Today’s mailbag is the longest we’ve ever published. But it all relates to one subject: The tone and tenor of The Root’s content.

So let us begin.


This first series of tweets relate to the fact that writers at The Root often use nicknames for white women and men who call the police on black people:

Advertisement

Advertisement

Dear Sirs and Mrs.:

I see your point.

In fact, I only included your tweets in the mailbag because it is illustrative of an argument I often hear about whether or not this kind of vitriol and finger-pointing help bridge the racial divide. I have been thinking about this (as you will see later) and want to specifically address it.

Advertisement

I once took a course on philosophy and learned about the Socratic method of teaching. Basically, Socrates teaching strategy was to ask a series of increasingly pointed questions that forced the student to examine the subject matter, their argument and their overall perspective. The Socratic Method actually doesn’t teach a specific subject as much as it teaches critical thinking.

Ok, I was lying.

I actually took that philosophy course but it made me realize that my mother raised me and taught me everything I know by using the Socratic Method. She usually began her interrogation with: “So whose fault is that?” which would let me know that the shit was about to go down.

Advertisement

Once, after a negative report card in a calculus class, I tried to explain to her that the teacher didn’t like me. Here is how the conversation went:

Mom: So ... whose fault is it that she doesn’t like you?

Me: I didn’t even do anything to make her dislike me!

Mom: So this teacher hates you so much that she sneaks into your room at night and destroys your homework?

Me: No, but ...

Mom: Oh. Well does she erase the correct answers on your tests and write in a wrong answer?

Me: Of course not.

Mom: So you study and get the answers right but she somehow gives you a lower grade?

Me: No, but sometimes I get the answers right and she still takes off points because I didn’t show my work. And you taught me how to do a lot of this stuff in my head, which really isn’t work. If you think about it, it’s really mostly your fault.

Mom: And after she deducted points the first time and you went to her and asked what she considers work and you did exactly what she told you to do, she still deducted points? I’m gonna call her right now and tell her that’s really unfair!

Me: Well, actually, I never went to her and asked that.

Mom: So when she deducted points, you kept doing the wrong thing even though you knew it was wrong?

Me: I’m going to do my homework.

Mom: Ok.

So, my dear tweeters, I have a few questions for you:

  1. Do you believe there are white people who aren’t racist?
  2. Do you believe these non-racist people want to help end discrimination?
  3. And when they read these articles, do you believe these people, who never had an ounce of racism in their hearts, see a disparaging mark about white people and say: “I was gonna help end racism by just not being racist, but now... Fuck those niggers!”
  4. So, these people who were willing to help fight racism and understood discrimination so clearly see no truth in these supposedly anti-white remarks?
  5. And are these allies so hurt by nicknames like “BBQ Becky” brave and strong enough to call out racism whenever they see it? They wouldn’t have a problem being ostracized by their friends, families and co-workers for standing up for what is right; but it’s the nicknames that are offputting to them?
  6. And you think these jokes and nicknames cause allies to spontaneously transform into racists?
  7. Conversely, you believe there are people who see nicknames like “Permit Patty” and “Delta Debbie” and want to embrace them because the nicknames are so lovable?
  8. And these are the people you want on your side? These are the people you think we needed to fight racism? These are the ones you think people like me are pushing away?

Advertisement

OK, I lied.

I don’t see your point at all.


From: Nelson

To: The Root

Remi ma is right, other races are absolutely insulting, disrespecting, attacking and calling niggers out to a race war, but the niggers are clearly losing and scared.

Advertisement

Dear Nelson:

Clearly.


While this last email is about the article the national Review’s assertion that the phrase “white women is now a slur,” it is reflective of many emails I receive about civility in political and racial discourse. The email was shortened for brevity. (No, really. It was.)

From: Ali
To: Michael

Hey there, thanks very much for your work. Obviously ignore this long comment/question as needed, but I’m curious for your thoughts, if you have time/interest. My main question is about how we use language in public spaces, particularly when white people/“allies” on the left talk about race - are we helping, or hurting?

I know that the National Review has no leg to stand on when it comes to race/actually standing up for black people, and you (always) make very good points in your work. Still, when I read Kyle’s article and yours, I see some truths lying clearly on your side, and some lying somewhere in the middle...

One larger question for the immediate future seems to be this: Is there room for conversation among black and white writers on the left about strategy when it comes to language (in public forums, including online articles)? I fear that the most accurate part of Kyle’s article was the ending: “White men, long since written off by the Democrats, have responded not by meekly accepting their place at the rear of the Democratic coalition but by exiting it. They voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton by a margin of 63 to 31 percent. The Left will have only itself to blame if white women increasingly feel put off by its nasty ad feminam attacks.” ...

Whether or not using phrases like “white women” is justified (yes, I absolutely agree with you it often is), his point may be accurate: some white women in the middle, not deeply engaged in politics, not understanding why the term is being used in a negative way or the history of racial oppression and dynamics, may feel it as a personal attack and eventually become persuaded to join the other team. Or may feel confused and discouraged and sit at home, rather than getting out and actually doing something useful. I know it sounds like I’m suggesting tone policing, and tone policing has been categorically rejected by the online left for a variety of often very good reasons. Yet I fear we all let the conversation end too early if as far as we got is: Don’t tone police.

Language is a powerful weapon, and a tool. If we want to be successful, it seems we need to wield this weapon as effectively as possible when in public spaces. I’m especially thinking about white writers who use phrases like “White people” or “white women” in a pejorative way without a clear explanation; is that the best choice? White writers have the privilege of *not* facing racial oppression each day; it seems we should have the time and emotional energy to be more selective and effective with our words.

Our public online spaces are, whether we like it or not, part of our political discourse. They’re not just personal, not just a place to share, vent, heal, support, empower, mobilize, etc. I wish they were; for instance, I wish white people who read the Root could recognize “This isn’t my space; it’s a privilege for me to be even able to access this space and these words; just read, listen, learn, and do better.” I wish conservatives reading the New York Times or Twitter or etc. could ask themselves, “I wonder what they meant by “white people,” rather than taking it in the worst, most defensive way. But the world doesn’t go according to my wishes. People of all different types and political ideologies read each other’s spaces/articles/memes and interpret them how they wish. People read a phrase like “white people suck” and even if written by a white writer, many readers will feel defensive and assume there is a hidden “all” before this phrase and shut down...

So how do we get more white women/people to listen and hear and actually do better? It seems like language is an essential key, whether we like it or not. Not to capitulate to Kyle or the rightwing, not to make white women feel special, but to make more white women (and men) actually get off our butts, fight for others, vote, and help make real change.

Language can be a powerful weapon used to activate white women (and white people in general) for good, rather than allow us to wallow in complacency or evil. It seems worth it - at least for white writers trying to do better - to be precise in our targets and our explanations, as much as possible. It seems important for white so-called “allies” to stop trying to show off our wokeness through our sweeping statements and negative tone we use when discussing white people/white women; it does not appear to work or actually support the cause of justice. It seems self-serving and not actually helping at converting additional readers to the cause.

What do you think?

Dear Ali:

This isn’t a clapback as much as it is a clap in general.

I am often asked about the state of political and social discourse and how my tone and the tone of other writers here pushes people away. I want to answer this question, specifically as it pertains to The Root.

Advertisement

The Root is an online news source for a black audience containing content from black writers. We try to make it clear that when you read one of our stories, you are reading a black perspective. Not the black perspective, but one of many. We try our best not to obscure this fact.

There are stories in The Root that you cannot find anywhere else because there are many outlets who do not find some stories important, even though they have a great impact on the black community. We exposed a controversy at Morehouse when mainstream outlets only offered shallow coverage of HBCUs. No white outlet would use their resources to send a reporter to cover a Pennsylvania State Board hearing involving Dr. Umar Johnson. Monique Judge spent a week in Sacramento covering the aftermath of the Stephon Clark shooting. Terrell Jermaine Starr is on the ground in Georgia right now covering the Stacey Abrams gubernatorial race.

Even though there are many of these examples, the vast majority of the stories you read at The Root can be found in a number of other places. Every news organization from the Washington Post to NBC shares content that is not necessarily based on original reporting. But unlike those other outlets, our readers come here to get a black perspective.

Advertisement

And sometimes, because our content reflects that black perspective, it cannot be civil. In some cases, it would actually be a disservice to our readers to tone our language down for the sole purpose of civility.

Every outlet in America covers this dumpster fire of a presidency called the Trump Administration. The only reason to read any political content on The Root is to read it from a black perspective. The New York Times refers to the current Attorney General as “Mr. Sessions” because he still gets a modicum of respect from their readers. But it is Senior Politics Editor Stephen Crockett’s responsibility to refer to him as the founder of the Keebler Elf chapter of the Ku Klux Klan because that is how many black people see him.

Anyone can print a story about the underfunding of schools, but they will hide under the cloak of political correctness and not refer to it as an arm of white supremacy. We won’t. We are duty-bound by our audience to refer to the tear-stained pink pussy-hats of white women who put a man in charge of the country who would have our race wiped off the face of the world if he could.

Advertisement

When the rest of the world mentions the unconscionable oppression of white women, we are obligated to point out how they benefit from white supremacy. We would not be doing our jobs if we did not point out that the whole of non-white America would saw off their left arm to give their people the same status and opportunity enjoyed by white women whose only knowledge of seasoning exists in the salty tears that accompany their whimpering whines as Beckies.

But not all white women.

Here’s a DM I received on Twitter about the exact same article:

From: Miss Rain:

I appreciated your piece on the “white women” term. I am one, and sure, it makes me cringe every time I hear the phrase. But actually listening to all the people who have something real to say about white women, even if you’re no Becky, is like being gifted a list of stupid shit you may be doing that is hurting others, which you yourself are blind to. We are granted a shortcut to self-improvement, if you will. I’m willing to be a little uncomfortable in order to receive that, and as such I appreciate the wypipoligizing. (Is that your own wypipologism?) Thank you for sharing your intellect and for doing the work of writing. - Rain

Advertisement

Apparently, there are some white women and some white people who seem to be strong enough to bypass what you call “incivility” and grasp the overall meaning.

On Wednesday, I was engaged in a debate with a co-worker here about the tone of the article about Republicans and voter suppression. He made a valid point that coming out so hard and referring to voter suppression as an underhanded tactic of lying, cheating and stealing might turn some readers off. I pushed back by trying to explain what I was trying to do.

Advertisement

The Root exists on the internet. While I am proud of the article, none of it was new information. It could easily be discovered by anyone looking to learn about voter suppression. In fact, even though I have been beating this drum for years, almost every news outlet is reporting on voter suppression lately. Just this week, the Washington Post’s headline intimated that voter suppression was caused by Republicans trying to combat voter fraud. They didn’t call it “lying” or “cheating.” They didn’t even call it “voter fraud.” They called it “ballot access.”

How nice.

But again, when other outlets report on voter fraud, they couch their tone. They talk about it in a civil fashion.

Advertisement

The reason they do this is that, for the most part, the people doing the reporting and the people reading their reports are not black. Their votes aren’t being stolen. This country hasn’t tried to duct tape their people’s political mouths shut since it was founded.

So here’s your answer about civility language and tone:

Imagine there was a serial killer on the loose. Imagine that you had seen him before and you know how he looked. Imagine that you have seen your aunts and uncles, your grandmother and grandfather terrorized by this serial killer.

Advertisement

Now imagine this:

What if there were people who denied that this killer existed? What if, when you pointed at your friends and family members who still had strangulation marks and stab wounds, even though they managed to barely escape his wrath ... what if everyone said those people were just “playing the victim?” What if they tried to convince you that you lived in a “post-serial killer society” and that the murder victims must have done something wrong?

And when you actually had evidence, what if they ignored it? What if they told you to be quiet? What if the killer was on your family’s doorstep with a knife in one hand and a rope in the other, and you screamed and yelled and pointed the killer out?

Advertisement

And what if there was someone who was born with a quality that made the killer ignore them? What if this person’s skin was made from a suit of armor the killer’s knives couldn’t penetrate? And what if that person sent you a long direct message on Twitter explaining why you shouldn’t scream about killers.

What if this oblivious asswipe wrapped in privilege, protected by a serial killer deflector shield, tried to explain why people might help you if you were more civil about the murderer on your family’s doorstep? What if they said:

“So how do we get more people to listen and hear and actually stop the killer? It seems like language is an essential key, whether you like it or not.”

Advertisement

You know what I’d be forced to think? You know what the only logical conclusion I could come up with would be?

“This motherfucker must be a killer too.”


And finally, this:

From: Mike M.
To: Michael Harriot
Subject Enriched !!!

Michael, I just stumbled upon your article “There Was Another Mass Shooting This Weekend But No One Cares” while doing a search on Birmingham’s crime rate and your writing was eye opening.

Sitting in my hotel room in Bham on my business trip tonight I fully expected to briefly scan the areas where I should not be when grabbing a bite to eat. What I found was a walk through an unplanned portal as I was lost in intellectual and unconsciously remorseful thoughts reading article after article.

Each of your pieces linked me to the other articles that you have authored. With my stomach lurching from my growing hunger more and more, I continued reading as if I was studying for a test that I was absolutely unprepared to take. The lessons had me thinking of how society as a whole, including myself I now realize, have been walking through life with comfortable fitting scotomas. The “invisibility” defined by the color of skin in America that you described in the article began to become increasingly translucent as I searched your articles reading upwards of an hour. Not taking a solid form yet... but gradually taking a soul capturing fuller formation in my unconscious understanding of where I have let myself take rest. My shortcomings, in relation to being able to totally grasp what your were spotlighting, is I am a 47 year old American who happens to be white. I was raised in a part of Florida that use to be a well cooked melting pot of acceptance of all persons of America, or so I thought until being captured by your message.

My reality may have been more of a self guided and self defined opinion. You should be aware Michael that I have never searched out a blogger or author to let them know how their work had educated or enlightened me but your work I found uniquely different. You see, I don’t think I was part of the work’s intended audience. Or maybe I am and that is just the magic of your pen.?? Not trying to incite you here, but since the Trevon murder that occurred less than 2 miles from my house, the term Black Lives Matter had seemed like propaganda to separate a united town in Florida that I have always called home. Additionally, the past kneeling of players during the anthem before each game had felt like just another political hindrance as the Left and the Right / Far Right volleyed the “look at me” ball back and forth. Removing my rose colored glasses tonight, obviously my perception has been far from reality. Shame on me for not seeking to understand my unknown. I am sure by now you know how much you nudged me tonight.

Understanding that I am a part of a segment that fails to be able to truly experience and comprehend the 1st person disadvantage and injustices you speak of, I can honestly say that I can now be more aware that I know more about what I don’t know. If that makes any sense. I can open and sensitive to the issues that most likely mean so much more to some of my closest friends who look, and are looked at, differently than myself. You will be required reading for my teenage boys upon my return home. They too need to try to become more intune with what their friends have to tolerate just to walk down the same road called life. My sons may never have to feel the social injustice in the 1st person as illustrated in your renderings of truth but I will be making them more observant to know when they need to be supportive of the protest. The ignorance in my past will not be passed on to my legacy.

I am thankful for your ability to paint the vivid picture that never seemed to be projected to me specifically in complete detail by the broadcast media over the years. The walk in these shoes approach in your articles struck the right chord for me. I am moving my “racially aware” needle from the Unconsciously Incompetent position over to Consciously Incompetent part of my life board. Meaning I now know that I don’t know. Thank you for that.

Well my dinner plans are now a wash. It appears as if I fed my soul and invisible eyesight tonight instead of my body. It was absolutely a much needed nutritious meal.

Much Appreciation

Mike M.

Dear Mike:

Watch your tone, young man.