The Utopian and the Subversive Speaker

I was confused for a moment, back in college Sociology 101, when the professor referred to an “ideal type.” “Ideal” in common parlance, of course, means “the best possible.” But in social science it means “the truest example” of a phenomenon. “Ideal” in this case doesn’t necessarily mean a good thing.

In the past couple of days on the Meet Me Halfway book tour, I’ve met two ideal types of racists — that is to say, two pure examples of white people who, perhaps without meaning to, are upholding the belief systems and structures that facilitate the perpetuation racism.

Ideal Type 1: The Utopian
I was at a bookstore reading for Meet Me Halfway. During the Q&A, a white woman expressed her shock at the segregation in St. Louis — the 4th most segregated city in the country — and told us of having lived in places in Illinois where there was no racism or discrimination, where everyone was equal.

I looked at her skeptically as she described this place. “Was it an all-white town?” I asked.

“No,” she said. There were even business owners of color — Latinos mostly, it sounded like — and parents of color on the PTO, leading community organizations, etc.

It was probably clear from my facial expression that I didn’t believe that there was no racial strife in whatever town she was talking about, so she offered a hypothesis that everyone was equal because there were no extremes of wealth to cause division.

I agreed that economic insecurity adds fuel to racism, so a place where everyone was about equally well-off wouldn’t have that dynamic, but still …

Having been born and raised in Illinois, I almost asked her what town she was talking about but decided not to.

For one thing, whatever town it was, I’m sure the people of color there would tell us that there was indeed some racial divide. Maybe those Latino business owners had a harder time than their white peers in getting start-up loans. Maybe their children were called names in school.

And another reason: I didn’t want to let this lady off too easy. Naming the place would mean that she could give solid form to this utopia, which would help her to continue to believe that the problem is the place I’m in, not in me because she had lived somewhere where there was no racism.

Ideal Type 2: The Subversive Speaker
At the same reading, a woman came to talk with me during the book signing at the end of the event. She had a list of notes she had made during the interview I had done the day before on St. Louis Public Radio, a whole slew of questions she wanted to throw at me.

After assuring me that she, a white woman, had grown up poor among black people in the projects and therefore believed that everyone was equal, she said, “Since you’ve said we can speak openly, I have a few questions.”

I knew this wasn’t going to be good. I could tell she was trying to make me complicit in whatever she was about to say.

She wanted to know, “Did Mike Brown’s mother ever apologize to the shopkeeper, the one he stole the cigarillos from? You know, he was a really big boy and he just shoved that little Asian store owner. So, I was wanting to know, did his mother ever go and apologize?”

I could feel the mama bear rise up in me and I had to restrain the urge to lash out at this woman’s throat with my 4-inch claws. Instead, I said, “She is a mom who watched her son die on the street. She doesn’t have to apologize for anything.” Not my best line of argument, but better than leaving this woman without a neck.

When she saw I wasn’t playing along, the woman moved down her list. “What about this one in the South, who was shot in the park?”

“Walter Scott?”

“Yes. Why did he run? I mean, the community failed him because where was he during ‘The Talk’?”

The complexity of this woman’s thought is worth breaking down here: First, she tried to establish for me that she is concerned about racism and that she sees everyone as equals. Then she starts running down a list of incidents where she thinks black men acted badly. In the case of Walter Scott, she blames the whole black “community” for the failure to look out for him by making sure he both heard and understood “The Talk” — the conversation(s) that black parents have with their young boys about how to behave to reduce their chances of being hurt by the cops — simultaneously infantilizing Walter Scott and indicting a whole group of people.

I tried to inject some reason into the conversation. “Well, we weren’t there, so we don’t know what he was thinking. But I’m sure recent police shootings of black men added to his fear.”

“Yes, but he was a 50-something-year-old man. Where was he during ‘The Talk’? Wasn’t he paying attention, that you don’t run from the police?”

That was the moment when I called over the next person waiting in line for me to sign her book. I just couldn’t deal with this woman anymore. She is a Subversive Speaker — one who professes to be concerned about racial discrimination and its effects, one who says she is not racist, one who takes the time to attend anti-racist events like my bookstore visit, but who perpetuates and reinforces racist constructs with everything she does.

Yesterday, rehashing this moment as we drove to our next city, Keren coined the use of “lost cause” as a verb. “You just lost-caused it on her.”

“I love that!” I said, knowing full well I’ll likely have many more opportunities on this tour to “lost-cause it.”

April 23, 2015 Blog Posts