Why ‘The Root’ Isn’t Racist Against White People

Photo by Viviana Rishe on Unsplash

I love my reader comments. All of them. Most of all, I love the ones that argue with me or try to discredit me because they keep the conversation going even better than the positive ones.

I am very grateful to Jim for leaving the one below on my article about the false dichotomy of racism and antiracism. Read his comment by clicking the link below.

The article Jim is referring to is “Invasion of the Antibody Snatchers: How White People Colonized the COVID Vaccine” by michaelharriot, who writes for The Root, a Black news and culture site. I mentioned in my article that I had posted it to my Facebook feed, then realized later that I probably shouldn’t have.

I mean, as a white person, I definitely shouldn’t have, but understanding why is a bit of a long story that I now get to tell. So thank you, Jim.

If when you say that The Root is “a stinking pile of racism,” you mean that it’s a place for Black people to criticize and make fun of white people by treating them as a racial monolith, then in the most literal sense, you’re not wrong. But it also sounds like you are referring to the idea of reverse racism, which is a lot trickier.

The racist ideas that whites in power created to justify slavery convinced the white general public that they were superior to Black people, putting white people at the top of a deliberately manufactured social and economic hierarchy. That construct and the racist ideas that hold it together still exist today to excuse powerful white people for disenfranchising Black people.

Ibram X. Kendi, one of the best-known race writers today, says that anyone of any color or culture can be racist, which would mean that Black people can be racist against white people. He’s not wrong, but this is also just as tricky as the idea of reverse racism. While I admire Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” as a good place for people to start learning, it also drastically oversimplifies some things.

I understand why some people might find content on The Root offensive, and there is a constructive way to talk about that. From my academic perspective, I don’t see anything on the root as racist toward white people, and I don’t see it as hatred either. I see it as a window into a part of Black culture that Black people created over generations in response to constant abuse by white people.

Here’s why.

I hope that you are reading this because you believe that racism is real. If you believe that racism is real, I hope you believe all Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian people who testify that being constantly shat upon by whites is a large and burdensome part of their lives.

In that context, let’s look at Michael Harriot, the author of the article I posted to Facebook. In terms of offensiveness, his jokes about white people acting stupid are no different than your average standup comedian joking about airline food, controlling spouses, or belligerent politicians. It is a valid expression of his lived experience and the lived experience of his Black audience.

“But wait!” you say. “Jokes that make fun of people for their race are offensive in a way that jokes that make fun of customer experiences, familial relationships, or occupations could ever be. Jokes about race claim validity by saying that all individuals of a certain skin tone think and behave in the same way, and that is why they should never be told!”

Again, you’re not wrong, but let’s look at Michael Harriot and humorous commentary in a different way. Suppose you’ve had that experience of being hungry 38,000 feet in the air and having to eat overpriced crap, or been married to a spouse that nags constantly, or had to watch a lawmaker who has more control over your life and livelihood than you do act like a complete moron.

What do all of those experiences have in common? They are situations in which someone else holds power to shape your experience, and you are completely (or at least mostly) helpless to change it. Whether you realize that or not, you laugh because the joke reflects your life experience and makes you feel better.

Of course, there’s no real comparison between living with racism and eating crappy airplane food. Unlike racism, you can usually dump a controlling partner. You can eat at a cafe in the airport, or bring your own food. You can vote that politician out and replace him with someone a little smarter. In contrast, people of color have been dealing with the same racial constructs for generations with very little positive change (something else I have to hope you already believe). I’m just trying to illustrate more generally how our lived experience shapes our expression, conversations, and, in Michael Harriot’s case, humor.

In all of those examples of jokes, the person who has the experience is “punching up” from the bottom of a helpless situation that has overcome them. Joking aside and talking about really serious life outcomes, I don’t have a problem with anyone punching up to defy an unjust hierarchical construct when they’ve been put at the bottom of it, whether they use vitriol or humor. It makes complete sense for them to do that. I have done it and would do it again. You probably have, too. And — speaking generally to white- over-color ascendency — if you oppress and marginalize an entire people for long enough, don’t be surprised when hitting back becomes just as integral to their culture as your constant quest to subdue them.

Someone who has suffered years of bullying can’t be blamed for finally hitting back. When they do, it’s not called bullying because that’s not how the hierarchy works. Bullying is from the top of a perceived hierarchy down, not the other way around. My boss at my day job could bully me from her higher position in the hierarchy, but I could not bully my boss. I am subordinate, so if I hit back at my boss, it’s not bullying. That would be called insubordination because, right or wrong, my behavior is an attempt to equalize or reverse the hierarchy.

I have to wonder if white people's rage when Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian people call out white culture comes from a sense that they are daring to disrupt the hierarchy. This reaction is not conscious or deliberate for most white people, of course, but it’s a question we should probably be asking ourselves. Is “reverse racism” just another way of saying “insubordination”?

People who have suffered at the bottom of the hierarchical construct called racism all their lives can’t be blamed for finally hitting back. When they do, it can’t be called racism. If you can understand the bullying analogy, you can understand why I have no problem with people on The Root saying anything they feel they need to say within that community of shared experience.

The real reason I read The Root is that I specialize in critical race theory and whiteness studies in particular. I value the insight The Root gives me into how Black people experience, observe and describe life in a country where whiteness strives to maintain a glorious colonial delusion of dominance and superiority. Exploring race from another perspective gives me the ability to look at what people of color say about white people and then encourage other white people to see it through the same logical, empathetic lens.

I apply the same frame of empathy and nuance when I talk about people who look like me. If you are white, I assure you that Ibram X. Kendi, as much as I admire him, is dead wrong when he says that you are either racist or antiracist. If you look at real people with any kind of empathy and dig into the nuance of real-world situations, this is a false dichotomy. There is definitely a space between deliberate racism and intentional antiracism, and that is where most white people in America currently live.

We’ll work on that.

In the meantime, know that the following two facts coexist: people of color may talk negatively about white people according to their lived experience with whites, and most white people aren’t intentionally racist. Both should be viewed as neutral statements of fact. You cannot choose empathy and nuance for white people but not for people of color.

Well, you can. But you’d be wrong, and probably not very serious about ending racial constructs.

If you’re a white person, the best thing you can do is work on yourself and help educate other white people. Keep following me for more nuanced insights on how to do that.

Forget about The Root and Michael Harriot. He’s Black. His audience is Black. They have shared experiences that white people can’t possibly understand. It’s like trying to “get” jokes about airline food when you’ve never flown, or nagging spouse jokes when you’ve never been married.

That’s what I forgot when I posted his article on my Facebook page. Michael Harriot isn’t talking to us.

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River Irons

River Irons

I grew up in a cult. I escaped. I still search for freedom from oppressive constructs. Digital Artist, Storyteller.