The Root’s Clapback Mailbag: With Friends Like These...

Illustration: Oscar Bustamante (The Root/G-O)

Today’s mailbag is all about white allies.

While sifting through this week’s correspondences, I noticed that many of the emails, tweets, DMs and comments we received this week were in response to three articles about white people who were “actually trying to help black people.”

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*Warning: This week’s mailbag is full of screenshots.


The Swifties came out in full force after this article about her dropped this week:

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I wish I was joking, but I received at least seventeen letters, emails or tweets, all making the same argument. All contained a variation of the same screenshot or photo. Here are two examples:

From: Jan
To: Michael Harriot
Subject: Ungreatful

Dear Michael Harriot

Those of . us who have follwed Taylor Swift’s career know that she is not racist. She has stood up for LGBTQ issues for a long time. Her newest video is proof of that.

Why would anyone be willing to stand up agains racism if you constantly attack your allies?

From: Anonymousemail
To: Michael Harriot

So, do you think that’s why she did this for ner new music album ‘Lover’?

Screenshot: Taylor Swift (Vevo)
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Dear Anonymouse and Jan,

You’re right. Taylor pretending that she is willing to fuck a black person is definitive proof that she isn’t a bigot.

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Anyone with more than third-grade-level reading comprehension would see that I didn’t insinuate that Taylor was racist. I specifically wrote: “It should be noted that there is no indication that the singer harbored any racist or far-right views.”

My point was that Swift was more than willing to stay silent on the issues that didn’t affect her. You are more than welcome to believe that Taylor Swift didn’t know anything about racism until last November. It is easy to stay silent be an ally when there your allyship costs you nothing. And it’s not just white people, black people do it too.

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I’ve partially told this story before:

When I was in college at Auburn University during the early ’90s, a big controversy swirled on campus because an LGBTQ group, the Auburn Gay and Lesbian Association, was demanding to be recognized as an official organization. The Black Student Union (BSU), of which I was a member, was one of the few organizations on campus that publicly supported the group’s charter. But instead of granting the charter, the University put the issue before the student body. A few days before the vote, the campus had a meeting with “campus leaders” to hear both sides of the issue. As one of the activists on my campus, I decided to attend.

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This meeting was scheduled a few days after I had become a member of Omega Psi Phi. If you know anything about the “Que Dawgs,” they are notoriously hypermasculine, an image they proudly cultivate. I don’t quite remember how I did it, but I convinced my entire chapter to go to the meeting (Don’t be impressed; there were like eight of us). Now, I was a young Que so they didn’t have to listen to me but I assured them that other black people would be there.

I probably could have convinced them by reciting MLK’s “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Instead, I decided to go with a less famous quote.

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“We ain’t no motherfucking cowards.”

When we walked into the contentious meeting, it was like a scene from an 80s movie where the record scratches and the music stops as eight camouflage-wearing negroes entered the party. Standing at the door, I surveyed the crowd. The LGBTQ students were all sitting together. They were far outnumbered by the angry frat guys, who were all sitting together. The white sorority girls had their own section. I continued looking around to see where the black people were sitting.

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There were none.

A couple of days later, the student body at Auburn voted overwhelmingly to deny a charter to the Auburn Gay and Lesbian Association. But, thankfully, the university’s administration decided to give the organization a charter anyway. The AU Gay and Lesbian Alliance had prevailed...

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Until the State of Alabama passed a law banning all gay organizations from state universities.

I honestly think the legislature wouldn’t have passed that law if there had been a large black outcry. Let me tell you why I believe this:

A few months later, the Kappa Alpha Order, one of the largest and richest fraternities on campus, was preparing for their “Old South” parade. The parade was an annual tradition that celebrated the frat’s Confederate heritage; one that is closely tied to the KKK. On the day of the parade, a group of students, including myself, broke through the police barricade.

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Photo: Auburn Gay and Lesbian Alliance

I can’t recall if I was the one who decided to sit down in the street, but I was the one police tried to arrest. But when they did, the other black students locked their arms around me.

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Screenshot: Auburn Opelika News

.

Screenshot: Facebook (Auburn Gay and Lesbian Alliance)
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Most of the students who stopped that Old South Parade were black while the white kids sat on the sidelines and chanted “Walk, niggers. Walk!.”

There were a lot of them.

Photo: Auburn Gay and Lesbian Alliance
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Screenshot: Facebook (Auburn Gay and Lesbian Alliance)

But not all the white people.

There were a few white students who were locked arm-in-arm with us, stopping police from arresting me (in the gold shirt and purple shorts).

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I probably would have gone to jail and I knew I didn’t have the money for bail. But I still remember those real allies to this day, for another reason:

They were members of the Auburn Gay and Lesbian Association.

Photo: Auburn Gay and Lesbian Alliance
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Photo: Auburn Gay and Lesbian Alliance

I still remember how proud the black students on campus were after we stopped that parade. You couldn’t tell us shit. The Kappa Alpha Order never held another Old South Parade in Auburn and the Black Student Union considers it one of its greatest victories. The BSU president told outlets: “Maybe they’ve realized the need for tolerance and diversity, in the world and especially on our campus.”

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I wasn’t a member of BSU when she said that.

Some people jokingly said: “Oh, you stopped being a member of BSU when you became a Que.”

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Nah. I stopped fucking with BSU for the same reason I don’t fuck with Taylor Swift or any white person who is willing to say silent when discrimination doesn’t affect them. I don’t think they’re racist or don’t care about others. But here’s why real allies stand up against racism even when they are attacked:

They ain’t no motherfucking cowards.



‘FiST303/Privilaged [sic] White Lady,’ on the other hand, was very upset about the Taylor Swift and the Bette Midler article, specifically about this sentence:

After all, how could Taylor survive if she lost all her hardcore black fans? I can barely walk through the hood without hearing a nigga blasting a song that sounds like it was sung by someone on a strict diet of unsalted Cream of Wheat and room temperature La Croix.*

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First, this person tried to comment on one of the articles.

Screenshot: Michael Harriot/FiST303 (Twitter)
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But, for some reason, that wouldn’t work:

Screenshot: Michael Harriot/FiST303 (Twitter)
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Confounded by the complexities of remedial social media uploading, FiST303 sent me a direct message on Twitter:

From: FiST303
To: Michael Harriot

You hypocritical POS. Black equivalent of a rednecked hooded kkk clown. Talk about the black minority commiting over half the crime. No fathers=no morals.

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Dear Fist,

Mine was funnier.


I’m only posting this letter for all the people who accuse me of never posting anything positive:

From: Becky
To: The Root

Dear Michael,

I’ve been reading The Root for a couple of years know and because you seem to get a lot of hateful, offensive, and/or clueless email from white people, I wanted to send you this letter of thanks for what you are doing at The Root. I know that you are not writing for me and you don’t need my vote of appreciation. Nevertheless, I want to say thank your entire staff, for whatever it’s worth. I enjoy everything fromn the videos to the movie reviews. Panama Jack and Tonja Renee Stidhum have even helped me add a few movies to my watch list.I’m a middle-aged white woman whose name actually is Becky (ouch) and if you had asked me, at any point in my life, what I think about race or racism, I would have immediately said “racism is awful!” However, I did not believe that I personally had any role in the perpetuation the inequality of our racist society. Racism seemed like something that only happened in ancient times (like the 1950s) or in bad places by backward, unenlightened people who use the N word and burn crosses.

Although I was born and raised in California, I grew up knowing that our family’s roots were in the South. In the last few years, I’ve done a lot of genealogy research, so I’ve read the wills and deeds and census records that document the long history of slave owning in multiple branches of my family. We even have a very old family photo of a woman who is identified on the back of the photo as a former slave who belonged to my great-great-great-grandfather.Despite my family history, for most of my life, I’ve felt disconnected from the history of slavery in America and how the consequences have reverberated across the generations. Even when I was doing genealogy research, I didn’t really think about how the land grant system allowed my impoverished European immigrant ancestors to obtain virtually free land in Virginia and North Carolina (land seized from Native Americans) and then, with the assistance of slave labor, build up a degree of wealth and stability that has led in a direct line to my comfortable middle-class upbringing in a sunny Bay Area suburb in the 1970s.

It’s true that many of my ancestors were poor and struggling, but even the poorest ones owned one or two slaves if they could, and even if they never owned slaves (like the handful of Quakers in my family tree), they benefited from the economic system and had opportunities that were only available to white people. These benefits extended even to white people who came to America after slavery ended. I’ve spoken with many white people over the years who get defensive about slavery because they think it is a personal attack on their family history and therefore an attack on themselves.

They don’t like to imagine that their great, great+ grandpas and grandmas were evil people. I think it’s important not to get sidetracked debating the individual moral culpability of people who are long dead, because it doesn’t actually matter who our ancestors were as individuals. They were part of a system. They are gone; but the system is still with us, and we need to do something about it.I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea of reparations. I have no idea if the U.S. will ever develop a program of reparations, but it occurred to me that nothing stops me from making my own personal effort. So, instead of sending a donation to my alma mater this year (which honestly doesn’t need it that badly), yesterday I made a sizeable donation to an HBCU. I know that charitable giving doesn’t get me off the hook, but it’s a hell of lot more useful than anything else I’ve done.

Regards,

Becky

p.s. By everything that I just said (which is probably TL:DR) I’m trying to express that reading The Root has really educated me and knocked me off my comfortable perch of thinking “racism is bad but has nothing to do with me personally”. I am struggling to learn and keep learning. Thank you.

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Dear Becky,

To quote the great Panama Jack:

“Look at gawd!”

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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.