For me (and I’m sure for many of you), heated skirmishes over political issues have become the unwelcome defining feature of my Facebook and Twitter feeds as of late. Most recently, the allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against Brett Kavanaugh, along with the senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke, were the cause for commotion, but there is no shortage of poignant political quarrels in tow. It is truly a jumbled, inarticulate mess – a brewing pot of insult, arrogance, ignorance, and propaganda, where saints act like heathens and heathens speak with the pretense of sainthood. It’s no wonder why many have chosen to stick to the sidelines with such a malignant atmosphere clouding the field. These arguments are, many times, not honest discussions over the issues, not a genuine exchange of ideas, but rather, people who have already reckoned their judgment on the matter as absolute trying to convert or otherwise shame their opponents into compliance. In a situation such as this, the level of rightness or wrongness of either side is of no consequence. This is not honest discourse, and it will never lead to the society we (hopefully) all want: a better one.¹ Or, at least, it will never lead to such a society in a peaceful manner.
It is, therefore, a wonder – or just blissfully naive – that I would write a post such as this one. I am hopeful that I can have a discussion about racial issues without the overbearing presence of political presuppositions and commitments. I have no political agenda here, and I do not intend to defend or in any way bolster any political view here. So, if at some point in this post you feel inclined to attribute political objectives to my words, remember: I told you I wasn’t playing that game. I haven’t even located precisely where I fall on the political scale. I am simply putting forth a genuine attempt at working through the issues of our day. So, if you would be so kind, for the moment, allow us to lay our political views aside, and let’s have an honest conversation.
A while back I finished listening to the audiobook version of The Hate U Give, which is a fictional story inspired by the concerns of the Black Lives Matter Movement. I have been hesitant to write my review of The Hate U Give because, although its praises have rang out from seemingly every corner of the YA world, there were little pieces here and there that I sensed didn’t feel right while listening to it. Writing against the grain of general criticism is daunting no matter the subject, but writing against the grain of general criticism (which has been overwhelming positive) on a book about racial issues – well that’s downright terrifying. With the recent release of the film, however, I figured now was as good a time as ever to order my thoughts and offer them for discussion. And I’ll get right to it. (Also, for those who care, I intend to offer my thoughts without spoilers.)
When placed under scrutiny, it appears to me that this book contains racist overtones that degrade its (presumably) anti-racist agenda. First, all of the white characters in this book are, quite frankly, repulsive, with the only exception to this being one white male who plays a somewhat modest role in the story. If I remember correctly, there are four characters within this story who are white. One is female and has a personality that is cringe worthy. In all honesty, there are certain scenes in which even her voice is hardly bearable. The other three white characters are male. Two are the perpetrator of an innocent killing and his father, and the other is a schoolmate of the protagonist. He is the exception to the generally repulsive cast of white characters.
“But that’s the point of the book,” you say, “it’s supposed to be a confrontation of racism in America. Of course there are going to be detestable white people in it.” Fair enough. However, upon closer examination I believe we find that the exception, which is found in the male I mentioned before, reveals a racist presupposition in the writer of the book (and perhaps others who identify with the book).
The white male in question appears to be presented in a charitable light solely on account of his, what one might call, “white guilt.”² Interpreted in context, this would seem to suggest that “white guilt” is a necessary prerequisite to proper existence as a white person, or, that it is the only proper mode of existence for a white person. In other words, if you are a good white person, an acceptable white person, then your life will be characterized by shame concerning your heritage and timorousness concerning your relationship with black people.
But here’s an honest question: isn’t that racist?
I believe it is. We don’t expect this with any other race or ethnicity, although there would be substantial reasons to do so if we did. Do we, for example, expect Germans to live their lives in sullen dejection on account of the Nazi concentration camps? What about middle eastern people? Do we expect them to live lives characterized by shame and guilt for the atrocities carried out by the Muslim state in the Middle East? And, moreover, do we demand they “walk on thin ice,” as it were, if they live in America, since their race perpetrated 9/11? Or are they somehow exempt from the sins of their racial or ethnic group? And how about Asian people? According to this way of thinking, they should also be ashamed of their existence, for their heritage includes the hundreds of millions killed by Mao and the Communist Party of China in the 20th century.
I hope you see the point I’m trying to make here, which is that we do not – and ought not – hold the sins of the father against the son in any of these other cases, so why would white people be any different? Could it be because there is an unfair bias against or hatred for their race, rather than just people who do despicable things? It would seem likely. White heritage is blemished, to be sure, and disturbingly so, but to punish white people who played no part in and even despise the sins of their forefathers is wrong.
We don’t and shouldn’t expect any race to walk in shame on account of their racial heritage because no person has ever had a say in the race into which he or she was born. And therefore, to expect him or her to act in a certain way because of that racial heritage is racist. It is to judge people and treat people according to their color and not their character, and it is an attempt to punish people, not because of anything they’ve done, but because they are a certain race or ethnicity.
But going back to the male who constituted the only charitable exception of repugnant white characters, there is still more to be learned. For, even as the charitable exception, he is still treated as if he had done something wrong by existing. Throughout the book, he is treated differently solely on account of his race by multiple black characters.³ But oddly enough, in The Hate U Give, that black people might be racist almost appears to be an acceptable character flaw. It is only the reverse that is unacceptable. But this, my friends, is still racism. Perhaps it could even be argued that the perspective of this book is invalidated precisely because of this type of racism. Harmless as it may seem, and as much as we might want to avoid confronting it, this type of racism will only inject more acrimony into the already volatile racial tension in the United States.
But here’s a proposal: how about white people and black people view each other as equals, no matter what despicable things their ancestors have done? Or, is the view of whiteness presented in The Hate U Give as an utterly repugnant and unredeemable racial heritage unchallengeable? If so, it would seem that the suggestion is that this view of racial relations simply be accepted via fiat. And that doesn’t sound very reasonable at all. In fact, that sounds something like authoritarianism accompanied by despotism and racism. I don’t particularly want to encourage the flourishing of any of those three things, and I hope that many of you, my readers, are at least in agreement with me there.
So, while we’re talking about hate that is given, let us not forget that hate is not a unilateral phenomenon. It goes both ways, and it is equally as destructive coming from either direction.
What do you think? Was my critique of The Hate U Give valid? Should the descendants of races feel personally culpable for their ancestors’ sins? Let me know in the comments section below. Or, message me on Facebook or Twitter.
- And to acknowledge that we all desire a better society is not to say that America is in need of complete restructuring. It is simply to acknowledge that we have room for improvement and have yet to reach perfection as people individually or a nation collectively.
- I really didn’t want to use this phrase, since it is so politically charged. But I struggled to find another phrase that so thoroughly encompassed his behavior and attitude toward the others in the story.
- Someone might say, “Wow, you read a book about an innocent black man being shot and found a way to make a white man the real victim.” But, first, that just appears to be an attempt to avoid the issue. And, second, this is not a race to victimhood. Nor is it a contest where the one who is most victimized wins. This is a complex issue that needs more light brought onto it, and I have endeavored to do nothing more than that here.