Race & Politics, Theory & Essay

Is It Ever “Ok” For Whites To Criticize Blacks?

Last weekend, one of my homegirls invited me to go see “The Dutchman” — a 45 minute long one act play that’s intended to serve as an allegory for Black/White relations in America. Since Saturday was the last day it would be playing at the Bricolage Theater — and since my particular form of bougie Blackness calls for me to witness or partake in at least one “serious” conversation about race per month to offset my affinity for bottomless mimosas — I couldn’t pass it up.

Intense, disturbing, (occasionally) melodramatic, and intentionally provocative, the play itself was pretty much what I expected it to be. The most interesting part of the evening, though, was the “talk back” — the planned, hour-long discussion about race that took place right afterwards; a conversation involving cast members, the theater production people, and the audience. The theater only holds maybe 60 seats, and it’s structured so that the audience surrounds the stage on all sides. A quick jaunt to Goggle shows that this is called “theatre-in-the-round” — the perfect format to have a group discussion.

As you may have guessed, the audience was (mostly) comprised of Black people and the type of ultra-liberal, well-intentioned Whites who wear t-shirts with things like “White Privilege Sucks” written on them — basically, the exact type of audience that’s always present in any “serious” and open discussion about race that most of us have been a part of. And, usually these discussions are nothing but us (Black people) sharing our stories and airing our grievances while the Whites in the crowd nod solemnly and occasionally share their own self-depreciating stories about when they first realized that all White people are evil racists.

There was one person, though, who didn’t stick to the usual script. She was biracial (White and Native American), and she shared some not-so-positive experiences and feelings involving Black people. Her statements went over about as well as a fart in a crowded elevator; you could hear people groaning and sighing while she was talking, and everyone there — myself included — couldn’t wait to respond to and rebut some of the things she was saying.

Now, part of the reaction to her definitely had to do with her delivery. There was a certain tone-deaf antagonism attached to what she was saying. Basically, her body language and tone screamed “I’m fed up with y’all niggas, and you’re about to hear why, dammit!” But, on Sunday, as I reflected on the discussion, I realized that she actually didn’t complain about anything we don’t regularly complain about to each other.

She’s a stage manager, and the story she shared had to do with how Black actors are pretty much never on time. Once, when she asked a group of habitually late actors to be more respectful of her time, they felt disrespected and starting showing up even later just to spite her. (I actually laughed aloud when hearing that)

Again, she had the type of tone and assistant principal-esque demeanor that made it pretty easy to see why someone would respond to her the way the actors did. But, I do wonder if we just have a legitimate problem with getting “called out” by White people.

Actually, that’s a lie. I don’t wonder about this. I know we generally do not take kindly to White people criticizing anything that has to do with Black people and Black culture. As stated earlier, the criticism could even be the exact same thing we criticize about ourselves, but a White voice seems to make that criticism invalid.

For instance, in the last couple of months, there have been at least two high-profile instances of a non-liberal White person publicly criticizing something related to Black people and facing serious repercussions because of it.

John Derbyshire’s “The Talk: Nonblack version” — a “letter” to his son teaching him the best way to avoid violent confrontations with Black people — got him fired from his job at The National Review. While Derbyshire deserved to be fired for using shitty science to back his race-based racist assertions, much of what he said in his piece has come out of our own mouths many times.

In fact, three of his pieces of advice — “(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally, (10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods, and (10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date” — are things that can be found in our freakin book.

In one of our chapters, Panama jokes that any guy trying to avoid having to fight anyone while on a date should stay away from places that young Black people congregate, like Applebee’s, night clubs, and Detroit.

You could make the same point about Naomi Schaefer Riley, who was recently fired from The Chronicle of Higher Education for writing a piece criticizing the value of Black Studies courses at universities. Was she wrong for flippantly dismissing an entire field of study? Yes. But, raise your hand if you’ve ever joked among other Black people that a Black Studies degree is about as useless as thumbs on a roach.

Granted, Riley and Derbyshire aren’t the best examples to use when making this point. Both were being intentionally sensationalistic, and they both basically got what they were asking for. But, it’s not only the non-liberal Whites who get this type of push back. I’ve read 1000 word long criticisms of Roger Ebert — a man who’s about as liberal, articulate, reasonable, and well-read as a person can possibly be — just because he gave a Tyler Perry movie a (deservedly) bad review, and I can’t count how many times I’ve heard White sports pundits called racist because they had something bad to say about a Black athlete. In these instances, the tone didn’t even matter. It just came down to “You’re White and he’s Black and that means you can’t say shit”

Anyway, that’s it for me today. I’m curious though: Do you think we have a problem with hearing criticism from Whites? If so, do you think it has more to do with the content of the criticism, or the tone/manner used to criticize?

Lastly, can you think of a time/situation where it was ever “Ok” for a White to call out a Black person/Black people in regards to something race-related?

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

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Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com and EBONY Magazine. And a founding editor for 1839. And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.


Happy Mother's Day!

  • no.

  • Breezy

    No…the end.

  • Iamnotakata

    No…I don’t even have to read the post.

  • LSQ

    Uh, yea – but er ah, we don’t take criticism from ANYBODY all that well.

  • Yes, Both. No, I can’t think—->my eyes are pregnant with sleep.

    Happy belated mother’s day to all, in particular too:

    1.) my femboo, 2.) my e-wife, and 3.) my queen

    Hope ya’ll had a blessed day, as I had, thanking God for his gracious and beloved mercies for making me mommy to two beautiful dogs. Love you babies!!!!! woof woof.

  • Welp. I can see where this post is going…

  • Yes its okay. Delivery is key as with anything else

  • mena

    Yes. It is more than fine but it is about the delivery. Blacks need to stop being so sensitive all the time. If we can criticize others, why can’t they call us out? Why are we so quick to dismiss other peoples criticisms of us but want for others to not only listen but reflect on the criticisms we have of them?

    We will never be able to have an open dialogue about race until we all air whatever problems we have with each other and then sit down and dissect the problems.

  • minxbrie

    This is kinda like that Chris Rock joke about when it is appropriate for white people to say the N word (his answer was during a Dr. Dre song).

    Soo I’m going to say it depends.

    Commenting on black people and their lateness? Understandable. We call it Caribbean time in my family and tell everyone to come for 5:30 when we actually mean 7. I wouldn’t call it laziness as much as I would just say that we have different ideas about the importance of time.

    Commenting on Black Studies? Not okay. It’s unfortunate that such programs are even needed, but let’s be honest, most history only speaks about the falls and triumphs of White Men. Black Studies is needed for the same reason as Women Studies (My double-major; for any critics, talk to me when you’ve taken at least an intro-course.)

    From my perspective, the reason why white people are not allowed to criticize black people is because of the racially charged history in North America. People can moan and groan that it’s history, but it’s been so ingrained in the culture that sometimes black people are already feeling criticized without words – Example? Being watched in a store for being black.

    Or the most recent, a 17 year old getting SHOT for being black.

    I’m done now.

  • Andre J.

    no its never ok for a race to criticize another race that perpetuates racism so the stage manager did the wrong thing with choosing that forum to call out her black actors for always being late and attributing that characteristic to them being black rather than leaving that out of the discussion unless she has literally worked with a million black actors and 97.78 percent of them were always late without fail she has no backing for attaching the color of the actors to their actions. People perpetuate stereotypes all the time but when we out people about those stereotypes is where it becomes an issue. I think she simply could step to those individuals as adults as well as any other individual that is of a different race and make a complaint about them being late and how it is unprofessional period not on how its “Not a good look for your race”

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