You've Been Checking on My Facts

There's quite the row still going a couple posts down about some of the reactions to the picture of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland. If I may be so bold as summarize, I think the crux of the debate hinges on when, and if ever, it's appropriate to comment on physical appearance. In the main, I thought most of the comments were fine. Many others disagreed. The disagreement continues, in part, in this interesting thread over at Jezebel who I thank for the link.


At one point, in lieu of noting that discussions of Mulholland's appearance reduced her efforts, the following comment was made by Sara_l_r to me:

If you don't see those as reductionist, I'd ask you to remember that you're a man and are not necessarily in a position to understand why those comments feel reductionist.

I took exception to that. It's not really something I would write, say, if I were talking to someone white. I think it's the sort of comment that shrinks the conversation, as opposed to expanding it. Beyond that, I took exception to much of the tone of Sara's comments on the matter. With that said, the fact of the matter is that, ultimately, the tone is irrelevant. The only real question is the following--Is it in any way true?

I have no problem trying to answer this question across the internet. But more clarifying, I think, is to supplement that debate by talking to actual people who know more about the subject than you. As it happens, for the past decade, I've had the luxury of living with just such a person. After some talk, it quickly became clear that I was not on the right side of that debate. Complaining about "tone" would not fix that. Even now, I don't fully understand what was wrong with the strain of comments. But I'm certain that if I can't convince said expert, then I'm probably out of my depth. I think this is the truth in Sara's point. I don't know that I would see it differently if I were a woman. I think I might see it differently if I knew more, though.

From what I do know, I think I can say this. 1.) To be constantly evaluated on your physical appearance must represent a serious weight. 2.) It can't be fun to come on to one of your favorite blogs (if I may be so bold) and be reminded that such evaluating is, indeed, a constant. It really doesn't matter how intellectual and artful the execution. To the extent that I encouraged, was blind to, or contributed to that dynamic, I was wrong.

What must be said here, without being reduced to academic jargon, is that privilege encourages blindness, that we see, first, that which we need to see. I think I've done four of five mea culpas since I started blogging at The Atlantic. I also think that fully half of them came down to something I said about gender. I think that's significant. The scourge of talking too much and listening too little is always about. One needs to constantly be on guard. I have said as much before. Here's hoping I get it right this time.


Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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