I feel I need to open this post with a disclaimer: this is not about all white people. I repeat, not all white people.
With that out of the way: the experiences of black people are far too often dismissed or outright rejected by white people. A few days ago, I remarked about the interaction I had with a guy at Pharyngula who (I suspect) is a white male. He refused to entertain the idea that I, as a black man should have any concern about my safety in this country. He refused to treat my concerns as valid. He dismissed my concerns as the rantings of someone who is paranoid (yes, he actually said that). Why? I don’t know, but I suspect that for him to accept what I had to say would mean a huge disruption in his view of the world. To acknowledge that the world doesn’t work the way he thinks it does is probably too horrible for him to contemplate. To listen to and acknowledge the validity of a black man’s concerns about encountering a white man with a gun, or a white police officer would mean having to acknowledge that the world is deeply unfair. I suspect it was easier for him to remain wrapped up in his bubble of reality, shielded from the harshness of the world as experienced by black people, than it would be to listen to those experiences and treat those words and people with respect and dignity.
That man is not unique. A lot of white people do this. We can see this in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown at the hands of Darren Wilson. So many white Americans have doubted the eyewitnesses (most of whom were black), intent it seemed, on creating a narrative in their head that justified the murder of an unarmed black man. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision on the part of many (though undoubtedly it was for some). I think it’s part of their internal narrative that informs their views of who and what black people are. They see the words of black people as untrue, especially as it relates to their experiences with racism. Perhaps in the eyes of people like this, the word of six black people equals one white person. These people need to take a strong look at themselves and question why they deny the lived experiences of black Americans. They might not like what they find, but this is going to be necessary if this country is ever going to move forward.
Edward Baptist, a white man who is a columnist for the Guardian, recently wrote a book about slavery and capitalism. In a recent column he discusses one review of his book by an anonymous reviewer for the Economist:
In 1845, Frederick Douglass, a fugitive from slavery, joined dozens of white passengers on the British ship Cambria in New York harbor . Somewhere out on the Atlantic, the other passengers discovered that the African American activist in their midst had just published a sensational autobiography. They convinced the captain to host a sort of salon, wherein Douglass would tell them his life story. But when the young black man stood up to talk, a group of Southern slaveholders, on their way to Britain for vacation or business or both, confronted him. Every time Douglass said something about what it was like to be enslaved, they shouted him down: Lies! Lies! Slaves were treated well, insisted the slaveholders; after all, they said, the masters remained financially interested in the health of their human “property”.
In a review of my book about slavery and capitalism published the other day , the Economist treated it the same way that the tourist enslavers treated the testimony of Frederick Douglass on that slave-era ship long ago. In doing so, the Economist revealed just how many white people remain reluctant to believe black people about the experience of being black.
Apparently, I shouldn’t have focused my historical research on how some people lived off the uncompensated sweat of their “valuable property”, the magazine’s anonymous reviewer wrote: “Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” Worst of all, this book reviewer went on, I had, by putting the testimony of “a few slaves” at the heart of book about slavery, somehow abandoned “objectivity”’ for “advocacy”.
Of course, the reviewer wasn’t treating me like the slaveowners on the Cambria treated Douglass. They threatened to kidnap him and send him to New Orleans – the largest slave market in North America. No, a single nameless reviewer from a single stodgy magazine couldn’t do much to me.
Still, the review enraged a significant number of people. Within a few hours, Twitterstorians scorched the earth of the magazine’s comments page with radioactive reviews of the review. The parodies and viral disdain forced the Economist to retract the review and issue a partial apology.
But the Economist didn’t apologize for dismissing what slaves said about slavery. That kind of arrogance remains part of a wider, more subtle pattern in how black testimony often gets treated – sometimes unknowingly – as less reliable than white. The Economist reviewer was saying that the key sources of my book, African Americans – black people – cannot be believed.
As the historian Jelani Cobb pointed out to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Friday night, the reviewer’s ideas about slavery’s history are not actually as uncommon as many of us would like to believe. He’s right: All across the American south, you can go to historic plantation sites still pushing the idea that slaves who had a “good” master were happy, and “faithful”.
If you write about the history of slavery, you become used to the pattern: No matter how many accounts you cite from ex-slaves, people often say they need more information before they can accept what former cotton pickers say about how cotton picking worked. And when we’re talking about contemporary events, the presumptive doubt is just as bad.
You may recognize the cries of “we need more information to form an opinion” as exactly what many white people said about the events in Ferguson, MO. White people are saying the same things in 2014 that they were saying in 1845. 169 years later and white people still won’t listen to black people or treat their experiences, their very lives as if they are valid.