I could write a whole thing here, but I will try to keep this commentary short. This poem has been through a lot of drafts-- even this video is subtly different from the one on the album, and both are different from what I've been performing over the past couple of weeks. Just a couple of quick thoughts (all of which are in addition to the album commentary I already wrote):
Probably the biggest theme on "Post-Post-Race" is the importance of having a more critical, wider perspective on issues of race and racism. Racism isn't just about "bad people being mean to other people because they look different;" it's about history, it's about systems and institutions, and it's about power. This poem is maybe the most direct exploration of that idea on the album.
Especially today, in the context of Trump (and the movement that he represents) it's important to see racism and xenophobia as bigger than one individual's bigotry. We should work to defeat Trump, but we should not labor under the delusion that defeating Trump will be enough. It won't. Electing a Democrat won't be enough either. Even electing a progressive Democrat won't be enough. Defeating racism (and sexism, homophobia, etc.) will take a multi-tiered approach, and I'd argue that step one is affirming that these problems are fundamentally bigger than individual attitudes or actions.
And "bigger" doesn't mean "invincible." It just means that our work is not just the work of changing people's hearts and minds; it's the work of changing our institutions, laws, policies, media, and systems too.
I get that this is a tough thing for some people to wrap their heads around. I also get that this particular poem might be a little tough to stomach as an intro to this concept, and might be better suited as a supplementary tool. So here are a few recommended links/readings:
I'd encourage everyone to read Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow," which might be the most important book of the last decade. I'd also recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations," which describes the system that we call "racism" as clearly as you're likely to read anywhere. For all the visual learners out there, here's the NYT's "The Faces of American Power," which lets us just look at the literal faces of people in positions of power in this country; hard to argue with that. Also, be sure to watch "13th" on Netflix! Feel free to add other good resources in the comments.
Thanks again for listening and for sharing. The whole album is still available here:
Full text of the poem:
HOW TO EXPLAIN WHITE SUPREMACY TO A WHITE SUPREMACIST
(originally printed in my book)
Sometimes, you are a lit match dropped into a boiling ocean. Sometimes, you are a stray dog proud of the sunrise after a long night of barking at the moon. Sometimes, you scream at the television, shadowbox mushroom clouds; your hand-to-hand hatred outclassed, outdated. You: post-apocalyptic litterbug. You: venomous spider in the basement of a burning building. You: whose anger is so vast, and so empty—all teeth, and no mouth, just that white rattle.
Remember: white supremacy is not a shark; it is the water. It is how we talk about racism as white hoods and confederate flags, knowing that you own those things, and we don’t… as if we didn’t own this history too, this system—we tread water.
And you: chum in a bucket. How many skinheads do you think are in the room when they set immigration law? Or decide curriculum for public schools? Or push policies like redlining, mandatory minimum sentencing, benign neglect, gentrification, broken windows policing, voter, ID, stop and frisk, three strikes, the drug war? Remember: the eye of the hurricane is the least destructive part.
You: meanest glare in the chatroom, all poker-face and no cards. Was it your politically incorrect YouTube comment that made the median net worth of black families in this country nine percent the median net worth of white families?
Which individual Donald Trump bigot bogeyman are we supposed to be angry at about the millions of people impacted by discrimination in housing, and banking, and education, and employment, and the criminal justice system, each year? Remember: sharks kill about one person each year; thousands drown.
So, when there is a new name hashtagged each week, when police create more black stars than Hollywood; how long do we keep pointing out the bad apples, ignoring the fact that the orchard was planted on a mass grave? …and that we planted it there?
Because of course, this isn’t really a poem for white supremacists. I don’t know any white supremacists.
But I know a lot of people in this room. And I know myself. And I know how white supremacy is upheld, whether through our action, our inaction, or just through paying our tuition and taxes. How it isn’t just the broken treaty; it also the treaty. How a gavel can speak as loudly as a grenade. How a white fratboy in blackface on Halloween and his friend, who knows it’s wrong but doesn’t say anything, begin to blur together.
How the real racists, today, are so often not even racist. Those teeth, sharper when smiling, sharper still when smiling, and meaning it.
A burning cross is so dramatic. Just say: I don’t see race. Just say: we all have an equal chance if we work hard. Just say: all lives matter. Just say nothing; surround yourself with others who say nothing, and convince yourself that silence is the only song: this muted, underwater melody, this pulsing quiet.
And when a chorus blooms in Baltimore, when trumpets sound in Ferguson, when every one of our cities breaks… into song, will we hear it? Will we choose to listen? Or will we just continue treading water, watching for that great, white, shark… not realizing that we’re drowning?
(plus an image for Facebook share previews):