It Feels Like Social Media Made Us Too Stupid To Have Serious Conversations.
Do We Even Know How To Be Sincere Anymore?
Look, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be having conversations. In fact, I very strongly believe we need to be having more. Discourse is sorely lacking in today’s climate of outrage and tribalism. So maybe I’m being unreasonable for asking for more. It just feels like so many of the so-called conversations we’re having are performative rather than informative.
Take this conversation between Matthew McConaughey and Emmanuel Acho for Emmanuel’s show “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man”. Every question is a softball, every answer feels rehearsed (McConaughey is literally reading off a card for most of the interview yet Emmanuel still acts as if the responses are a surprise), every word carefully chosen to avoid offence and signal virtue. I’m not even denying that some good can come out of conversations like these, but I can’t help but believe it would be better if we weren’t so afraid to be real.
Maybe it’s not that we’re afraid to be real. Maybe it’s just that in the age of social media we’ve forgotten how. It feels as if we’ve lost touch with all of our emotions except fear, anger and schadenfreude. Or at least they’ve been so overstimulated by the media that they’re the only feelings that move the needle for us anymore. And boy, do they move the needle. Maybe you watched this video of a woman frantic with fear because a black man accused her of racism and thought “what is her problem?” But if you did, it’s because you haven’t been paying attention to what it’s like to be a white person in today’s climate (the man who filmed the video appears to have a pattern of harrassing people and claiming racist behaviour).
In today’s climate, white people are guilty at birth. They are racist by default. They are complicit if they’re silent and white-splaining if they dare to speak out. And they’re constantly in danger of being dismissed forever (or “cancelled”) if they say something which might even be construed as offensive. This just can’t be the society we’re pushing for. As much as it irks me to see this staged conversation I totally understand why Matthew is doing it. It’s brave of him to do the show at all. If you’re a rich white man talking publicly about race you’d better have your wording worked out in advance. There’s a thin line between courage and stupidity after all.
But why should it take courage to appear on a show with a black man and talk about racism? Why? Because even though the choice to do this states very clearly that there is at least an interest in understanding the issue more fully, an environment has been created where the tiniest slip-up could destroy his livelihood. It’s a conversation but the stakes are far higher than they should be. There will be no mercy if he misspeaks. Nobody can protect him from it. Any reasonable voices calling for understanding will be drowned out by the mob.
That’s the same mob which is calling for visibility by the way. The same mob demanding that white people, particularly prominent white people, stand up and declare their anti-racism. It’s the reason why we get abhorrent bullshit like the “I take responsibility” video from a couple of weeks back. A bunch of rich white people pretending to hold back emotion (which they’re good at obviously, they’re actors) in a bid to signal how eager they are to toe the line.
Who does this help? How does this create a world where racism no longer exists? Why are we talking about backhanded compliments against black people when saying things like “He’s pretty cool for a white guy”, “that’s some white people shit” or “of course she can’t dance, she’s white” are ignored or laughed at good-naturedly. This is the racism of low expectations. It’s white people giving us permission to act out because us poor dumb black people need to be defended. No, we don’t. We can and should be held just as accountable for the stupid things we say and do.
I’m going to say this as clearly as possible; racism can’t end while we’re still differentiating by race. Yes, there are systemic problems. Let’s address them. But let’s stop pretending that white people are a) A monolith, and b) The only people who make mistakes when it comes to stereotyping or dismissing others based on their skin colour.
Let’s stop playing this game of chicken with each other, with each group waiting for the “other guys” to swerve first. Let’s just stop. Let’s hear something that offends us and take a breath. Because then we can stop being afraid and start having real conversations. People can risk saying what they really think, and by doing so they can get answers to their real questions. People can stop defining themselves, and being defined by their victimhood, and start being defined by their humanity.
This ability to be judged by their humanity first, this is the key privilege that white people have. White people need to stop judging black people by the colour of their skin and black people need to do the same. Maybe then we can finally have a real conversation.