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Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude

The Root's Clapback Mailbag: White Magic

Each Friday, we clap back at readers' emails, DMs, tweets and messages. We do it because we care.

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Illustration: Oscar Bustamante/ The Root, G-O Media

Ladies and gentlemen!

Welcome to the Clapback Mailbag, the only weekly column dedicated to pulling back the curtain and exposing the illusion of white superiority! Each Friday, we break the magician’s code and reveal where the rabbit came from before it emerged from the hat. We will show you the secrets behind their most famous tricks, including making equality disappear, levitating whiteness and sawing Lady Liberty in half!

Before we begin, let me show you that there is nothing up my sleeve.

Now pick a race card. Any race card!


First, let me welcome my beautiful assistant Kat, who posed a very important question about Thursday’s article:

From Kat
To: Michael
Subject: Define white

Message: Please define a white person. What ancestry is white? Are you white if there are any links to South America, Southern European, Brazilian, Russian? If your 1/2 black 1/2 is one black or white? Dear Kat,

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That’s a very great question that I ask a lot.

Scientists agree that there is no scientific basis for the concept of race. In his book The Souls of White Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois said:

The discovery of personal whiteness among peoples is a very modern thing–a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed. The ancient world would have laughed at such a distinction. The Middle Age regarded skin color with mild curiosity; and even up into the eighteenth century we were hammering our national manikins into one, great, Universal Man, with fine frenzy which ignored color and race even more than birth. Today we have changed all that, and the world in a sudden, emotional conversion has discovered that it is white and by that token, wonderful!

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For most of human history, the term “race” didn’t exist. It emerged in the late 16th century to describe a type of thing, including a “race of wine,” or a “race of saints.” Before then, every culture on the planet had their own stratification. Europeans considered Asians to be “white.” Even when Enlightenment-era philosophers began categorizing species, they subdivided humans by geographic regions.

Until white people needed slaves.

During colonization, Catholic priests were initially against enslavement and when colonizers objected, others pointed out slavery in other empires, the priests argued that Greeks, Romans, etc. were different races. That’s when—according to professor Gregory Jay— “Whiteness, then, emerged as what we now call a ‘pan-ethnic’ category, as a way of merging a variety of European ethnic populations into a single ‘race.’”

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But even then, whiteness wasn’t clearly defined. In 1705, Virginia banned criminals, and “any negro, mulatto or Indian” from holding office. Then, in 1924, the Racial Integrity Act of Virginia defined a white person as a person “who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian,” forever establishing the “one drop” rule.

At one time, the Irish weren’t considered white. Or Jews. Or Italians. They were only accepted into the club when they proved they could join in the oppression of people who were not like them. At one time, Hispanic people were not white Now there are white Hispanics and “non-white Hispanics.”

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So Katt, the answer to your question is this:

White people are people who say they are white.

See, Katt, white people invented whiteness out of thin air. A Black person does not have the ability to answer that question. Even if we could, white people have a supernatural gift that allows them to redefine their race at any notice. If I must say...

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It’s a beautiful magic trick.

Even Du Bois thought so, as he explained:

“But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?” Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!

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Other readers accused me of racism and wanting to be white:

From: Michael H.
To: Michael Harriot

You mean no black people object to CRT? That is demostrably false, but thanks for showing your racist proclivities. BTW, any denials of your racism is proof of your racism. You see, two can play this game.

From: James
To: Michael Harriot

It is evident that you either hate white people or want to be white. You accuse white people of being racist yet you want them to recognize their race.

Chin up, you pussyboy faggot, and accept the life yoy were given.

From: Trent
To: Michael Harriot

You are the source. You create what you desire to see. You are the victim . Victim of your own self hate. You fill the voids with your hate, you see in others what you see in yourself. You stereotype relentlessly as you yourself fulfill the stereotype others place on you. I am disgusted by your approach and I suggest to you that it is your interpretation that promotes the very actions you rally against. In short … Sir, you suck.

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Dear guys,

First, let me clear up a few misunderstandings about how numbers and words work.

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The reason I didn’t say “no Black people object to CRT” is because I understand how math and language work. If I believed there were zero Black opponents to CRT, I would have written that. Instead of relying on my beliefs, I used data and statistics that show the majority of whites who’ve ever heard of CRT oppose it being taught in K-12 schools, while a majority of Blacks aren’t even sure it’s taught in K-12 schools. Some people call those facts. Even if Black people wanted sixth-graders to learn a complex social theory, it wouldn’t matter. White people are the ones who get to decide.

Does it make me racist to say this?

See, I know how this trick works.

White people have redefined racism as “hate for another race.” Therefore, as long as you never ever talk about race, you aren’t racist. Under your rules, you can support the disproportionate incarceration and killing of Black bodies without consequence. As long as you don’t actively feel any dislike for every Black person, You can ignore the wealth gap, education inequality and political disenfranchisement just as long as you don’t burn crosses or wear Nazi uniforms. Believing you aren’t racist because you just don’t give a fuck about Black people is the most spectacular abracadabra.

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But when you ask me if I’m racist, I go by the definition of the word. So if you can explain how I participate in “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another,” then I will admit that I am racist.

In fact, I will lay out a few guidelines for you to judge me or any Black person’s racism.

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  • Social: I’m going to need to see some evidence that white people are systematically oppressed. Perhaps you can show me how white people don’t have any media representation. Or maybe you can show me how they don’t get to live anywhere they want. Show me a major city where the police kill white people disproportionately.
  • Economic: This one is easy. You can show me a place in America where the white unemployment rate is higher than the Black unemployment rate. Or maybe there’s an industry where white people earn more than Black people.
  • Political: Again, just point out where white people face voter suppression. Maybe there’s a state where whites don’t have political representation. Perhaps there’s a region of the country where white people don’t have constitutional rights.
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Once you gather this information, all I’ll need is some proof of how Black people contributed to these problems. And I’ll readily admit that I am racist.

But this isn’t the only definition of racism. It is possible that I have “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Do I believe white people are inferior?

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This brings me to the story of Madison Hemings.

After Thomas Jefferson’s death, four of his six children had a decision to make. Two had already run away and eventually moved into white society. They were all the products of the rape of an enslaved woman who was the product of the rape of a “fullblooded African” woman. Therefore, by law, they were considered Black even though they could pass for white. The remaining three intermarried with white spouses and chose to become white.

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But Madison stayed Black.

He married a Black woman, moved into an all-Black community and became an abolitionist. Why he chose to do so is interesting. He knew white people were liars. According to him, when he was born, another guy begged Sally Hemings to name her son “Madison” in exchange for a “very fine present.” Sally did it, but she never received the gift, “like many promises of white folk.”

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You’re right. I don’t like white people. I think they are liars. I think they will never collectively do anything to dismantle white supremacy. I think they will risk everything they know to uphold white supremacy. But that’s not racist. It’s a fact. However, there is a really good reason why I can’t be racist against white people.

I don’t hate all white people. If I did, do you think I’d be afraid to say it? You think I don’t know how to say it. I know how words work. I know how math works. Most importantly, like Madison, I also know one thing:

A lot of white people are actually Black people.