THE OTHER DAY I WAS INTERVIEWING a young person (after 40, you get to call them that) who told me, “if you’re not working to solve racial inequity, what are you doing?” She said it like we obviously agreed on everything. Her company trains teachers to double-down on their most challenged students, usually poor and black, in an effort to reduce disparities in education kid by kid. I agreed with her and said so. But it gave me pause. Whatever I tell myself I do to make a system skewed in my favor more fair, being paid handsomely to write websites about it surely isn’t enough.
Like a lot of white people in 2016, I’m struggling to get my head straight about White Supremacy and my place in it. History let me off at at the comfiest intersection of race, gender, geography and class. Now that I’m done with whatever minor struggles I had covering my own needs, I see how many chips I always had stacked in my favor. Even the narrative of “outsiderness” I toyed with growing up seems laughable now, if not offensive. Privilege is like air: unearned, little acknowledged, yet more or less responsible for everything.
From rates of incarceration to police killings to my own white-as-hell design/marketing industry, systemic racism is no more arguable than global warming. What am I doing about it?
Not much. Reading and listening, mostly. The show RadioLab, which is usually about science culture, went off topic last month with an episode called Debatable, about a team of African-American college debaters who themselves go off topic. Instead of arguing about the season’s assigned issue (like space exploration or domestic surveillance), they steer their match-ups into “debates about debate,” calling out the racism inherent in the structure of these events and society generally. The team makes it all the way to the national championship using a rap/spoken-word delivery and in every other way rejecting debate convention. You’ll never guess what happens (spoiler: they win).
The Ivy-League debate world isn’t an accidental target. While this isn’t laid out in the story, part of the genius of this strategy is that debaters see themselves as a pure meritocracy, masters of brain-to-brain combat where only the arguments matter, one of the reasons debate is a refuge for geeks and misfits (me included). By flipping the script from the assigned issue to the forum itself (with a jolting departure in style), everything debaters take for granted is undermined: rules, shared context, civility, topicality, rationality. It’s like throwing a stink bomb and pantsing everyone at once.
Thrilling as it is, the black team’s triumph isn’t as crucial to me as the institution’s disgrace. For a few tense minutes, the opposing team (who aren’t always white, it should be mentioned, though RadioLab doesn’t) is marginalized, their hard work, assumptions and sense of justice are undermined. People are refusing to play by our rules in our house! Why might that be?
For all the guilty tears the majority culture sheds over minority oppression, white people largely fail to acknowledge or reckon with injustice. When we lose at our own game, that changes.