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How Black Writers Can Help White Readers

I won't manage your emotions. I want you to understand my perspective.

Apple/Photo Illustration

“I’m a white male, and I am prejudiced,” the caller confessed. “What can I do to change? To become a better American?”

Heather McGhee, president of the public policy organization Demos, took this question during a C-SPAN show last summer. A video of their exchange would later go viral, due in no small part to how McGhee, a black woman, met the man’s humility with gentleness and compassion.

In a different America, this would be the tone and tenor of a national conversation on race—that mythical dialogue that folks clamor for after some racialized event has momentarily captivated the country. Instead, a debate soon emerged about the pedestaling of McGhee’s sympathy and the nerve of the white man expecting her to solve his racism over the phone. Why should black public figures be gracious therapists for white strangers’ racial questions and quandaries? And why should a white person seeking to better understand black people be chastised for asking them for help?

We black writers are often the first touchpoint for white readers trying to understand a black experience or point of view, and email and social media make it easier than ever for readers to reach out and ask for more. Trolls aside, I think this is a positive development. My writing on everything from weighted vote reparations to how the Republican Party could improve its support with black voters has led to conversations with white readers that I’m certain they’ve never had with any black person. For me, this positive dialogue is part of why I write at all. And it’s more than just a fringe benefit of writing about race; I view it as a personal responsibility to help usher earnest and humble white readers through my perspective. In this regard, McGhee’s demeanor and response was instructive.

These readers, however, are distinct from the lazy and incurious lot who expect black writers to endorse their understanding of race, racism, and racialized issues, or who ask, in effect, “What do black people think about this?” or “Why do black people ____?” Four prominent black thinkers discussed this phenomenon in a recent forum for Slate. Since Donald Trump won the election, sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom said, “Black people have one primary job: to manage white people’s emotions. Their emotions are high right now and we’re being overtaxed with it.” Slate writer Jamelle Bouie noted that, “for many white readers and followers, we are the only consistent black presence in their lives. And so there’s a kind of expectation that we will be there to manage their emotions, whether it is calls for hope or outlets for anger.” As NPR’s Gene Demby wrote during a Twitter debate last month that prompted the Slate forum:

In other words, white readers with racial curiosities and quandaries should not assume that all black writers will handhold them in the way McGhee did for the C-SPAN caller.

This is not just about strangers demanding dialogue. It extends to readers who wear the writings of black authors as a badge. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nahesi Coates, whose memoir Between the World and Me won a National Book Award in 2015, remarked in a recent interview, “I’m the guy who, I guess, white people read to show they know something. And that’s what Between the World and Me is now. It’s used as a symbol for somethingwhat do you do when that’s the case? That’s not what you write for.”

This is an age-old dilemma. Over a century ago, in the opening chapter of The Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. DuBois wrote:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

Today, the unasked question remains unasked by the earnest white reader. But there is value, as a black writer, in answering the unasked anyway, as well as addressing the questions that flutter round it. Of course, these readers’ racial issues cannot be resolved so simply. If they are serious about knowing more and engaging more substantially, they must put in the work—more than tweeting a question at a black writer, or calling into a C-SPAN show.

McGhee’s advice to the white caller can be summed up in five words: get to know black people. Black writers play an important role in this endeavor. So engaging with black writers is a worthy first step, and we black writers ought to welcome that engagement. And, on the whole, I think we do. Ultimately, though, this is about black agency and recognizing that it is not black writers’ sworn duty to meet white readers’ demands to husband their racial anxieties. Each writer determines how, when, and who to engage. 

I believe in meeting people where they are, as long as they truly want to embark on honest conversation. This can be draining, but I’d rather err on the side of being too generous with my time and effort, in the hopes that my insights foster greater racial understanding. I am a black writer, after all—uniquely positioned to make outsized contributions to white people’s understanding of the intricacies of black American experiences. If writers don’t do this, who will?