One writer explores why it’s necessary to pivot from answers to questions in the pursuit of racial reconciliation.
Words by Justin Whitmer
As Ta-Nehisi Coates began answering questions for a classroom of students at the University of Oregon, his first words were telling. “This is basically just for you guys,” he said. The words landed awkwardly, and never quite settled. The black writer and author of “Between the World and Me” spoke to us for an hour in advance of his lecture at Matt Knight Arena on Feb. 3, but not before establishing a distance that we of- ten delude ourselves into believing isn’t real.
Sitting one row in front of me was senior journalism student Meerah Powell who in January wrote an article for Eugene Weekly titled “Black by Unpopular Demand.” In it, she gives vivid form to the sharp, subtle and internalized racism that has marked her experience as a black woman in Eugene. When I caught up with Powell the next day, she spoke with the same measured tone carried throughout her article, holding up the positive aspects of Coates’s message while also struggling to reconcile the dynamics of the environment. “These are things that personally affect me,” she said. “Just the distance that white liberal students have had in reading ‘Be- tween the World and Me’ and listening to his lecture, and just learning about things like racial and social justice – but from a safe distance.” She spoke solemnly, bemoaning the inability of white liberal students to engage in conversations that penetrate the nuance of her own lived experience.
Bypassing this distance is typical, however, and endemic to what she refers to as Eugene’s “fauxgressive” community, where conversations addressing social and racial justice are characterized more by a desire to exhibit goodness than a willingness to stretch into unfamiliar territory where “goodness” and “rightness” are not promised.
Referencing her past writing, Powell said, “that’s kind of what I was trying to get at with the whole ‘fauxgressive’ thing – putting out this outward vision of progressivism and liberalism and open-mindedness, without ever having to come to terms with those things because you’re never actually having to interact with a person of color.” This distance between action and ideology reinforces the status quo at University of Oregon – where, according to the Office of Institutional Research, black students make up just 2 percent of the student population. These statistics not only debunk claims of diversity but also remind us of the unsettling and systemic conflation of whiteness with normalcy, which is reproduced here at the UO.
As Powell absorbed the atmosphere inside Matt Knight Arena, where an audience of over 10,000 students set their gazes upon the celebrated black author, she couldn’t help but wonder, “Were they seeing this tokenized black celebrity, or just this individual black writer?”
Fundamental to her question is an underlying fear of get- ting things wrong – a fear, often of being accused, condemned or outed as imperfect, that continuously steers us down less resistant roads where we may still assume the appearances of doing the work. Combined with an urgency to be proficient in the language of racial discourse, this fear incentivizes students to bypass wholehearted processes of engagement and skip straight to pinning down answers– a need that is arguably the most central tenet in our white socialization.
By solely seeking solutions, students cultivate a distinctly abstract, intellectualized regurgitation of race that insulates knowledge from the intrusion of reality and normalizes the attendant comfort. Racism is as physically real as the construct of race is physically false, and this is prone to reversal in liberal institutions like ours, where discussions about race get diluted with jargon that white students condition themselves to master in order to appear conscious of their privilege. Structural racism, how- ever, cannot be remedied by attaining consciousness or declaring “wokeness,” nor by citing a one-o quote from a prescient black author. And though language is a pivotal, if not central, force in the collective fight for human advocacy, its power is also delicate. So we must be mindful not to over-intellectualize issues for our own personal gain, and risk alienating the very communities we claim to advocate for.
“It’s people’s lived experience,” said Powell. “Not something that needs to be dissected and studied heavily and have all these terms appointed to it. It’s something real, and something that should be easily conversational.”
What, then, are we aiming to achieve by reaching for “wokeness” with outstretched arms? If real transgression from the status quo means de-stabilizing the structural comfort that we have come to know and expect, what change do we seek by essentially co-opting racial justice discourse and turning it into a channel for the maintenance of that same comfort? It gets us nowhere.
Powell believes that transcending these boundaries requires more accountability in how white people engage. “It needs to be less of a one-way conversation, like Coates’s lecture,” Powell said, “and more of an active, two-way, conversation with people actually discussing their own lives, and how these things affect them or how they affect the system.”
Accountability, in this context, is simply the practice of turning left where we usually turn right. It requires naming the privileges which inform even our ‘activism’ and preferred mechanisms for obtaining “wokeness,” and then moving beyond that margin of comfortable engagement into a deeper unknown – where jargon, intellectualization and the aching need to get things right, all evaporate, and center the voices of color that get missed when we view racism as a concept, not a relationship. Moving into accountability necessitates discomfort. But as Powell suggests, integrating that discomfort into di cult conversations – leaning into it rather than away – is a necessary tradeoff for personal dignity, collective justice and whole- hearted participation.