Ta-Nehisi Coates’s treatise Between the World and Me takes the format of a series of letters from the author to his teenage son, offering him historical perspective on the advice he feels his son needs to succeed—and to stay alive—in the future. Coates refers often to Americans “who believe they are white” to refer to those who have bought into the American “Dream.” I believe he uses the phrase for people of any color who look to the dream as a means to escape from their past. Instead, he sees the dream as a myth that only hides the reality of history and the fact that we continue to deny that we use the term “race” as an explanation for the inevitable economic or other disparity instead of recognizing it as a human construct of history that we use to justify a continuation of the same history. I am certainly among the Americans who believe they are white. And I think this book is an important one, though not necessarily comfortable, for all Americans to read.
Coates points to American history to explain his response to questions he believes are important, such as why he believes progress of the people “who believe they are white” was built on looting and violence. And to make his point, among other things, he tells his son of the overwhelming feeling of fear that permeated his childhood and how fear still clings to him now, in spite of superficial changes that have only marginally improved society.
The contrast between Coates’s description of the tension he felt while simply walking to school and the freedom I enjoyed doing the same in the largely northern-European, mid-western neighborhood of my childhood struck me in ways no other description of the impact of racism and discrimination has ever done.
Perhaps it is because I now have grandchildren, whose experiences will likely be more like mine than like Coates’s. I had no reason to understand the impact of white privilege while I was a child, and I skipped the step of watching children of my own, having acquired a step-son when he was already 13. When he came into my life, I was protective and warned him of the dangers I knew adolescence would present to him, or at least made sure his father did, but at no time did those warnings come from a sense that he might be taunted, struck, injured, or arrested for smiling at the wrong person or wearing the wrong color clothes. I didn’t fear that he faced danger simply by stepping outside during daylight hours.
I also didn’t advise him on how he should respond if he saw someone taunting, striking, or injuring someone else for no reason other than their skin color, economic level, or IQ. Did I expect that would never happen? Or did I assume his mother had already taken care of that? Or did I think that was something his father had done or would do?
Every page of Between the World and Me revealed to me the impact of white privilege I have enjoyed without realizing it exists. I believed that racism affected others–those being discriminated against–that it had no impact on my life. I believed that my not expressing negative statements about someone because of his or her race, or not doing intentional harm to anyone, gave me immunity to accusations of being racist. I saw the issue as black-or-white, not as background-and-foreground, not as context-and-detail.
My parents provided me with lots of advice about how to avoid trouble, to remain a “good” girl, to reach success in both my professional and personal life. They never had to provide the advice Coates feels compelled to share with his son. The things I learned to fear could be listed: walking alone at night, accepting rides from strangers, talking to strangers, being taken advantage of if I drank. I could avoid them because I could control them. In contrast, Coates describes how fear intrudes into everyday activities in his world: walking to school, reacting to a stranger’s critical comment on an escalator, being stopped by a someone because he was a stranger in the neighborhood. Coates estimates he devoted one-third of his brain’s activities to addressing fear in order to ensure his safety from minute to minute when outside of his home. Fear was part of his daily activities; he could not avoid it. Someone else always had control.
Coates’s writing challenges me to consider what advice I would include in a letter to my grandchildren. Any thoughts I had of the content of such advice prior to reading Between the World and Me have been shattered. The impact of white privilege assures that I need not write anything similar to Coates’s advice. Instead, my advice should include what my grandchildren need to know in order to take part in breaking down white privilege so that no parent of color ever has to write similar advice to their children.
But do I have sufficient empathy, a broad enough vision, to address the lessons which may help them change the context within which the fear breeds? Have I learned enough to contribute to such a noble cause? At this point, I fear not. But since white privilege means I can control fear, I plan to consider how I can change my answer in the future by choosing to observe life through a different filter, one that Coates offers in his book.
• Genre: Discrimination and Racism, Race Relations, United States
• Print Length: 163 pages
• Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; 1 edition
• Publication Date: July 14, 2015