New year, new chance to explore today’s defining voices on race and culture

Claudia Rankine, Amber Ruffin, Greg Tate, ‘Code Switch’ and so much more

By Teresa Moore

Special to The Examiner

Happy 2022! And now a return to a project I started in the waning days of last year, a list of some sources for people who want to know more about what people of color are thinking but don’t know who or how to ask.

If you’ve seen Jordan Peele’s Academy Award-winning 2017 film “Get Out,” you may recall the super-cringey garden party scene. Chris, a young Black man, has gone with his white girlfriend to spend the weekend with her family. Her parents invite their friends over to meet him and we watch as a procession of white matrons and patrons sidle up to Chris. They look him up and down and then ask him ignorant questions or make patronizing comments about him being Black. I won’t spoil the film, but I was reminded not only of similar experiences in my own life, but also of a passage at the beginning of W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Souls of Black Folk.”

Writing in 1903, just six years before he would become one of the founders of the NAACP, Du Bois describes encounters between himself and “the other world” where upon meeting him, white people would say something to let him know they were connecting him with whatever else they knew of Black people — like telling him where they’d fought in the Civil War or asking him if he knows some other Black person of their acquaintance or soliciting his opinion on “these Southern outrages.”

Du Bois writes, “At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, how does it feel to be a problem, I answer seldom a word.”

I can tell how little regular conversational contact a white person has with Black people by how eager they are to ask me to explain “why Black people give their children those weird names.” (Seriously: more than twice and always when I’m the fly girl in the buttermilk.) Or, coming from another direction, how quick they are to quote Audre Lorde at me.

In moments like the one Du Bois describes or Peele depicts or I experience, being Black can feel like being a human skeleton key, a Black shell somehow capable of opening a legion of unrelated doors for a white person looking for an answer to their Black question, their Black problem. “Gangs,” “Africans,” “the Black church” — these are some of the areas of expertise white people have expected of me — and that was in work settings. I’ve had Chinese American and Korean American and Mexican American and Puerto Rican friends share similarly baffling, exasperating, depressing encounters. Seldom do we push back in the moment; the truth of what we wanted to say comes out later, in the retelling, when it’s just us.

Two things. One: I am not suggesting that all people of color understand all other people of color. Of course not. But when you share a history of being unseen or misunderstood, those fumbles don’t land as hard. Two: On the rare occasions when I have asked a white person to answer for the rest of white people, they get offended that I would fail to see them as the individuals they know themselves to be and not as agents of whiteness.

You don’t have to take my word for any of this. Try listening in on some of these qualified professionals. Some of these podcasts, like “FANTI” or “Time to Say Goodbye,” described in my previous column of recommendations, are designed by people who want you to hear how some of us talk among ourselves. When you listen to conversations among people who share history and cultural shorthand, you’re going to hear insights, ideas, concerns and in-jokes that will be new to you because the conversation is built for the people having it. Others, like this week’s podcast recommendations, contain plenty of helpful guideposts for the uninitiated.

A good place to start is NPR’s Code Switch,” which combines solid reporting and a real talk take on race and culture. You name it and you can probably find it in their archives. For instance, if you are Black and your white friend dismisses your experiences with the health care system by saying she has the same problems as you do, the two of you can listen to this episode on the health impacts of racism and then try that conversation again. If you felt left out by my “fly girl in the buttermilk” comment, a farewell nod to the late great Black cultural critic Greg Tate, author of the sterling essay collection Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America” — the title a twist on the old saying “fly in the buttermilk” — something black and unwanted in a sea of something white and precious, then you may appreciate Code Switch’s explanatory comma episode with comedian Hari Kondabolu. In this case, the explanatory comma is when a writer is required to explain something for a majority audience that is commonly known by a minority audience. See how many explanatory commas you can find in this column!

Anything from Futuro Media Group is worth your time and attention. Founded by award-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa, the independent, nonprofit multimedia company produces Latino USA,” the longest-running and widest-ranging radio news program on Latinos in America. Produced in partnership with WBUR in Spanish and English, Futuro’s documentary series Anything for Selena” refracts the singer’s life and legacy through myriad brilliant angles. I got hooked when I heard the pilot during an episode of “Latino USA”; the series made several “Best of 2021” podcast lists. Late to the table, I’ve added In the Thick,” Hinojosa and Julio Ricardo Varela’s show about the intersections of race, culture and politics, to my podcast playlist.

Finally, if you are a white person having trouble believing the low-grade racist aggravations people of color occasionally tell you about or if you are that person of color and your life is too short and rich for white incredulity — “He said what? No! I can’t believe that” — there’s a book and an audiobook for either situation. Claudia Rankine’s 2014 poem and essay collection, “Citizen: An American Lyric,” was the book my Black friends and I carried and shared and bought for each other that year and the next, our breath catching when we saw pages from our own lives in Rankine’s scenes. Reading about what happened when a neighbor called the cops on a Black friend who was making a phone call outside of her house while babysitting for Rankine and her white husband, I finally understood why a Black male friend of mine always turned down invitations to apartment sit for me.

For a lighter journey through even more devastating territory, I recommend the audiobook version of You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism,” written and narrated by comedian Amber Ruffin and her older sister, Lacey Lamar. You could read it but it’s better to hear the tone these sisters bring to tales of taxing Black life. Listen. Laugh. Weep. Think.

Teresa Moore’s columns appear bimonthly in The Examiner.

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