A little over a week ago, I had the honor of attending the New York Film Festival premiere of 13th, a documentary directed by Ava DuVernay that confronts the issues of race, incarceration, and justice in the United States. As one of the talking heads (a historian’s life goal, to be honest) in the film, I was intellectually aware of the phenomena, statistics, mindsets, and events the film addresses. But it wasn’t until I viewed the film–a relentless, unflinching, prophetic indictment of the structures of racism and inequality upon which our entire society rests–that I truly felt what I had before only known. In the activities that accompanied the premiere–including this historian setting a new standard for awkward walks on the red carpet–a sense of urgency seemed to pervade the proceedings. Yes, there was celebration; 13th is the first documentary to open the NYFF, Ava DuVernay is also the first woman filmmaker of color to earn that distinction, and the film is a Netflix production and will thus have a huge platform for its vitally important story. So celebration was certainly in order. I was proud to participate in those celebrations, and deeply humbled to have been asked to participate in such an urgently powerful work of art. But there was urgency, too. Now that this story is out there, in all of its raw, agonizing, poignant glory, what next?
That’s the question I got the most at the post-premiere party. What now? Hundreds of people who’d been at the premiere, seen the film, and felt the massive emotional impact it created wanted to know what to do with all of that energy, that outrage, that anger, that sadness. And what was interesting is the ways in which people chose to express that to me. I talked with dozens of people at this party, whites and people of color alike, and quickly noticed a difference. African Americans and other PoC tended to congratulate me and the others who were part of the film, then share how important it was for them that this story was being told in such a powerful way, by such a talented filmmaker, on such a significant platform. There was a grim sadness about the film’s subject, but also a note of triumph that the film ends on such a powerful note of hope and that it could change the conversation. I quickly realized, though, that it was almost exclusively whites who were the ones asking me what do I do now? In one particularly striking exchange, I was cornered by a group of four or five affluent, white middle-aged couples who were clearly impacted by the film. What can we do? They asked. You’re a historian, you were in the movie; tell us what to do. What do you mean? I asked; that’s a pretty big question. I began to talk about how honestly reckoning with our past, as the film so powerfully asks us to do, was perhaps a start. Then, I continued, empathy is a crucial part of this equation; injustice that doesn’t affect us personally is still injustice happening to real people, and we need to be in empathy and solidarity with them. No, no, no, one admonished me. What can we do NOW? I didn’t know how to answer that, and the conversation awkwardly died.
I’ve thought a lot about that conversation since then. What was I supposed to say? OK, they seemed to say, y’all have dropped a massive load of uncomfortable truths on us tonight. Tell us what to do now so we’re not uncomfortable any more, so that we can say we’re helping.
And then I realized that I should have told them they needed to ask someone else.
As a white, cishet, male college professor, what do you do now is not my story to tell. It’s not my answer to give. I’m not saying that in an attempt to abdicate moral or social responsibility, not at all. What I’m saying, and what I wish I would have said to my group of interlocutors, is that I can’t tell you What Is To Be Done, because I don’t have the experience, perspective, or knowledge to do that in a full and just way. Put bluntly, don’t ask the white guy how to end structures of privilege and oppression that were built and are still maintained by whites. I cannot get out of my whiteness enough to really see everything that needs to happen. I have some ideas, grounded in both my training as a historian and my commitment to a just and peaceful world. And I’d like to think that I could offer a set of prescriptions to strike at the root of the pervasive racism–and its unholy offspring, the carceral state–that afflicts us today. But those ideas and prescriptions are still the product of a context which has not equipped me to fully see the manifold ways, and the vast extent to which, the structures of white supremacy have affected people of color. My answers would thus be limited at best. It’s voices of color that we (and I use “we” to refer to “white people”) must listen to. And those voices, again as 13th so eloquently shows us, have been trying to tell us things for centuries. Listen to them instead of asking the white academic to tell you to vote a certain way, or donate to a certain group, or to read a certain book to “fix all this.”
Having said that, I need to be clear to my fellow white people: listening to people of color does not mean expecting them to solve these problems. It is not the job of the oppressed to redeem the oppressor. There’s an interesting parallel here, I think, with the debate swirling around San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to protest structural racism by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. So much of the reaction I see from whites, even those who may sympathize with Kaepernick in a general way, is basically asking OK, fine-what’s HIS solution to the problem? Kneeling is easy; he’s copping out by not telling us how he’d fix it. So repeat after me: It. Is. Not. The. Job. Of. Those. Experiencing. Injustice. To. Change. The. Behavior. Of. The. Unjust.
It’s not people of color’s job to stop racism. It is the job of those of us who benefit from racism and racist structures to stop racism. It’s the job of racists to stop being racist. Literally no one else can do that. Those who protest injustice, who call out racism, who point out the ways in which white supremacy and privilege have profoundly shaped our country throughout its history–they’ve done their job. They’ve peeled back the layers of complacency and dishonesty to show the problems that exist. They’ve forced uncomfortable truths and tough personal work into the national conversations. They’ve held institutions like schools, media, and (especially) law enforcement accountable for their structures of inequality and the ways in which those structures have operated against people of color throughout this country’s history. They’ve done their job, and done it much more extensively, and often under dangerous, thankless, and often downright brutal conditions, than anyone has a right to expect.
For those of us who identify and who are identified as white, listening to what people of color have been saying to us means not just the quotable MLK-peace-and-love bromides, but the hard stuff, too. It means listening to the way these truths personally implicate all of us without immediately moving to well, I’m not a racist or (far worse) you’re the real racist. It means being aware that one does not need to be an overt racist to have benefited from racist structures and to be complicit in those structures’ perpetuation. It means genuinely, honestly, willingly, compassionately, lovingly, and readily listening. That’s what being an ally is. Being an ally isn’t becoming the white savior or taking the lead in every conversation about race and privilege. Being an ally is creating space and protecting that space for the marginalized, the oppressed, the unheard, the oft-ignored. It means using one’s privileged position for the benefit of those less-privileged. It means calling out, indicting, condemning, working against racism and injustice even when no one around expects you to, and even when that would work against you. It means, in other words, not being Billy Bush when Donald Trump does his thing. It means inviting other voices to share, and indeed control, the platform. It means understanding that your voice is a helpful voice, but it certainly doesn’t have to be the only or even the loudest voice.
For me as an individual, that means doing things like taking an intentional approach to the curriculum in my courses. What readings do I assign? Whose voices do my students hear? How do I empower my students to find and use their voice in the classroom? Am I working to effectively promote democratic access to higher education? Am I an advocate for meaningful and effective teaching and learning? It means voting–not just in presidential elections, but in local contests that arguably matter even more: municipal government, judges, school boards–and supporting candidates and organizations who seek to expand the sphere of justice and civic participation. It means being honest with myself when I wrestle with difference, whether it’s race, class, gender, or a combination thereof. It means cultivating compassion and empathy for the lives of others, even when it hurts or is uncomfortable or makes me sad or defensive or angry. It means taking the opportunities to put those principles into practice when they come, whether that’s a film project or a personal blog or something else. And lately, for me, it means embracing the experiences I had with being a part of 13th. Meeting, talking, and being a part of panels with people like Ava DuVernay, Khalil G. Muhammad, Jelani Cobb, Malkia Cyril, Lisa Graves, and Ashley Clark has been an amazing, humbling experience. These are all brilliant, committed, passionate people who live their convictions in their film-making, scholarship, teaching, activism, and writing. And I’m a better teacher, scholar, writer, and person for having been in their company.
So what next? What is to be done? The work, it seems to me, is evolving and ongoing. It’s an empathetic and honest commitment to checking my privilege and to being the best ally I can and need to be. It also means admitting that I really struggled to get these thoughts out in the way that I wanted, admitting that I worry about this post being seen as “white guy trying to be artificially woke” or as a way for me to write things so I don’t have to actually do them. It means telling you I’m afraid that it seems too squishy or too patronizing or too name-droppy or too faux-liberal. It’s also way too long at this point to have served as an effective “I-shoulda-said-THAT” answer to the clutch of concerned liberals at last Saturday’s party. But it’s out here, and these are my words, however imperfectly phrased or insufficiently comprehensive. They represent, at least, my commitment to–and public accountability for–anti-racist work and my commitment to justice as a way of being in the world.
13th is streaming on Netflix. The film’s official Twitter feed is also a source of information and further reflection on race and incarceration in the United States. I hope you watch it and reckon with its message. We have work to do.
Note: Yes, the title of this post is also the title of one of Lenin’s key works. But it’s also the title of Nikolay Chernmyshevsky’s 1862 novel, which he wrote while in prison, and which is a viscerally passionate call for revolution. It’s to that sentiment, and the conditions which produced it, that this post’s title nods to.