The Root’s Clapback Mailbag: What the FAWQ?

Illustration for article titled The Root’s Clapback Mailbag: What the FAWQ?
Illustration: Oscar Bustamante (The Root/FMG)
Clapback MailbagEach Friday, we select the best (or worst) emails, tweets, DMs and comments from our readers and respond to them in the The Root's Clapback Mailbag.

Don’t you hate when you go see one of your favorite artists in concert, but instead of the hits, they play songs from their new project?


Well, you don’t have to worry about that with today’s mailbag.

Today, we are just playing the classics. This week’s selection of emails, tweets and direct messages answer two of our most Frequently Asked White Questions, or FAWQ.

Hope you enjoy.

The first letter refers to The Root’s senior politics editor and chief handshake analyst, Stephen A. Crockett Jr.’s post analyzing the now-famous handshake between Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman:

To: “The Root” Editorial Staff and General Manager
From: Walter

I read a broad array of news sources - left, center, right, fringe, ethnic and unbranded, so I am accustomed to seeing diverse points of view. Yesterday, however, I was taken aback while reading a piece in “The Root,” which bills itself as an “Afrocentric online magazine.” Here is what I read:

“…Salman is too apprehensive, which is understandable since white people generally have a unique feel to their skin. I don’t want to go too deep, but the textural consistency of white hands is soft and damp, like the skin of an uncooked chicken leg quarter. It can be quite jarring at first.”

The author, Stepan A. Crockett Jr., is a black man. In the above passage, he engages in overt racism - there really is no other way to describe it. It is the kind of racism that would get any white person fired, evicted, banished and made into a non-person if they wrote anything even remotely similar about a black person

I appeal to “Root” creator Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Danielle Belton, its current editor, to take appropriate steps in disciplining Mr. Crockett. From my perspective, it seems black people want a pass for anti-white racist broadsides, no matter how overt.

I honestly don’t know a single white person who speaks, writes, or even thinks, this way. I am tired of turning the other cheek. Please check your racism, black folks!



Dear Walter,

As a colleague of Senior Politics Editor Stephen Crockett Jr., the person who edited the piece to which you refer and, dare I say, an “ethnic,” I take full responsibility for that quote from Stephen. I agree that it is demeaning to white people and when I first read your email, I considered making it the only letter I addressed in the mailbag this week.


In your letter, you said:

“It is the kind of racism that would get any white person fired, evicted, banished and made into a non-person if they wrote anything even remotely similar about a black person.”


I agree.

I actually want to thank you for saying this because I’d like to use your letter to make a serious and significant point about the concept of false equivalencies that we at The Root have been trying to make for a long time. Your letter gives us the perfect opportunity to do so. So you should probably sit down, this is going to take a while.


Let’s put on our “worst-case-scenario” imagination hats and conjure up the worst possible outcome caused by Stephen’s outrageous slur. I’m sure it could cause some white people to question the moisture-to-firmness ratio of their palms but let’s imagine the worst case.

At worst, Stephen’s slur could make people all over the world stop shaking white people’s hands. Upset by this epidemic of public shunning and in a desperate attempt to assimilate into the non-sweaty hand culture, white people stopped using hand creams, plunging the international lotion market into turmoil, resulting in mass job losses in the moisturizing industry.


But some brave young scientist tinkering around in a Minnesota garage figures out a medical technique that eliminates palm sweatiness and made white people’s skin no longer felt like grabbing a dead shaved possum corpse (Actually–and this is no lie–the procedure already exists). The Lotion Industrial Complex would lobby the insurance companies to make this surgery a pre-existing condition and white people would demand free healthcare. Meanwhile, Big Lotion and the healthcare lobby would make it mandatory that all children use their moisturizing products, resulting in every child receiving free shea butter at birth.

So the worst thing that could happen is that we get Medicare for all and the elimination of ashiness.


Now, for the false equivalency part.

Let’s imagine for a second, that a white person made a similar, off-hand comment. Just for shits and giggles, let’s say the person was someone more important than myself.


Imagine what would happen if a United States Congressman like ... oh, let’s say Steve King (R-Iowa) made a similarly offensive comment. I know it’s hard to imagine, but let’s say he made the same kind of comment about the physical characteristics of Mexicans who cross the border, like:

For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.


Wait. Maybe we should raise the stakes in this totally made up scenario, and make the person using pejoratives the President of the United States. What if he said, of undocumented border-crossers: “These aren’t people. These are animals” or referred to them as rapists and murderers?

In this fictional fantasy, people might be scared enough to do outrageous things like call for the country to spend money we don’t have on a useless border wall. Even worse—and I know this sounds crazy—the president might spend hundreds of millions of dollars sending armed forces to the border to keep out the drug-dealing rape-murderers and people would be fine with it.


Maybe, based on the president’s racial insults, the government would snatch children from their parents and put them in detention camps or fire tear gas at them. Of course, this would never happen. I’m just spitballing here.

This is fun! Let’s do one more story based on your false equivalency.

Let’s use your exact hypothesis that someone said something—as you said—“even remotely similar about a black person.” In this particular example, I want to be specific. Let’s create some fake names and imaginary statistics.


For instance, what if 95 percent of black people didn’t commit a crime in any given year, but someone crafted a narrative about black criminals? What if 99.9 percent of black people never murdered anyone but they were perceived as murderous thugs? What if police officers held this belief even though 92 percent of police officers were never assaulted while on duty and only 4.2 percent of the police officers who were assaulted on duty were assaulted with a firearm?

Now imagine if you had a son. Let’s say his name was Emantic “E. J.” Bradford, Jr. and he was in a mall in Alabama ... Or let’s say that his name was Philando Castile and he was riding in the passenger seat of a car ... Or let’s say his name was Tamir Rice and he was playing in a park ... Or let’s say his name was John Crawford and he was in Walmart about to purchase a B.B. gun ...


And a police officer encountered your son and shot him dead without warning.

Now imagine if, after shooting your son, the police all said that they “feared for their lives.” Imagine if people believed it. Imagine if those police officers were never “fired, evicted,” or “banished” even though they made your son “into a non-person.” Because the public has heard the insults about black men being dangerous so many times, imagine if juries, judges and regular citizens excused the murder of your son.


So, dear Wally, the next time you, or anyone else, create this strawman, reverse-racism false equivalency, remember that–all things being equal–insults are bad.

However, all things are not equal. Only non-white people have to pay the price of racist jokes with the loss of their children and loved ones.


Now you could have said: “Stephen’s joke hurt my feelings and I think it is mean.” Maybe we would have considered that. But don’t make apathetic insensitivity equivalent to life-and-death racism because no one will take you seriously.

When police killed E. J. Bradford, the police told the national media that he was an armed killer and no one even questioned it. Everyone just assumed it was true.


As his mother wept over the casket of her 21-year-old son, at least she didn’t have to worry about people making fun of her son’s handshake.

Because apparently, Wally, it’s the same thing.

Here are two direct messages that ask another popular question. Oftentimes, these messages start out addressing one issue but usually devolve to the same point, namely: Why can’t white people say the n-word?

From: Jerry B
To: Michael Harriot

hey i your Top 10 Ways Black People Keep Racism Alive, According to Wypipo

And the were some serious problems there like you said “Most people don’t know that white people are scientifically incapable of tasting seasonings” what i don’t know where you read this but probably on urban dictionary where i asume most of your sources are also “Black men receive longer prison sentences than white men who commit the same crimes”

well first off “men” so not females and if the crime is against a black person then its a hate crime even if its not and not the other way around. Lastly because i don’t want to point out everything you wrote and this is a big one white people can’t say the n word every race has a term that was or is use to put them down but you don’t hear them say hey you can’t say that and that why there are a lot less race problems with other races it because you treat it like this unforgiveable sin when it just a word if it were not put up on this pedestal it would lose meaning but if that happens no more feeling special.

From: JoRoCo
To: Michael Harriot

Hello Michael,

I am a high school History Teacher at one of the most diverse schools in the country. Today some of my black refugee students were having a conversion on the use of the “N” word. I typically am Socratic in discussions so I posed the scenario, “Is it ok for gay men to go around calling each other ‘fags’ and ‘faggots’”? (I obviously didn’t use the words with my students). I think it’s a fair comparison. This evening, I stumbled on your essay and I am curious what you mean when you say that white people believe that “using the n-word is divisive and an example of reverse racism.” What is the context to this statement? I personally believe that it is a disgusting word, degrading, and carries with it a history of internalized oppression. So why then do you believe the “n” word is ok to be used by blacks? Does it help elevate black people to use this word? Thank you in advance for humoring my discussion.


A few days later, JoRoCo wrote again:

11/13/18, 9:05 PM

I will also add that Seeds is Peace came to our school last week to have this exact conversation although I was unable to attend.


And again:

11/14/18, 7:59 PM

Further context, I also think girls calling each other “bitches” and “sluts” in jest is demeaning and disrespectful to women.


JoRoCo and Jerry,

I assume your Google button is broken on your computer because I have written an extensive answer on this very question.


So instead of going over the same answer, I’d like to tell you a story (Warning, you’ll have to know a little bit about black fraternities and sororities to understand this story.)


When I was in college, I was in a fraternity. One of my fraternity brothers and still one of my best friends was a guy named Norris. Norris grew up in Compton, Calif., during the late ’80s and early ’90s and we grew close because we had the same inane sense of humor and were interested in a lot of the same things, one of which was eastern philosophy.

Norris was also a gangster.

He wasn’t a big dude, nor was he intimidating. He just wasn’t scared of shit. And the dude liked to fight. He didn’t start fights but he’d do shit like enter the pre-MMA “Toughman” competitions ... And win. You know how people give themselves nicknames? I thought he was bullshitting me when he told me that people called him “Knockowt Norris.”


They literally do.

One of the absurd things Norris and I would do is reserve the outside free speech area on campus. People would see us in our gold boots and gather around expecting a step show, but instead, Norris and I would read aloud from philosophy books as if we were preaching. But we would replace some of the words with racial terms, such as replacing “evil” with “Caucasian.” One of our favorite books to read from was Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. We would end each reading with: “This has been the teachings of Shambhalaaaaaaaaaa!”


I know it sounds stupid, but it would crack us up. I have no idea why. (Some people say it may have been marijuana. I cannot confirm this.)

Well, one day, Norris and I were together, and two white frat boys recognized us from our stupid little readings and said: “Hey, it’s the Shambhala guys!” Then they threw their hands in the air in the fashion of our fraternity sign and began making our fraternity call. (The black people reading this know this is an understood no-no. You two may not.)


Me, being the peacemaker that I am, tried to explain to the guys that they shouldn’t do that. They couldn’t understand my first set of reasons and asked again why they couldn’t. Then they did it again. I was about to explain tradition and symbolism when Norris interrupted me to tell them why they should never do that again.

“Because we’re mean,” he said, rather intensely, looking directly into their eyes.


“If you do it again, we’re gonna beat you up. Because we’re mean.”

I don’t know why that moment has always stuck with me but it has. Aside from the words “beat you up,” which I consider far more effective than “kick your ass,” the pure simplicity of not offering an explanation other than “because we’re mean” is memorable. I like the word “mean.”


Which brings me to my point.

I hope you read that above article. But if you don’t, I can’t, for the life of me, understand why white people yearn to say the n-word. I could easily dismantle Jerry’s nonsensical assertion that “every race has a term that was or is use [sic] to put them down.” I could easily explain why I can use a word among my peers that is off-limits to you.


What I cannot understand is, why this line of questioning continues to exist. In both your letters, you explicitly note that you are aware of the negative connotation that the word carries. Your question is not why the n-word is bad because you already know.

What you’re really asking is why, in a world where people who look like you, can shoot black people in the face, call the police on them without retribution, steal their votes, live wherever they please and marginalize every non-white human being in your universe, why there exists one thing that you, as a privileged white man in America, cannot do. I’m sure it boggles your brain. Well here is the answer for why you can’t use the n-word but black people can:

Because you’re white, JoRoCo and Jerry. Because you’re white.

And if you do it, we’ll beat you up.

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



Well I’m not gay, so it’s not my place to tell gay people what they should find acceptable to say, but if they want to go around calling each other the f word I’m fine with it. I’m not going to use it.

How does a supposed history teacher think that's a deep question. It's fucking obvious. Groups have their own norms and acceptable language and behavior. I don't speak to your family, friends, or significant other in the same way you do. And they'd be pissed if I did.