It Was Never That Bad

Below Andrew discusses why he never made an "It Gets Better" video, and I found myself nodding right along. The basic point he makes isn't about "It Gets Better"--which he fully and rightly endorses--but about his own personal sensibility. He notes that he had his share of problems as a kid, but to the extent he was bullied, it wasn't for being gay. It's an interesting point about "out groups." It's one thing to embrace your membership in a minority group, and understand that in some indirect way you are victim--either ancestrally and/or communally. But it's another thing to be directly victimized for that membership. 9/11 was an attack on America, but not in the way that it was an attack on its direct victims.

I think one of the reasons I write as I do about race is because I never really saw myself as a direct "victim" of racism. I thought there were many things that would impede my life--but white people never really ranked among them. I understood--and understand--that racism is a powerful systemic force. I understand red-lining, block-busting, slavery, Jim Crow etc. I don't demean them as forces in American history. But there's a difference between understanding how society views your group and being daily taunted as a faggot or a nigger.





The thing you should know about me is this--I have never, in my life, been called a nigger by a white person. More--and this may be where the analogy breaks down--I'm from West Baltimore. Everyone was black. My Dad was black. My mother was black. They both worked at predominantly black institutions. They populated the home with books by black people. My high school was the best in Baltimore--but it was also majority black. To the extent that there was racial violence, it wasn't really the black kids who were worried. My wife has stories of having to wait for the few black songs at her high school dance. I never really had that problem. 

Most of my brothers and sisters went to historically black schools, as did I. Of course there is the irony--it was at college where I met black people who'd grown up as actual minorities. And whereas white people, to me, a vaguely malicious supernatural force which appeared on television and, with some regularity, voted for the wrong candidates, white people to these folks were an actual tangible thing of which these kids had horrifying tales. 

The most militant kids on campus were not the ones from Harlem or Compton, but from white neighborhoods. They had direct encounters with actual racists, something that frankly stunned me. These guys set their phasers to "Kill Whitey" and never looked back. I can't tell you how many black biracial kids I saw go straight to the NOI campus mosque. I had been raised a quasi-black nationalist but I'd find myself saying, "Come on, it can't be that bad."

But I really didn't know. What little I've experienced of direct racism has happened to me as a fully formed adult and I've basically laughed it off. I don't have any real sense of myself as having been victimized for being black. That cuts a lot of ways--some good, some bad. I think on the plus side I don't have a racial inferiority complex. I don't have any doubt that I, or black people at large, can run with white folks. I think that accounts for the tension between my very liberal head, and my black conservative heart. 

At the same time, I think I lack a sensitivity to individual victims that I might have if my experiences were different. My basic impulse is always--"Kick some ass and they'll leave you alone." It's fairly stupid interpretation of the world. It probably helped me in my personal life, but it's not a broad ideology applicable to society. As Andrew says, I had my share of victimization--for being "smart," for being alone, for walking down the wrong block, for being there at the wrong time. But I see that as intra-tribal violence. It's serious. But the tales I heard at Howard were almost existential. I don't really know anything about that.

One other thing--if you look at Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, it's worth noting that Malcolm had much more exposure to direct racism as a child then King did. King grew up in a staunchly black neighborhood with a respectable father and a mother. Malcolm's father reared his family often outside of town, away from black communities. After he was orphaned, Malcolm lived with white people, and went to school with white children--doing quite well for a time. 

But much of rage can be traced back to enduring a childhood filled with direct racism. I think when you've enjoyed a level of security--as a child--when you've basically lived like a nationalist, getting to "love thy enemy" is much easier. Malcolm experienced integration the hard way. My college was filled with kids like that.

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.

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

From This Author

Just In