The Root's Clapback Mailbag: White People Did It First

Illustration for article titled The Root's Clapback Mailbag: White People Did It First
Illustration: Oscar Bustamante (The Root/FMG )

Before we get into this week’s emails, tweets, DMs, Facebook Messages, etc, let me tell you a story:

As a kid, whenever my sisters or I broke my mother’s rules by doing something stupid (which was often), before doling out her punishment, my mother would allow us to plead our cases before the court of mama. She literally held tribunals and if we could make a logical argument for why we shouldn’t be punished, she would accept our argument and change her mind.


Once, I accidentally hit my sister in the head with a broom. (Not with the stick part, you neanderthal! With the bristles!) Even though my sister ran to tell my mom like she was the feds, I didn’t even worry about it. In my head, I had a very logical argument.

Basically, I explained to my mother that I was swinging the broom before my sister even walked into the kitchen. Therefore, I explained, I shouldn’t be punished, per se, because she technically hit herself with a broom that was already in motion. I didn’t intentionally hit her with the broom because—ipso facto presto tomato—I was doing it first.

I don’t know if my mother was tired that day, if it was the stupidity of my argument, or if it was because my sister wasn’t really hurt. But my mother just laughed it off and let that shit go!

Then, something happened.

“I was doing it first” became a legitimate argument in our house.

Whenever my sisters were mad at me, they wouldn’t just hit me. They would stand in a doorway or get within an inch of my head, swing wildly and dare me to exit the room. If I got punched in the face, by the legal standards established in the court of the Harriot house, they would not be at fault because they could always claim that they were doing it first.

I can’t really recall if my mother made an appellate decision on the “I was doing it first” ruling, but we eventually grew out of it. I don’t even know why I’m telling this story. I’m sure that I could use it to illustrate something about the insanity of whiteness and how they expect everyone to excuse racism based on the fact that they have always been this way. There’s definitely a hidden metaphor in there, somewhere. However, even though this story is 100 percent real (I even texted my sisters to let them know I was telling the story of “I was doing it first), the truth is:

I just needed an intro for the mailbag.

This first direct message from Twitter concerns an article about black on black crime.


Namely, they pushed back against my argument that white people never hear black people talk about black on black crime because of one reason: Because we are talking to each other!

From: Geoff
To: Michael Harriot.

Mr Mike

Your article pertaining to black on black crime was interesting. However you would get to define what a racist is based on factual information or data not strictly opinion. There is an arrogance loathing or hatred that comes from someone raised under less than ideal circumstances. The fact that white people don’t hear black folks talking about black on black crime gives them a pass not to not understanding what black folks talk about when white folks are not present. How could anyone hold another accountable when I’m not privy to information that they seek?

Anyhow cowards complain please don’t view me that way your writing is Bold n brilliant. I simply feel it lacks understanding from a caucations point of view. Anyhow let’s see if I’ve made a friend or an enemy 😎


He later wrote:

correction “how could anyone hold another accountable when they’re not privy to hearing information”


And finally:

Btw- I’m fairly new to this and probably came off rude 4 not saying hello 1st. You’re a strong writer and deserve respect


Congratulations Geoff,

I want you to know that I am willing to recognize white excellence when I see it. Of the thousands of letters I have ever received, yours ranks first as the whitest correspondence I have ever read. Especially this sentence:

“The fact that white people don’t hear black folks talking about black on black crime gives them a pass not to not understanding what black folks talk about when white folks are not present. How could anyone hold another accountable when I’m not privy to information that they seek?”


You literally want to know how we can expect you to not be racist when you aren’t privy to any exculpatory information. Luckily for you, I am not a vengeful person, so I will tell you how.

Just don’t be racist.

You don’t need any facts and figures to not be racist. You don’t need the definition of racism. All you have to do is be a good person who treats everyone the same.


Take me, for instance. While I might rail against the plague of white people on the internet, I try to treat everyone the same. Yes, I suspect everyone is an asshole until I get to know them. I know that sounds fucked up, but at least I’m consistent.

You should understand that my goal has never been to rid the world of racism. Despite the fact that the article to which you refer is laden with statistical data, you are willing to contend that it is my opinion that we live in a racist country. I am cool with knowing that there are some people whose minds cannot be changed because they are convinced of their own self-righteousness. You are one of those people.


Geoff, the fact that you have all those vowels strewn across the middle of your name, hoarding them from good, consonant-laden white people who could use a few vowels like Mike Krzyzewski and Peter Strzok proves you don’t even understand your own privilege.

Finally, Geoff, I believe that you wake up every morning and say the word “nigger” 20 times before you brush your teeth. You are probably a member of the KKK. I bet you really admire Nazis.


Now I have no evidence of this, but how am I supposed to believe otherwise when I am not privy to the information I seek?

This email concerns a joke in the article on 2 fraternities at my alma mater who posted semi-racist signs about a historically black university:


From: Jason
To: Michael Harriot

Or as Benjamin Franklin once said: “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid ... Unless you’re white, in which case, both come naturally.

I enjoy reading your articles, not that I agree or disagree with all. Disappointed in this comment, I’m not offend just disappointed. When words fell us just discredit a whole race. Is this statement racist or just stupidity. Ironic I’m debating your thoughts instead of Auburn frats........


Dear Jason,

I’m sorry you were offended by my made-up quote. My intent was not to make you angry. I thought it was a humorous way to point out the fact that the white boys made a sign they thought was funny, to disparage an entire group of people.


In fact, even some black people didn’t feel that the frat house banners poking fun at an HBCU were offensive. They thought they were hilarious. Those people contend that since the frats at Auburn do this to every opponent, why shouldn’t they do it when they played an HBCU?

Some people also found my fake Benjamin Franklin quote to be hilarious and not offensive. Those people contend that if I do this in every article, why shouldn’t I do it to white people?


But you’re right and I’m wrong. I’m willing to admit that.

I hope you kept that same energy when you wrote emails to the Auburn University Administration, Phi Sigma Kappa Fraternity, Sigma Pi Fraternity, The Auburn Interfraternity council, Donald Trump, The Republican Party, and every white person you’ve ever heard make a slightly off-color joke, right?


I’m sure you did that, right? I assume everyone who writes me when I disparage whiteness spends their entire day sending emails to white racists, too. Because if you’re only concerned when someone says something disparaging about white people, but you don’t put forth the effort to correct people when they do it to black people, Muslims, immigrants, Jews, or any non-white person, then that would mean you care more about white people, which would be the classic definition of...

Never mind.

This last email pertains to an article about the sexist cartoon about Serena Williams.


From: TimTom

To: Michael Harriot

You like to talk about white privilege but never talk about white privilege. Black privilege is when you cansmear anyone as racist without considering the merits of there argument.You say this cartoonist is racist but even tho he said that he didnt thik about race when he drew it. Yet you say Kaepernick isn’t disrespecting the flag because he said his protest had nothing to do with the flag. Serena is a millionair and her baby is (half) white.So black people get to explain themselves but white people dont? Sounds like black privilege to me.


Dear TimTom

I thank you for this question. If you are new to the mailbag, I’d like to say something that I often say here:

You don’t get to punch me and then tell me how bad it should hurt.

I don’t care what Mark Knight, the cartoonist who drew the flag, said his intent was. I can only judge him by the product of his work. And his work is racist. As a white man, he doesn’t get to judge that, and here is why.


Racism has nothing to do with intent. It has everything to do with the impact or the effect of an action. If someone creates a work of art, institutes a policy or makes a remark that disproportionately affects, offends or disparages a group of people, then you don’t get to mitigate the impact by saying you didn’t mean to do it.

Let’s say the cartoonist wasn’t the least bit racist and had no idea of the Sambo caricature, the history of comparing black people to apes or the stereotype of the angry black women. Let’s also imagine that the entire country of Australia had no idea of this. But when I saw the cartoon, when many other people saw it, they immediately recognized the trope.


Where do you think those stereotypes come from?

Do you think there was a meeting of early 19th-century cartoonist who decided on the ape insinuation? Do you think there was a meeting of racists who voted on which tropes they would use?


No, they came from white people’s subconscious because this is how they see us.

And those subconscious thoughts are racist, not because they were intended to be. They are racist because the people whom they depict feel disparaged by that depiction. It is the effect of the cartoon that makes it racist, not the intent. If you kill someone accidentally, it doesn’t mean you aren’t guilty of a crime.


Which brings me to the larger point:

Why can’t white people ever say they’re sorry?

Now in this specific instance, I am willing to say that I don’t mean all white people. I mean the people who perpetuate racism, spread hate and practice oppression. I don’t think all white people have hate in their heart, but even those who don’t when they make a mistake, they immediately absolve themselves by simply declaring that whatever they did wasn’t racist when all they have to do is say: “My bad. I won’t do it again.”


Not all white people do that. But the people who do that are always white. Therefore, I have come up with my own unique name for this group of stauch non-apologists:

White people.

What’s different about the Kaepernick situation is that there hasn’t been a single flag that’s spoken out and said they were offended by the NFL protests. Neither Francis Scott Key nor The Star Spangled Banner has complained once.


If I do hear from a flag, I promise I will be willing to lay down my black privilege and say: “My bad. I won’t do it again.”

And finally, this:

From: Will
To: Michael Harriot

The girl in the apartment directly below me is having sex right now, with one of the black kids. She’s moaning. I can hear her, through the floor. They’re playing their rap music really loud right now, trying to drown out the noise.

A week or two ago, I exited my apartment and she was standing at the top of the steps that lead down to theirs. She shot me a really, really nasty look. She was like “I’m looking for a really long penis, not a shorter one.” She may have been drunk or high. She acted as though the length of a man’s penis single-handedly determines his family’s value. She may think I’m a virgin. Her parents must have been hippies.

I will sometimes meet a man about my age, whose dad was in Nam. You know what I tell him? I’m like “My dad sells insurance. My mom’s a teacher.”


Dear Will,

You can’t complain.

They were doing it first.

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



Ya’ll need to give Will a permanent column. I don’t know what that stream of consciousness email was about but I’ll be think about it all day.