The Root’s Clapback Mailbag: An Outlet for Repressed Whiteness

Illustration for article titled The Root’s Clapback Mailbag: An Outlet for Repressed Whiteness
Image: Oscar Bustamante (The Root/FMG )

One of the thing that amazes me about the people who send emails, tweets and messages to writers at The Root is their demand to be heard. I know white people are born with an extra gland that secretes the “let me speak to your manager” hormone, but I can’t recall ever reading, hearing or watching anything and feeling the motivation to fire off a sternly-worded letter.


To be fair, I will sometimes mutter a snarky remark under my breath directed at the computer monitor but, again, I am at a biological disadvantage. Even when I am compelled to speak to someone’s supervisor or pen a response to something that offends me, I am sidetracked by my genetic makeup which drives me to do things such as getting a fucking life.

But don’t stop writing, though.

I love it.

The first letter comes from a reader who took issue with Angela Helm’s article about a black teen who was assaulted over the Confederate flag.

From: DrummerDave
To: Angela Bronner Helm

You always write about what you view as “racist” yet many of your comments sound very much like someone who hates white people. Maybe the black teen in Oregon should have just ignored the confederate flag instead of challenging 3 total strangers. The more people make of an issue the more it stays in the news. No one gave a damn about confederate flags or statues 20 years ago. It’s just this latest generation of millennial liberals who want to stir up trouble. Maybe if these overly sensitive snowflakes (and you) would read a history book they would realize that only rich plantation owners had slaves. The average poor white southern boy grew up alongside poor black southern boys. He had nothing to do with slavery nor was he fighting to defend it. He was fighting to protect his homeland that he was told was being invaded by the northerners. The confederate flag means different things to different people. I’ve seen several black people down south proudly flying it with the American flag as a symbol of their southern heritage. It was the hate groups that identified with it.. making people think of it as an evil flag. There were black soldiers that fought for the north AND the south. Would you topple a monument to black confederate soldiers?

Dear Dave,

First I’d like to thank you for writing the letter that served as the inspiration for my short, one-act play, The Caucasity of Dopes. I am currently working on finishing the final draft, but because you have unwittingly become my muse, I would like to offer you a sneak preview:

DrummerDave: Why would anyone confront 3 total strangers about a stupid Confederate flag instead of ignoring it? No one cares about a Confederate flag or decades-old statues.


Also DrummerDave: I feel the desperate need to write a total stranger and confront her about the importance of the Confederate flag and decades-old statues. I just can’t ignore it.

DrummerDave: The Civil War had nothing to do with slaves. It was about heritage and the love for their people.


Also DrummerDave: It’s stupid to risk your life fighting against something just because it insults your heritage and the love for your people.

DrummerDave: Maybe this guy should read a book so he can understand history.

Also DrummerDave: Please allow me to explain the Civil War and the Confederate flag with an explanation that goes against every historical document, including the fact that there were no black Confederate soldiers; the Declarations of Secession by every state that mentioned slavery; and the quote by William Thompson, the designer of the Confederate flag, who said:

As a people, we are fighting to maintain the heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause. … Such a flag … would soon take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations, and be hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN’S FLAG.


DrummerDave: I’ve seen several black people flying the Confederate flag, and white people view it as a part of their Southern heritage. We should respect their feelings.

Also DrummerDave: I’ve seen black people who think the Confederate flag is racist and many white people view it as a symbol of racism. There are a lot of hate groups who use it for evil. We shouldn’t pay any attention to that.


As you can see, DrummerDave, the play is still in its rough draft stage, but when it’s finished I will send you a link for tickets.

I’ll see both of you on opening night!

From: Maria
To: Michael Harriot

Mr Harriot: I am a HUGE fan of your writing. Your snarky humor, while simultaneously addressing serious topics on race and injustice are always on point. However, you recently wrote “1. Who was the first person or group to transport slaves from Africa to the continental United States?” I in turn want to ask you “Where did slaves come from?” If your answer was Africa, I ask you to reconsider this. Our PEOPLE came from Africa and were ENslaved in America. No Slaves came from Africa. Inevitably, someone will argue there were slaves IN Africa before they were kidnapped and brought to America. But I think you get my point. Thanks for all you do, and write on behalf of us all. Your fan, Maria Holt


Dear Maria,

I have been told many times to refer to the people held in bondage in the U.S. as “enslaved persons.” Although I respect acknowledge the existence of your opinion, this is a neoliberal, black, new-age, touchy-feely way of whitewashing the atrocities of slavery.


Harriet Tubman said she had seen “escaped slaves.” In “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass expounded on what the Fourth of July meant to “the slave.” The interviewees in the Federal Writers Project’s slave narratives referred to themselves as slaves.

And, while I don’t have confirmation of this, I bet that if I built a time machine and went back to 1750, walked onto a plantation and told all of the enslaved persons that I was there to set all of the slaves free, I imagine most would be happy. I imagine some would want to enact revenge. But nowhere in my freedom dream could I picture anyone saying:

“I can take the whips, chains and inhumane conditions, but that name? No thanks. Get the fuck out of here!


“Just wait until Maria hears about this!”

The next message comes from a frequent emailer:

From: Chase

To: Michael Harriot


Another 58 shot here in Chicago this weekend. I didn’t BLM out there though. Go figure?


Dear Chase,

I’m so glad you came back! I’m guessing this has something to do with the piece Breanna Edwards just wrote about Chicago.


Or maybe not.

Anyway, Chase, It’s funny that you wrote because I spent all of last week in the heart of Chicago and didn’t get shot once. Maybe I was lucky. Or maybe I was simply one of the 2,720,492 people in the city of Chicago who didn’t shoot anyone or didn’t get shot. But since you want to focus on the .0129 percent of people in Chicago, I’d like to tell you about my Friday evening in Chi-town.


On my way to Chicago, a friend of mine who was an activist and writer in Chicago called and told me he was mentoring a kid and had moved him to his new home out of state. He told me that his mentee was a part of a group of young people still in the city who spent their Friday nights hosting an open mic. He asked me if I wanted to stop by, warning that it would be nothing lavish, but I said I would.

When I arrived at the spot, it wasn’t in a great neighborhood. The place was in a tiny basement. There was no air conditioning. They had a computer and house speakers playing music and chairs set up. One guy wandered on stage with a box of pizza and told the audience that he was full and offered the leftovers to the audience. When the host asked if anyone needed anything, one woman (who may or may not have been with me) screamed: “Anybody got a blunt?”


Even better, seconds later, someone handed her one. Every so often, in the open window behind the stage, people would walk by and look in as an artist was performing. The host left his phone on stage and in the middle of a woman’s performance, the phone rang. The woman picked it up, looked at it and said: “It’s your mama,” before continuing her song. There were a few readers of The Root who are likely reading this now, who came and watched. Some of them were white.

I performed as if I was at Radio City Music Hall.

Afterward, everyone went outside and began talking, laughing and joking. A woman walked by in a straw hat and everyone paused and said, “Hey Miss Wilson!” I somehow ended up with a cup of sangria someone had made and a Miller Lite in my hand. We took pictures, stood on the sidewalk and talked and then walked down the street to another venue where everyone ended up doing the wobble in the parking lot.


It was the most beautiful, blackest thing I could ever imagine.

And you know what didn’t happen?

No one got shot.

We weren’t lucky. We were just like 99.9 percent of the black people in Chicago that weekend.


One more thing:

Before I left, one of the guys asked me to come back the next day. I couldn’t because I was leaving. He informed me that it was going to be a cool event because they were hosting a block party the next day. To be fair, they weren’t doing it by themselves.


Black Lives Matter was helping to put it together.

But what would I know? I was just there.

From: Tamisha
To: Michael Harriot

Dear Michael,

I used to have the hardest time seeing my own white privilege. I come from a rural working class background and a blended family. Instead of going with the statistics that said I should have been a high-school drop out with a kid on the way at 15, I went to college on a scholarship while working to support myself. In any random group of my friends, the white people are likely to be the minority. Taking all of this into account, I could not see any privilege in my life that I did not earn through hard work. Then I came across this random website called, more specifically some writer guy named Michael Harriot. While I still did not totally think I had any privilege, his work made me think about things differently. And then there’s this random thing that happened this morning.

On my morning commute to work, traffic was at a standstill on a 4 lane road. My car happened to end up right next to a bus stop. This bus stop is on a narrow sidewalk right next to the road. There was a woman and 2 little girls there. As kids are likely to stumble or jump into the road(cause kids!), I was keeping my eye on them. Running over a child is not on my to-do list today. I noticed the woman suddenly stiffen and still, she was giving me the serious stink eye. Then it happened, I realized that she thought I was judging her and the girls, maybe with malicious intent - because I’m white and they were black. How awful it must be to live in a world where you automatically have to assign ulterior, malignant motives to every interaction with a white person, not only for your own safety, but that of your child(ren)! So maybe I did have to earn my place in life, but I didn’t have to do it with that extra emotional, social burden hanging over my head. I had the room to give others the benefit of the doubt because I was given it. I have the safety net to think “She must think my girls are cute” or “Good, she’s keeping an eye out for the girls in case they fall” instead of “What does she want?”

I know you don’t give two hoots about some random white woman’s epiphany. I still wanted to let you know that your writing makes a difference. It is changing perspectives. Thank you for that. Also for being funny as hell.

Kind Regards,


Yeah, Yeah, Tamisha.

I want to be honest with you, I only skimmed over your letter because everyone has an epiphany at some point. I’m glad The Root could play a small part in realizing your humanity. That’s all we are trying to do here. But there is one thing that bothered me about your letter.


It actually left me so flabbergasted I had to make sure this wasn’t a joke. I looked you up and found out that you are an actual person, which has made me reconsider a lot of what I thought I knew about life, too. You made me have an epiphany because I realized something incredible!

There’s a white woman named Tamisha!

Have a great day.

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



He had nothing to do with slavery nor was he fighting to defend it. He was fighting to protect his homeland that he was told was being invaded by the northerners.

Dear Dave, I was like you once. (Admittedly, I was 10 years old) I bought that noble bullshit sold part and parcel in South. Then, I read a fucking book. (I turned 12, apparently you haven’t.) Turns out, a lot of poor white boys died so a bunch of rich motherfuckers could get richer while insuring they would stay poor and stupid. It would be like, oh say, fighting for Donald Trump’s ability to get richer while making your poorer and I see it...