We can learn much from award winning journalist and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Feb. 25 lecture at the University of Iowa.
Coates’s work, including a piece he wrote in November 2014 about president Barack Obama and the recent uprisings in the city of Ferguson, argues that there is a hyper-expectation for Black women and men to act and think in a particular manner when it comes to issues of race. There is also a prevalent concern of their potential bias. Much of the attention to Coates’s work centers on this issue and his carefully argued article “The Case for Reparations.” In it, he links the racial history of our past to our current dilemmas. He considers what would it mean to see reparations for past and current inequities as not necessarily in terms of a monetary payoff, but as an acknowledgement of and as an ongoing conversation about discrimination in our racial and class landscape.
His argument that Black Americans face a burden to navigate and negotiate racial issues with extra sensitivity and care to make in-group and out-group constituencies comfortable require emphasis. As a Black person, if you are assertive, disagree or advocate for equality in representation and treatment, it can elicit a response of confusion, denial, avoidance, resentment and hostility. This is what a variety of writers and activists define as the “new racism” or acts of racial micro-aggressions, that is, indirect or slightly direct racial insults, insinuations of exaggeration when it comes to issues regarding discrimination, or indifference. Perhaps the most dangerous is proffering a history of advocacy and progress that may elide the continuance of work to accomplish in the future.
Writer Vershawn Ashanti Young describes this experience aptly in regards to his mother’s response to him moving to Iowa and later Kentucky for an academic teaching position. “Don’t go making them white folks feel uncomfortable by talking about race. It scares them,” said Young’s mother. Coates’s presentation Wednesday night and the following community conversation displayed an open engagement representative of the culture of the University of Iowa. Issues of race concern many and efforts for cultural understanding occur in transparent and honest ways.
Many see racial injustice as egregious acts of racism and violence. “No one is burning a cross on your lawn, keeping you from voting, or disenabling the right to make a living,” one might say. While in most cases this is true, racist iconography in public spaces exist, obstacles to voting rights remain and inhospitable sites make environments tense; post slavery fears and resentments about Black ability and success occur, Black women and men still experience stereotypes, and ethnic groups self-segregate or are placed in segregating circumstances.
The power of Coates’s work and of his arguments across the broad spectrum of his writings on race in America show that the past continues to inform our current interactions, antagonisms and dilemmas. How to address the realities he lays out – from police brutality, to redlining and housing discrimination, to voting rights, to violence, is a question we should grapple with in our everyday lives. This is not an easy task, but there are strategies for survival and change (whether slow or immediate).
We can create and self-fund community and intellectual spaces to discuss, research and intervene in race, gender, sexual, ability and class inequality. Openness to coalition building and new alliances, learning to operate in ways that does not assume everyone is out to get you and stepping outside of comfort zones is essential. A willingness to forgive mistakes in things said, unsaid, and interactions — whether in the classroom, peer groups, or professional spheres – reminds us that we are all human and alleviating injustice is an ongoing struggle.
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It is important to make time for self-care and creative work that provides the sustenance for mental wellness. Allowing anger, fear, and raised voices when discussing these issues might have a place too. If we find ourselves at impasse, let us use it as an opportunity for reflection — we will not solve the world’s problems in one day. Full agreement on matters regarding race and additional forms of inequality is not necessary; shifting perspectives, however, can provide alternative frames of reference.
Whatever approach we take to move forward on issues of inequality, as individuals and as collective groups, we must refuse to give up on the task ahead of us and refuse to give up on each other.
• Deborah Elizabeth Whaley is an associate professor at the University of Iowa in the American Studies Department and African American Studies Program. She specializes in American cultural history, Black cultural studies, comparative ethnic studies, popular culture, and film studies. Comments: www.deborahelizabethwhaley.com