Recently, I watched a YouTube video where Jeet Heer talks about his piece for the New Republic called “How to Make It in Conservative America (If You Aren’t White).” Heer discusses the conservative movement and non-white people’s role within it. Heer is Indian and spoke about the racism of some Indian immigrants towards black Canadians. I like Heer a lot, but there was something disturbing about his cheerful tone juxtaposed with the serious discussion of non-black ethnic minorities solidifying their positions in the racial caste system by comparing themselves favourably to blacks, who appear always to occupy the bottom rung of society.
It was painful to hear that. And it was awkward and uncomfortable for me to listen to it alongside a mostly white audience. There was nothing new to me in the idea that some non-whites buy into racist systems of thought to advance themselves in society, but it still hurt to be reminded once again, and so casually, that black people come last in so many people’s minds.
The pain of being black is something every black person feels everyday. If you open your eyes or interact with other people or engage in public discourse of any kind, everyday you will be reminded in some way that you are regarded as inferior or inconsequential. Critical discussion works to mitigate the pain, but it never eliminates it.
But it’s pain that unites us as black people. It gives us history and shared experiences and shared understandings. It provides us with an infinite number of jokes and inspires our creative performances. It encourages solidarity and activism. Pain is both ingrained and negotiated. And pain is powerful.
Unfortunately, that’s only the upside of pain.
Heer talks about how the conservative movement makes use of non-white people to give credence to the idea that systemic and institutional racism do not affect life chances and outcomes for minorities. Obviously, there are significant policy and legislative implications for such a position. Heer then contrasts genuine black conservatism that derives from the black community and is internally directed with black conservatism co-opted by whites and directed to a majority white audience. The former represents the uplifting ethics of black self-reliance and self-help, while the latter usually amounts to a defense of the racist status quo. Heer’s comparison underscores the importance of publics. The meaning of a message changes based on the public to which it is addressed.
So how do we refer to those blacks who join the white conservative movement and publicly adopt its racist or colour-blind stances? There are many names for blacks who are deemed as having ‘sold out’ for the purpose of acceptance or advancement. They can be referred to as Uncle Toms, tap dancers, shuck and jivers, or coons. I used to eschew these terms based on principle alone. I regarded them as intolerant, reductionist, and limiting. After all, it is hardly fair that black people, and particularly black conservatives, often find themselves between a rock and a hard place when expressing their views. I don’t think limiting valid discourse is a productive way of solving problems. It’s also interesting that most of those terms are gendered; black women’s opinions are conventionally ignored while black men’s are hyper-scrutinized.
However, sometime in my young adulthood, I came to understand more keenly the pain that created and perpetuates those labels. I definitely identify with the feeling of betrayal that comes when a black person becomes successful, gets a public platform, and then uses it almost immediately to belittle and denigrate those below him or her. It is a common enough occurrence, yet still gut wrenching every time. So while I think pejorative labelling is limiting to productive discourse, I strongly sympathize with the motivations behind it.
Moving forward from there, my perspective on the act of selling out has become more nuanced. I’ve come to understand the pain behind it and I have more empathy now for black people who reject the solidarity rooted in anti-racism. Because being black is hard. It’s a constant burden, and it is a much bigger burden for some than for others. I understand why people don’t want to feel it, and why they turn away from it in pursuit of social mobility.
In that sense, pain divides. It divides black people within themselves and also divides us against each other. Pain is powerful.
Seder, Sam. “How to Make It in Conservative America (If You Aren’t White) (w/ Jeet Heer).” YouTube. 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 07 Apr. 2016.