In “How Ta-Nehisi Coates Gives Whiteness Power,” the young, black writer argues that Coates assumes white power in America is all-powerful and unchangeable, that he panders to “woke” white liberals, and that he plays into the hands of racists with a poor-me picture that should be made more complicated, independent, and hopeful. This is an old center-left diversionary argument that goes something like ‘don’t ever paint a bleak picture of reality unless you:
1) make sure everyone says it’s way more complicated than the particular bleakness we’re addressing;
2) proclaim your problem not anywhere nearly as important as another big picture bleakness;
3) focus on solutions, on practicalities, you freaking whiners; and
4) sprinkle any testimony with anthemic hope. Or at least end on a note of it.
A witness names what is. I love being positive and feeling strong sometimes, but that’s not what witnessing means; not to Sinclair Lewis, Ella Baker, Studs Terkel, or James Baldwin. Coates’ great lesson to me is noticing, acknowledging and explaining the terrible costs of the hidden and powerful unconscious bias in our society.
Some things aren’t complicated. He doesn’t focus on future policy. He highlights the notion of “overcoming” in maybe the most important sense, to give me a sense,of what others must achieve to obtain my birthright. He notes progress, and makes warnings, and can bear an elegiac despair, as have many of his ancestors. His words can certainly sound to the unconvinced as if he fetishizes victimhood and rejects potential for improvement. But he’s just pointing out risk and pain where we don’t see it, now and in our history, explaining what W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness,” the jumbled, sometimes irreconcilable sense of what it means to be American and black at the same time.
As to pandering to white liberals: I had been unaware of much of the history in his work, and was shocked at the grinding and consistent waves and creative manifestations of discrimination in recent history. It is not pandering to teach history– is it soliciting pandering for me to want be included in the conversation? What if I feel good after reading him– or bad– what might that mean?
That same sense of being acquainted with misery and cruelty also helps me. Poignant despair arising from unnecessary suffering isn’t part of me. Through witnesses, I can leap to a sense of what it means to have those losses, and to have them lurking in the future. Because I was inspired with insight into another person’s experience, I’m probably less likely to participate in this blind man’s bluff of bias that tends to enter the world through us. Thanks to his thoughts, I’m certainly better at identifying bias, in myself and others.
The center-left should find and herald the clear witness. They shouldn’t expect him to also be their favorite philosopher, or worry how he looks in a suit. The center-left may certainly address the complexity, and solution set, and big pictures, and we many others can march right alongside, but witnesses give us a proper sense of history and scope. A witness speaks to what is.