Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates* was the first book I finished in 2018. So as to not mindlessly “achieve” books without reflecting on them, I’m committing to do more writing about what I read. This wasn’t a light read, and I’ll no doubt be processing it for a long time. But here are some reflections:
I was twelve when my family moved from small-town North Dakota to Prince George’s County, Maryland. Tucked safely inside the wired gates of Andrews Air Force Base, the world kept out was foreign and scary, with rumors of bullet-proof glass on drive-thru windows, and warnings about locking your doors and avoiding eye contact. I remember first arriving in Maryland, driving through Baltimore, looking out my window at the colorful faces walking around outside and thinking, we’re not in Kansas any more. It was an observation without judgment. I’d only seen a handful of African Americans in person up to that point. There was a beauty and mystery to this unfamiliar. An excitement that began to overshadow my teenage angst over moving. The realization that we’d moved somewhere with culture and diversity and different stories to learn. I loved it, even if I feared it a little.
In eight grade, I went to Andrew Jackson Middle School, a magnet school in PG County. I hated homeschooling and was a miserable student; my parents sent me to public school that year at my insistence, while keeping the rest of my siblings home. I was one of three white kids in my class. The other “white kids” being a girl from Taiwan and another who was Middle Eastern. We were friends, these three outsiders. Eventually I found my place in choir among my African American classmates. When Christmas carols came along and I auditioned for a solo, they saw me for the first time. “White girl can sing!”
I was the white girl. It was how my classmates saw me, and my teachers. I doubt many of them knew my name. They didn’t need to.
I realize now that even my experience as a minority was anchored in privilege. My teachers treated me with respect. They expected that I would be smart and well-behaved. To be fair, I was. But other classmates were too, only they’d get a sideways glance. I was never met with accusation or withheld from opportunity.
Coates describes being pulled over by the PG County police:
“At that point in American history, no police department fired its guns more than that of Prince George’s County…I replayed all of this sitting there in my car, in their clutches…these officers had my body, could do with that body whatever they pleased, and should I live to explain what they had done with it, this complaint would mean nothing.”
I, too, know what it’s like to be pulled over by the PG County police. But it didn’t occur to me to fear for my life. I feared my father’s wrath, of course, so my sister and I batted our eyelashes and she talked her way out of a speeding ticket. We had a reason to be pulled over and walked away unscathed. Because we were young girls? Because we were white? It didn’t occur to me to question.
I write this knowing that there are ways to talk about race that are appropriate and informed, and knowing that I don’t know what they are. This was just my experience, those few months where I felt what it was like to be the minority, where I felt keenly aware of my whiteness, where I began to wonder what it all meant.
I related a little to Coates’s fear for his son, to his feeling of being an inadequate protector. He speaks of the vulnerability of the black body, and as a woman I can relate at least in the smallest terms. I’m not raising a black male but I am raising daughters in a world where their bodies are seen as free for the taking. In a world where I say #metoo and know the fear of vulnerability, of lack of agency.
But he also made me question how I ought to raise my son, and my daughters for that matter. What do we do with this inherent privilege? How do we love well? Fight for justice? Acknowledge the sins of our history, even knowing we may have had nothing to do with it? How do we root out these cultural constructs that allow oppression to flourish? How do we admit the ways we’ve been complicit?
And how do we do so without reinforcing the problems?
When I was a case manager for New Americans, I learned very quickly the privilege I had by simply speaking English without an accent. My clients would be on the verge of eviction, but if I called and spoke to the landlord, I might be able to negotiate more time. If I called the employer, they might get an interview. If I met with the teacher, their child might get better services. This both enraged and empowered me. I saw the ways I could help but also felt disgusted that I would play into such a hateful system. Yet I knew confronting the racism would only harm my clients. So I would smile and be kind and respectful and my clients would have another week to get the rent together. All the while it kept us in two different classes. Did I use my privilege well or did it just go to my head?
Coates urges his son to struggle, just as those of us who think we’re white need to learn to struggle so we can face this Dream we’ve conjured for ourselves. The Dream is a myth, and while I think I know that, I also see myself living in it. I wonder if I’m passing it along to my children. I wonder what it looks like to struggle myself and to keep from passing along complacency and ignorance. All I can hope is that in asking the questions, I’m moving in the right direction. That’s Coates’s method and what I admired most about the book – the more he learned, the less sure he became. Questions only lead to more questions – that’s the essence of his struggle and the one he passes onto his son – and to me, too.