Into Please Stop Talking to Me About Race
Trymaine Lee: About a week ago, comedian Trevor Noah posted a video on Instagram. He wrote in the caption, quote, "When white people take being an ally too far." (MUSIC) Picture this: a chorus of mostly white people dressed in uniform, singing The Circle of Life from The Lion King.
The performers are actually members of the U.S. Navy Band. It's a clip from last year that they reshared on their social media accounts at the end of May. And I'll give it to 'em. They kinda, sorta sound all right. (MUSIC) Now, Trevor Noah's post was obviously a joke, but it's getting at something real here.
When it comes to race and race relations, 2020 has been surprising. Even for me, as someone who experiences the world as a Black man and has covered race as a journalist for a really long time, this moment of protest and awakening has felt new and different.
More white people are out in the streets, and more and more white people are asking, "What do I need to understand about race, and how can I be a good ally?" They're important questions to ask, certainly. But they can also be really awkward questions to answer.
Damon Young: White people just want to unload all of these, like, really deep and really sober, really serious race-related or racism-related conversations on you.
Lee: Especially when you're just, I don't know, tryin' to take a walk or get some ice cream.
Young: And it's like, "Yo, I'm in line for ice cream. Like, I don't want to (LAUGH) talk about lynching right now."
Lee: "I want sprinkles. That's all I want, sprinkles--"
Young: Yeah, "I want sprinkles." (LAUGH)
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, we're sinking into the awkwardness, the silliness, and the sometimes inappropriate way all these conversations about race and racism are playing out in our everyday lives. Writer Damon Young is finding the humor in it all.
Young: Okay, this is fun. Let me have some fun right here.
Lee: Damon Young is a senior editor at The Root, founder of the blog Very Smart Brothas, and author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker. He recently wrote about the challenges of talking about race in this moment in an op-ed for the New York Times entitled, Yeah, Let's Not Talk About Race Unless You Pay Me. How are you findin' the humor in all this? 'Cause it's a lot to not be happy about.
Young: (LAUGH) I mean, that's just the way I look at the world. And also, I think that humor can articulate a truth that sometimes just a straight sober take doesn't have the range for. Or humor can be a Trojan horse, opens you up. You get in with a joke. But then once you're in there, the actual meat, the actual point, the actual premise is able to infiltrate and invade, you know, a bit in a way that maybe just a straight academic, didactic take wouldn't have done.
Lee: For those that haven't read this piece in the New York Times, I want you to walk us through it. I mean, first of all, you have a lot of great acronyms in here. You love a great acronym, (LAUGH) as do I. And I want you to start though with RWN. What does RWN stand for?
Young: Oh, "random white neighbor." Random white neighbor, yeah.
Lee: And so talk about your encounters with RWNs.
Young: Yeah. And so this is pre-COVID I was playing basketball three, four times a week. Like, that was my cardio. That was my catharsis. That was my self-care. You know, I'm always hoopin'. And now, basketball actually is one of the most high-risk activities to do.
And so I've had to find alternative means of working out. So I take these walks around my neighborhood at nighttime. And there are times when people who see me, recognize me, and most times it's like, "Hey. Hey Damon. How you doin'? Loved your book." Whatever. But every, like, fifth time, it's, "Hey. Yeah, so watching George Floyd die like that." (LAUGH) And I'm like, "Yo, I'm just walking."
Lee: I hate to laugh, but (LAUGHTER) that sounds terrible, right?
Young: I'm just trying to get my steps in. I got my steps app. I'm just trying to get my 10,000 steps in, and you want to talk to me about this terrible, awful thing right now. "So, yeah, about the protests, you know, I've been thinking." It's like I don't care what you're thinking about the protests right now.
Again, let's do some neighbor (BEEP). Let's talk about the weather. Let's talk about LeBron James. Let's talk about grilling. I've been grilling a whole lot. (LAUGH) I got all types of techniques for steaks, for lamb, for, like, sausages, for vegetables I'm puttin' on a grill and hookin' 'em up with the olive oil. So we could go to town talking about that. But not this other stuff. Not right now.
Lee: So another great acronym you have is SCAR. What's SCAR?
Young: Oh, a SCAR is the "serious conversation about race."
Lee: Right. So you're running into the RWNs and having--
Young: And having the SCAR, and being SCAR-bombed, and being SCAR-attacked. And you don't just have to be a person who's known. From what I understand, this happens to just Black people who just happen to be Black and happen to exist in spaces that white people are also in, where particularly now, particularly this summer, you're an accountant and your other partners at the firm are now asking you about George Floyd, and about Breonna Taylor, and about all these. It's like, "Yo, I'm just tryin' to do these taxes." (LAUGH)
Lee: "It's tax season, man."
Young: Yeah, "I'm just tryin' to do my job right now. Like, I don't want to engage with you with this super traumatic, awful thing right now while I'm literally just doing my job." And then this is work. Like, "Okay, well, if you want to engage me on these very difficult topics, then this has to be worth my time.
"And so you want to make it worth my time? Then pay me. Give me some money to do this. You could hit me up through PayPal, through Cash App, through Venmo, whatever you got. We could do a collection plate at the door. (LAUGH) You just wanna, you know, pay what you can, do one of them things. If you want to do it that way, then, yeah, we could gather, socially distance, and have a little, you know, commune outside."
Lee: But was this happenin' to you before since you do cover this stuff and write so eloquently about this stuff?
Young: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It happens. Like, I remember just last fall I had taken my daughter to preschool. I got something to eat at this breakfast spot. And this man sitting next to me recognized me. You know, he was like, "Oh, are you Damon Young?" White man. "Are you Damon Young?"
Like, "Yeah. Yeah, that's me." He goes, "Oh, I'm a fan of your work, fan or your book." Thank you. Appreciate it. So I'm sittin' there. I'm deep in some eggs, and some (LAUGH) grits, some bacon. And he's drinking a coffee or whatever. And then he starts on, "So, yeah, I do a lot of work about slavery." (LAUGHTER)
Lee: Over the grits and bacon--
Young: Yeah, over the grits and the bacon.
Young: You know, "I do a lot of studyin' about slavery and just the whole Reconstruction period. And I was just wondering." And I cut him off. I was like, "You know what? I actually got a call I gotta be on. I can't have this conversation with you." And he looked so disappointed.
And it's one of them things where before I did feel, like, not an expectation, more of an obligation to engage, right? It's like, "Well, if I don't do this now, then this white man is just never gonna know. There's no possible way for him to learn more about slavery except through me. So I want to educate this white man so he could go educate other white men." I've grown outta that.
Lee: That's a lotta pressure. That's a lotta pressure, man.
Young: And I think part of that also is due to the fact that I'm, like, naturally introverted. And so it's already taken a lot for me to be, like, this person that is known for this thing, and that people approach, and whatever. Like, I actually had someone ask me after seeing Django Unchained (LAUGH) the difference between, like, house slaves and field slaves. A white man asked me that question. And... (LAUGHTER)
Lee: Django, like, come on.
Young: And this is between games. (LAUGH) This isn't even, like, just out at a bar. This is, like, we're on the sideline. He's like, "Yeah, I just saw Django, and the character Stephen, what was his role? Like, did he, like, get paid? What was his role there? I don't understand."
Lee: What was Stephen doing--
Young: "I don't understand--"
Lee: Did he get paid?
Young: --"what his power." (LAUGHTER)
Lee: Oh. You know what? But in all seriousness though, if we do want white people and white society to better understand the system that they might actually be blind to because they're such a part of it and so ingrained, where's the line between, "You know what, Karen? Mind your business. Keep movin'," and us having to really break down some of the experiences, break down a little bit of systemic stuff that they really might be blind to?
Young: Okay, this is gonna be an awkward analogy, but stay with me. Sometimes white showrunners who have these predominantly white casts and predominantly white, you know, themes on their show get criticized for not being diverse enough. And then season two or season three, they shoehorn this Black character in as this response to, "Okay, here you go. She has a Black boyfriend now. So here's the diversity that you want."
And I actually think some of that criticism needs to pivot a bit because I don't actually have a problem with someone creating a thing that is based on their experience. And even, you know, if you think of someone like Lena Dunham with Girls and the criticism that she received the first couple seasons for creating this very homogeneous depiction of New York City, you can curate an all-white life even in New York City.
You can curate an all-Black life. I've curated an all-Black life in Pittsburgh, which is one of the whitest major cities in the country. So it is possible to do that. But the issue is that, you know, when you try to shoehorn that conversation in, it doesn't work because you just don't naturally and don't organically have Black people in your life, Black people, you know, to think about, Black people that you could bounce ideas off of.
And so with these sorts of conversations about race or whatever, the issue isn't necessarily the lack of conversation or Black people not wantin' to talk. The issue is that white people just don't have the sort of relationships already with a Black person where you're just hangin' out, where you're just friends.
He's not your Black friend. He's just your homie. And if he's just your homie, and you're just hangin' out, and you're confused about a thing, then that conversation can happen. The thing, you know, about that piece, people were like, "So this guy who writes a book wants no one to talk about his book, wants no one to compliment his book?"
I'm like, "You're not readin' this in good faith." Because a good faith read would recognize that what I'm talking about are people approaching me cold and just unloading. (LAUGH) It kind of reminds me of how people (you know, and this is particularly men) get really, like, focused on just approaching a woman, an attractive woman that they see.
It doesn't matter if she's eating, doesn't matter if she's in the middle of yoga. He's like, "She's cute. I'm gonna shoot my shot right now." And it's like, "Yeah, maybe you would have a better chance if you actually engaged her in conversation or waited for a more organic opportunity instead of interrupting just because you think she's cute."
Lee: In the context of what we're talking about, is that another kind of manifestation of privilege, that folks can just approach you and talk about whatever they want regardless of what you're doin'?
Young: Oh, definitely. Definitely. I mean, you know, white people don't know how to be guests. And this is a thing that is bein' seen throughout the country right now, where, you know, on one hand, you know, and in the piece I talk about the people who are doing the least. And these are the people who are gettin' hysterical that they have to wear a mask while goin' to Trader Joe's, or Whole Foods, or whatever.
And these are people who are not used to following directions. And I'm one of those people who I hate goin' to, like, a house party and it's one of those no-shoes houses 'cause it's like, (LAUGH) "Yo, my shoes are part of my outfit. Like, I put a lotta effort into--"
Lee: Walkin' around barefoot in somebody's house.
Young: Yeah. "And I put a lotta effort into these shoes. These shoes are intentional." You know, I mean, and also when I wear the Balenciagas, they give me, like, an extra inch. So I'm like 6'2.5", 6'3" with the Balencies on, and I like that feeling. But if it's their house, it's their rule, then you gotta take off your shoes.
I just think that on both sides of the spectrum, you have the one end were the white people who don't want to do anything. And then on the other end there are the white people who now they're just discovering. They just discovered racism in summer 2020. And now, they wanna engage with you about it.
And they believe, "Oh, I see a Black person. This Black person is my own personal antiracist book list that I could (LAUGHTER) prompt, I can ask, I could play some sort of awkward ask-a-Negro game with him." And that is a function of privilege, of believing that we exist for your education.
Lee: We'll be right back.
Lee: Why do you think this is happening now? What makes this moment different?
Young: We've seen recorded shootings of police murdering Black people. We've seen that. Those happen so quickly. It becomes almost like surreal, like you're watching a TV show that's not really a TV show but it still takes a minute to process. But this, with kneeling on his neck for nine minutes, that is different.
That level of brutality, that level of apathy about someone's life, that depraved indifference, right, that's different. And also the fact that this is happening during COVID. And basically, white people are seeing that they are dying now, too. And so white supremacy doesn't care about white lives either.
Like, white supremacy is bigger, it's larger, it's more encompassing than individual white lives. Like, if a white life gets in the way, it's just collateral damage. I mean, we see that with every school shooting. We see that even with some of the white protesters who have been beaten, who have been, you know, had their eyes shot out.
You know, you saw the elderly white man in Buffalo just get knocked down, and he didn't die but he very easily could've been killed right there. And so long story short, I think that white people are more engaged now than they had been before because it's easier for them to see that this (BEEP) affects them, too.
Lee: You know, I can remember back to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and I was a local reporter there and seeing the Black pain, and the bodies, and the death and despair and being there for months and months and months. I lived down there. And I remember winning the Pulitzer Prize with the team. And I got a job at the New York Times, and I remember feeling really guilty about it.
And, one, I said, "My people don't really care about a Pulitzer Prize," right? It's an award. We could pat ourselves on the back. It's great as a journalist. But I have wrestled with what it meant. And I wonder with you, and your book, and the rise on the charts. Now, you're on these lists. And we're balancing finding humor in it to get through, right, therapy in some ways. But here you are, dealing with these very serious topics but you're seeing your stock rise. How do you grapple with that? Is there grappling?
Young: I mean, it's a continual grappling. Like, I am still trying to wrap my mind around that. Like, it is not lost on me that the sorta work I do, there's more of a market for it when we are going through more pain. Like, like that's just a reality. And the thing is my work isn't just about race, isn't just about racism.
I mean, my book, it's more a humor book. And it's more like a book about anxiety, vulnerability, self-consciousnesses, performance, Pittsburgh. I mean, there's so many other things in the book. It just happens to be a Black man telling it. And if a Black American man is telling it, then race and racism are gonna be main characters. There's just no way around that.
But, yeah, I mean, my pieces, my essays, my stuff on Very Smart Brothas gets read more when the world is worse, when there's blood on the streets. My books get bought more. I get invited to do things more. And so, yeah, it's one of those things where I don't know what that means because it's something that every Black person who works in media, who works in publishing, who has a book or whatever has that same deal.
Even in a book, there's this cognizance and awareness of the white gaze, right? And, you know, if you are a Black person who's creating work, the ideal is to subvert it. The ideal is to create your work without being influenced by it. And I believe that I did that with my book.
And in the industry that this stuff exists in, you know, the gatekeepers are white people. And so even if you believe that you're subverting, even if you believe that you're like immune, you know, or whatever to this system, how can you be? But then I wonder if the whole "Black be Black, Black, Black, Black" thing is also a performance, like, is also like an overcorrection.
Like, instead of being, like, authentic, I'm just going the whole other direction. I'm going past where authenticity is and so I'm performing, too. And these are questions that I ask myself. These are things that I grapple with, you know, 'cause I'm writing and thinking all the time and I don't have an answer.
Lee: Well, it's kinda like you speak to this idea of, you know, "We're talking in mixed company," right? It's not like it's really just us. (LAUGH)
Lee: Let me ask you this, man. And this is one of my favorite last questions to ask. With everything going on right now, how have you found joy? What is giving you joy? How have you found the way to buoy yourself in these tough times?
Young: My family. You know, just I was on the road a lot. Particularly last year with a book tour and with, you know, doing this event and this party, this panel, whatever, like, I just was not home. And now, I'm home every night and I'm eatin' dinner with my family, my wife and my kids every night. I mean, it ain't all, you know, bubbles and (LAUGH) rainbows because it's hard every day. But I still am grateful that I am able to have this sort of quality time that I just didn't have as much of before.
Lee: Well, Damon Young, I give you all the awards and accolades, (LAUGH) man. You've done it again. You made us laugh, you made us think, and we really appreciate it. You are a true gem, man. So thank you so much for joining us.
Young: Oh, thanks for having me, man. I appreciate it.
Lee: That was Damon Young, founder and editor of Very Smart Brothas. You can find links to his work, including his recent essay in the New York Times, in our show notes. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee, and we'll be back on Monday.