all) the humor that you put into every piece.

The purpose for my email is that I’ve found myself in an awkward situation at work lately, and I don’t have the right sounding board available to me to give me the kind of guidance that I need in this particular situation. Before I get into the specifics, some context: I am white (you could probably tell by the number of consonants in my last name, those z’s are a pretty big tip). I am also a teacher. I teach 7th and 8th grade English language Arts at a middle school. The town I live and teach in is fairly small (by national standards) and very white. Approximately 90% white, 4% Hispanic, less than 2% African American, and a smattering of other non-white residents.

My classes, and the school system as a whole, generally follows suit, and while this area is relatively progressive in terms of politics, there are some instances of the kind of blatant, ignorant racism that you see in semi-rural New England. Namely, oversized blue lives matter flags flying behind beat-up pickups, and the occasional confederate flag displayed prominently in a conspicuously open garage...

This situation isn’t really about larger issues though, it’s about one young man in one of my classes. I’m going to call him B. B is one of only a handful of black students in his grade. He’s a very smart kid, although he has a habit of slacking off in classes. He’s had some problems in the past which have garnered him a reputation among teachers and administrators as a “trouble” kid. He also happens to be bigger than most of his classmates, and louder, and when you combine that with the racial demographics of the school, it’s pretty easy to see why he’s noticed.

Some of the things that he’s gotten in trouble for are the things that most 13 and 14 year old boys get in trouble for. Not doing their homework, acting like asses in classrooms, talking back to teachers, etc. He’s not unique in those regards. I have found that most teenagers, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status have a remarkable shared ability to be assholes from time to time. This isn’t about that. This is about B using the n-word.

I’m perceptive enough that I recognize the difference between an “a” and an “er,” and I also understand that context is important. B is definitely using the former, primarily with his friends, some of whom are black, and some of whom are not. I recognize that I don’t have any right to tell B what sort of language he can use in his life outside of school, and in the specific case of that particular word, I’m white, I don’t have any right to tell any black man or woman to not say it. The issue isn’t with B using the n-word with his friends, it’s with him using it in school. Several of my colleagues who, as you may have guessed, are also white and tend more towards the older side of middle-aged, have complained about B’s use of the n-word. Usually it revolves around him using it loudly in the cafeteria and in the lunchroom. Ordinarily, I would ignore these complaints as more of the same from the fossilized side of the school.

B’s behavior has driven me nuts from time to time, but for the most part I’ve found him to be a pretty stand-up kid. As long as you’re straight with him, he’s straight with you, and if you call him out for something he’s doing, he’s big enough to take responsibility for his actions (again, for the most part, It has to be remembered that he’s 14). However, I feel like the use of the n-word is different somehow. One of the complaints that I’ve heard is that there is a group of white kids who are now starting to use the n-word amongst themselves, and making the argument that if B and his friends are using it, then it’s ok, and they can use it too. I haven’t personally heard this, so it may be more complaints from the fossils, as they tend to pin the blame on B for this situation, but I’m also aware of the particular racially charged history of the school system, and I’m mindful of the incident from a few years ago.

No amount of teacher and administrator vigilance, and anti-bias training is going to change the fact that some kids’ parents may have confederate flags in their garages, and it’s not that much of difference in pronunciation between an “a” and an “er,” but it’s a whole different world of connotation. So I’m in a weird place. I feel like I have a pretty good relationship with B, so I want to say something to him about it, but I don’t want to take away any of his agency. Also, I want to say some other, rather loud and direct things to this other group of kids, but I don’t actually have any proof that they’re saying it beyond the complaints of a group of older colleagues, some of whom may have their own dubious tastes in garage decoration.

The final thing is, honestly, hearing B use the n-word as much as he does makes me uncomfortable. Not the word itself, or him saying it, just the fact that he seems to use it without regard for his own personal context (maybe that’s my own unconscious bias poking through). In a perfect world, this is where I’d turn to my black colleagues and ask their advice, but the truth is, I don’t have any. I also don’t have any black friends close enough (either geographically or relationship-wise) that I feel comfortable asking. So I figured that I would ask you, journalists whose writing, thoughtfulness, and ruthless devotion to the telling the truth I admire. If I am completely out of line and deserve to be clowned for this, please, clown away. If you would like to share this with any other members of your staff for their input please feel free. I’ve used my real name because this is a real situation, and I think that it’s important not to hide behind a pseudonym. I recognize that you are all extremely busy, and if I never receive a response I won’t hold a grudge, and will happily remain a devoted fan of The Root.

Thank you for your time, and I wish you all the best in 2019.

Sincerely,

Adam

P.S - Raisins in potato salad should be considered an act of war.

Dear Adam,

I am sure the people in the comment sections will have some thoughts about how you should handle this. As a father and a longtime black person, I have always approached the subject of race by simply explaining my perspective in an adult manner, not filtering it as if they were too stupid to understand.

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I would tell B this:

Hey B,

I like you, B. I think you’re a pretty smart kid. Not good-grade-in-social-studies smart. But SMART, smart. So for the next few minutes, you’re not a student and I’m not a teacher. We’re just two people talking to each other. After we’re finished, you’ll go back to being a student and I’ll go back to being a teacher.

I’ve noticed that you use the n-word a lot and it makes me uncomfortable. I couldn’t explain the history of that word to you from my perspective. As a white man, I can’t even say the word should be off limits to you. I know you probably don’t think that word is a bad word and I can’t say that it is. But I’d like for you to look at the n-word as a knife.

Knives aren’t bad. You can use a knife to cut steak and to spread butter. Some people even use them for fun. But you can’t bring a knife to school, B. If they catch you with a knife, you will get in trouble and here’s why:

If you can bring a knife, then everyone could bring a knife. More importantly, no one knows what you or the other knife carriers will do with the knife. One of those people might use their knife to hurt someone. They might even use it to hurt you.

B, the n-word is a knife.

I can’t tell you not to ever use the n-word knife. I’m just asking that you don’t bring it to school. When you pull it out, your intention might be to put a little butter on your bread but when you wave it around, it makes some people feel uncomfortable.

And B, one of your white friends are gonna see you using the knife and figure, “If B can carry a knife, so can I.” But someone will definitely use it to hurt someone. Like I said, I know white people.

So think about what I said. If you don’t care, then I understand. I just wanted you to know how I felt because I like you.

And I think you’re smart.

I guarantee that B will think about what you said. I can’t promise that he’ll change, but you will have made an impact.

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Whatever you do, just don’t tell B or your colleagues that “All Knives Matter.”


From: Kieran

To: Michael Harriot

Mr. Harriot,

I appreciate your articles on ‘The Root’ and I find them very informative. I know I risk being put on the ‘Clapback’ but I want to tell you about how I deal with MAGA wearers in light of the Covington Boys. If you need to know my personal politics, I think Cheeto Moussolini is a draft dodging candyass who isn’t fit to run a burgershack.

My last roommate was a die hard MAGA supporter complete with merchandise. This guy would show me videos on Facebook like “Did you see the Joe Biden clips admitting he likes lil girls?” or “Did you see this Clinton tape of Hilary liking Marxism?” These videos we’re obviously fake but he was a Midwestern kid who didn’t know better from a town where mayo was a spice. He was ignorant in the fact he couldn’t name any of his Representatives in Congress, the Senate, or even half the Supreme Court. This lack of knowledge is how I attacked his beliefs.

I would educate him by calling him a “commie” because he doesn’t know who represents him and it would drive him crazy. Believe me when I say calling MAGA wearers anti-American because they don’t know dick about the Constitution will make them very butt hurt. He would burst into my room at random times saying “so what if I don’t know my congressman, I ain’t a commie”. By calling him out on his ignorance it forced him to start paying attention to what was going on and it would make him upset over the things he learned. He was also a big John Wayne fan and would always get mad when I called the Duke “a pu$$y, 6’3 USC linebacker who got a medical deferment during WW2”.

It drives MAGA supporters up the wall when you come at their “heroes” from a further Right argument that they can’t deny. Like calling confederate sympathizers “traitors to the Union who only terrorists support because they are against America”. It truly really bugs them.

Just based on my personal experience, I can say a lot of these young folks from Covington are just straight ignorant douche canoes that never had to deal with experiences outside of their own.

Their ignorance is not an excuse or a free pass. But it should be recognized as a failing from their teachers and parents lack of ability to teach them to think beyond themselves. You can’t come at ignorant bullshit with logic and facts. You have to ease people in piece by piece and make them think about it to make them understand. Yes, I know that is a truly white folk failing but it can be applied to any issue such as LGBTQ rights.

Very Respectfully,

Kieran

Dear Kieran,

My grandfather, who died before I was born, built the home where I lived most of my life. He worked all his life at a local factory and also had a small cab company on the side. Outside the house, there was a huge back porch.

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As his family grew to six kids, my grandfather added a bedroom and turned the porch area into the space where he ran his cab company. We still refer to that entire part of the house as the back porch.

Separating it from the rest of the house was a hollow door made out of paper-thin pressed wood. Since the 1950s, everyone who came to the house, including strangers, family, and friends, signed that door. I’ve had friends over who saw their grandparents’ names on that door.

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Anyway, on the back porch door, right at eye level, are three square holes about the size of a postage stamp. I always assumed the door had been damaged by something, but I’ll tell it you the story of those holes how it was told to me by my late grandmother.

One day, some white men came to the house looking for my grandfather. They were angry because he had been picking up people in the white community who called him for a ride (he charged lower rates than the white cab company.) The men—she doesn’t know how many—somehow got on the back porch and started trashing things. They didn’t make it all the way into the house, only because they never tried. They could have kicked that lightweight door in.

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As this was happening, my grandfather got his pistol and shot three times through that door. They heard men leave. Then silence.

After the silence, she told me, my grandfather just stood there for hours. He couldn’t tell if all the men had gone or if some were on the back porch. He didn’t know if everything he had worked to build was gone or if they just turned over a table. She said they stared at that back door for hours not knowing what they’d find when they went out. Was his business trashed? Would there be a dead white man?

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My grandmother says my grandfather eventually opened the door and no one was there. His cab stand was trashed, but he recovered. No one ever came back and no one ever claimed responsibility.

“And what were you doing when he opened the door?” I asked my grandmama.

“I was praying, Mikey,” she said. “I was praying.”

Now, this could all be bullshit—my mom was born two years after they built that house and even remembers when that back porch was built, and she says she doesn’t remember any of it.

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But if you know where to look, there’s still a little blood stain on that door.

White people don’t care about logic or phrasing. They care about themselves. They wouldn’t stop slavery without a gunfight. It took the National Guard to desegregate schools. The worst people in the world to them are those who accuse cops of misdeeds, but they will tell you to go back to Africa if you dare mention how police shoot black kids in the face. They have never admitted to how they ransacked America.

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Look, Kieran. I’m not saying that anyone shouldn’t have faith that racism will cease to exist. But thinking that how one frames the argument will make America cop to racism or change takes a giant leap of faith. I’m not saying that being kind, reasonable and strategic won’t work. All I’m saying is, I’ve seen the bloodstains and the bullet holes. So while you’re praying, just in case...

I’ll keep shooting.

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About the author

Michael Harriot

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.