Let Them Cringe

To be Black and sane in America seems, to me, like a miracle. And yet, there they are, all around us, millions of miracle-humans walking, working, loving, helping and giving us all the gifts of their cultures, perspectives and endless examples of what it looks like to survive the worst of human potential, century after century. 

Straddling the two worlds of being White and raising a Black child in America is a powerful, terrifying and humbling daily experience. Every day I hear the sound of my thoughts, pounding like drums, do more!, faster!, you’re running out of time, look at how big he’s getting… 

Every morning and every night I see my son, so big and strong in his 9 year old body, but still so little-  snuggling his cats, afraid of the dark, covering his face in genuine disgust when people kiss on tv, craving cuddles every night at bedtime ...and I just want to cry out, “Come ON, White folks, we’ve got to use our privilege to end this madness!”  But I’m constantly frustrated by the urgency to say the perfect thing that will help more Whites to understand, and the lack of confidence to know what that perfect thing is.  Also, who will listen? I will be criticized, misunderstood, accused of stepping out of my lane. 

I feel overwhelmed and impotent. But I will not stop. 

I think all of us have something that calls to us, and while racial equity has been that something for me for decades, nothing helped me see White privilege and the need for White responsibility like becoming the parent of a Black child.  Prior to this, I allowed my deep fear of offending, or coming off as ignorant or just like all the other clueless White people to keep me from taking more initiative.  I still have all those fears, but I don’t have the luxury of letting them silence me.  If you are White or any other non-Black person, there is one thing I want you to feel, down to your bones, more than anything else. That is, that none of us have the luxury of allowing fear to silence us anymore. 

“A time comes when silence is betrayal.”- MLK 

The urgency of this moment is everywhere and undeniable. After the 8 minutes of the barbaric murder of George Floyd, and the hundreds of other filmed attacks on innocent, Black citizens, after the uninterrupted MAGA assault on the capitol building on January 6, including the beating and killing of police officers, juxtaposed against thousands of cops in riot gear sent all around the country to squash Black Lives Matter protesters...the truth of America’s ugliest secret has been undressed and lifted up, naked, for the world to see.  

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The truth of America’s ugliest secret has been undressed and lifted up, naked, for the world to see.

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One of my artists, a fair-skinned, French-Moroccan Muslim woman,  released her first music video on racial justice on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2021. In the two days prior, she posted “teasers” from her song to create momentum for the release. Two Black women responded quickly, “not a good look...cringey. You made trauma porn for white people. Check your white savior bullshit….” and on and on.  She forwarded me the comments around midnight.  

She was understandably upset.  She’d worked for months on this project. She’d put her heart and soul into it.  And the first day she shared any part of it with the world, she had offended two Black colleagues and was reprimanded, sharply.  

My first reaction was fear, then confusion, followed by waves of nausea. Had I misled her with my encouragement? What had I missed in our editing sessions? I read the comments, breathing deeply, sleepless for hours, and then remembered something I ask of White folks whenever talking about the process of becoming anti-racist, “Lean In.”  Slowly, clarity came through. 

The next morning, I reminded her that she’d had the courage to create outside the safety zone. That she’d written and sung about racism - an enormous and prickly issue, which many artists won’t go near. This was something to be proud of.  But because of this, there was risk involved.  I suggested we lean in together, and see what could be learned. 

In taking her own lyrics out of context, her words became triggering.  She needed the verses in order for the choruses to make her point clear. She’d made a mistake, and needed to own that and apologize, which she did. 

The day she released the video in it’s entirety, she received a follow up message from one of the women, “...hearing (your lyrics) in context...gives more nuance...the verses are thoughtful and had impact...I don’t totally take back what I said, but if I’m going to be bold and say what I don’t like, I need to be bold and honest and say what I do like.” 

It’s notable that in addition to the above critique, this artist also received praise from many other Black friends and colleagues about her video.  We could make a long list of all the points related to doing anti-racism work that are exemplified in this story: 

  • Sometimes reaching out for help can subdue the knee-jerk reactions of panic and shame, which make it possible for the experience to become an opportunity for growth 
  • It’s so important to remember that Black folks, just like White folks, are not a monolith. There are so many differences between people-  age, class, profession, gender, sexual orientation, cultural practices...the two women who were offended by the video had solid points, but they didn’t speak for the whole group. 
  • Trading defensiveness for curiosity can create understanding 
  • Practicing humility over pride can create connection - and resilience 
  • Remembering, especially in the face of anger and criticism, that doing the work of anti-racism means we will fall down, we will get dirty and sometimes hurt, but we can breathe deeply into the quiet satisfaction of knowing that we are no longer sitting, scared and silent on the sidelines, allowing our fragility to run the show. 
  • You don’t have to do this alone. There are more White and White-passing folks than ever before doing this work. Reach out for help when you feel attacked or demoralized. Remember that no matter how daunting the work of anti-racism can be, it is the tiniest price to pay compared to the centuries of oppression and violence suffered by Black people in this country. 
  • Let them accuse you of White Savior complex. Let anyone who needs to, tell you that your words, your posts, your tries are cringey…let them say whatever it is they need to say.  Take a breath with me, lean in, listen, learn - and let’s all get good at apologizing when we need to.   

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Let them accuse you of White Savior complex. Let anyone who needs to, tell you that your words, your posts, your tries are cringey…let them say whatever it is they need to say.  Take a breath with me, lean in, listen, learn - and let’s all get good at apologizing when we need to.

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It’s no mark against us when we mess up, as long as we’re trying to do our best and are willing to learn and make amends.  If it’s a harsh reprimand, look for the point hiding inside the tone. Sometimes, the aggression has more to do with the 500 people that did something similar, before you. Sometimes, it’s because our words or tone were deeply hurtful, or ignorant, or insulting, and we had to be made aware of it. Imagine, really imagine, being in their shoes.  Fortify yourself with the knowledge that you are doing this thing.  You are not turning your back on it. With practice, and grace, you will only get better at it.  If you need to, call in the help of a friend to process. Then dust yourself off and get back to the work of continuing on your anti-racism journey. Feel good knowing that you are refusing to let your hurt feelings stop you from doing your part to interrupt the deadly forces of racism.   

“If you continue to let them shoot us, they will.” - TheTylerMerrittProject 

We will make mistakes. We can handle that. 

What we can’t bear, is for the violent oppression of our Black siblings in this human family to continue. Those of us who receive the unearned benefits extended to us simply because we have white skin have a responsibility to do our part to end it, to the best of our ability, with or without praise or recognition. 

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