A Look Back at the Reaction to 'Straight Black Men Are the White People of Black People' a Year Later

Illustration for article titled A Look Back at the Reaction to Straight Black Men Are the White People of Black People a Year Later

A year ago, a line in a piece from Saki Benibo—an assertion also articulated a year before in a tweet from Mela Machinko—inspired me to write something of my own based on that statement. The result (“Straight Black Men Are The White People Of Black People”) was my most read VSB piece of 2017.

Advertisement

It inspired dozens of written and video responses (including one from Panama). Jemele Hill retweeted it—and then felt the wrath of 10,000 vats of ash. bell hooks even invited me to her institute at Berea College for a conversation.

Anyway, I have some thoughts on the reaction to it.

1. I’ve been writing publicly for 15 years now, and I can pretty much predict how a piece I’ve written will do when published. Of course, there are some outliers, but the vast majority fall within the traffic and response ranges I expected them to. That said, the response to this piece surprised me.

Advertisement

I knew the title and the premise would ruffle some feathers. But it was far from original. Scholars, academics, journalists, bloggers, people on Twitter, and even songwriters have been saying similar things for decades. And it was such a matter-of-fact analogy that I didn’t think there was much space for sustained pushback. Saying that black men who are straight possess a privilege within the black community that is similar to the privilege that white men possess within the country felt—and still feels—boilerplate and mundane. Like saying bricks hit pavement when dropped from windows.

But I clearly underestimated the response. Granted, there were some external factors (Jemele’s tweet, for instance) that amplified it in a way that increased its reach, but I think this underestimation was a product of my own straight black male privilege. Although, again, the premise wasn’t unique, it came from a man (me) on a platform (VSB) run by men, and people tend to take things said by men more seriously than things said by women—even if the women are much more qualified to say it. Also, I underestimated how many people (men and women, but mostly men) would be so angry; so unable or unwilling to acknowledge that privilege exists on a spectrum. (And, of course, when speaking to the women in my life about that response, their collective response to my surprise was “Well, duh.”)

2. I’ve been asked more times than I care to count if the level of anger and vehemence in some of those responses—particularly from the black men upset by the piece—hurt me. My answer is complicated. I wasn’t bothered much by the personal attacks on me. Irked, perhaps, but the same way I might be from a mosquito bite on my shin. I was less troubled by that than the fact that this anger exists. And that these black men—whose only response to hearing that black women very often feel unsafe and unprotected and subjugated around us is “Fuck you”—are the same people black women have to interact with on a daily basis.

Advertisement

As I read and watched and listened to some of those responses, I was flabbergasted at how similar what they were saying was to what white people say when accused of racism, and how blind they were to those similarities. It was like reading one of those fill-in-the-blanks worksheets from Highlights Magazine. I wanted to scream DO Y’ALL NIGGAS NOT REALIZE THAT YOU SOUND EXACTLY LIKE THE TYPE OF WHITE PEOPLE YOU CLAIM TO HATE?

I’m aware that some of the criticism came from people who (rightly) believe that black men are already roundly demonized, and that a piece like that just exacerbates that narrative. I see where that’s coming from, and I sympathize somewhat. I am, also, a black man, and I’m aware of how we’re thought of and depicted. But this strain of criticism reminds me of what we so often hear and see from the police when they’re criticized.

Advertisement

You’d think that the rank-and-file cops who consider themselves to be good people/police would cheer when the colleagues who abuse their powers are named/suspended/arrested/indicted. Getting rid of the “bad apples” would seem to be something that the batch—presumably full of “good apples”—would be in favor of. But, more often than not, they just hunker down and create an “us vs them” binary, making it impossible for citizens—particularly those in neighborhoods or belonging to communities under siege—to distinguish which apples are which. Which naturally leads to the conclusion that they’re all bad. Basically, DO Y’ALL NIGGAS NOT ALSO REALIZE THAT YOU SOUND EXACTLY LIKE COPS?

3. If I were to say “My cousin Frank is the Michael Jordan of omelette making” most people with any understanding of analogy and any context of Michael Jordan would know what I meant.

Advertisement

Oh, Damon’s cousin Frank must be an exceptional—and scarily competitive—omelette maker. Perhaps the best ever” is what normal and rational people would think. Hopefully, this is what you, person reading this, would also think. Although the analogy is quite awkward, the point is clear.

What you would not think is “Oh, Damon’s cousin Frank jumps from the foul line and slam dunks his eggs into the pan.” Or “Oh, Damon’s cousin Frank made an omelette that was the NBA’s MVP in 1988.

Advertisement

Perhaps the most puzzling part of the response was from the people who took the analogy in the title literally.

“Black men can’t be the white people of black people because black men didn’t colonize the Americas and drop the atomic bomb on Japan.”

Advertisement

“If black men are the white people of black people then what about Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey? What are they?”

Either some of us have much, much, much, much, much more difficulty with analogy than I assumed or some of us just get real dumb real quick when called out. (I think it’s the latter.)

Advertisement

4. It took me roughly an hour to write it. If I could go back and write it again, I would’ve taken more time to add more historical and academic context. Perhaps citations from books and maybe even direct quotes from the feminist scholars I know, just to make the premise more solid. I definitely would have included stats like the ones found on this MCASA.org fact sheet on black women and sexual assault (pdf).

I also would have removed this line (“We are the ones who get the biggest seat at the table and the biggest piece of chicken at the table despite making the smallest contribution to the meal”) because it was unnecessary and reductive.

Advertisement

5. This experience also made it clear that the people who say things like “This is trying to divide us instead of bring us together” when hearing something critical are full of the heaviest shit. It is, in inflection, in tone, in phrasing, in connotation, in timing, and in intent, exactly the same as saying that acknowledging the presence of racism is racist and divisive.

6. I was uncomfortable with the positive attention this received. There are people who’ve written and worked much more extensively on this topic. Icons like bell hooks and Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw. Contemporary feminists and academics I personally know like Melissa Harris-Perry, Brittney Cooper, Jamilah Lemieux, Saida Grundy, Catherine Knight Steele and more—all better equipped than I am to articulate the intersections between race, class, gender, and sex.

Advertisement

I mentioned this self-consciousness in the video with Terence Nance, and I also alluded to it in a conversation with bell hooks, who then shared that a couple of her colleagues felt similarly. That others have said what I said, yet I—this random Pittsburgh nigga with a blog (my words)—was getting the attention for it.

But she (and several others who I spoke to about this) essentially said that it’s specifically because I’m some random Pittsburgh nigga with a blog (again, these are my words) and not an academic or activist or feminist scholar that it mattered. Whether fair or not, there are people who won’t listen to them but will read me, and perhaps I could serve as a gateway drug to them. Basically, I need to get the fuck over myself and just deal with it.

Advertisement

Lesson learned.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

marthajones30
TheRealMarthaJones3.0

I thought a lot about the reaction as well, for all the reasons that you stated in this piece. And to your point about about adding to the existing negative narrative about black men, that was puzzling as well, because you were making points primarily from an intraracial perspective. But then then, also it stands to reason that if white men are the dominant group,because of their whiteness and their maleness, black men do have relative privilege due to their maleness but are hindered due to their blackness. The same way that white women are privileged due to their whiteness but hindered by their womaness. Like duh.

Speaking further, in regards to the reactions of black men, in my observation it comes down to a unique sense of privilege and entitlement. Black men occupy a unique space due to black women. Black women are the only group, in my observation, that sacrifice, labor and advocate as selflessly as we do, for the betterment of our communities, but also for the advancement of black men. No other group of women do this. White women are happy to throw white men away when they, secure positions of power. They collaborate and make exceptions to their freedom with white men on behalf of white supremacy, which strengthens their claim to the throne, so to speak. And one only has to take a cursory peek into Asian American spaces to see how much those women, don’t give a fuck, and in some instances, imo actively hate Asian American men.

Even in confrontation with black male toxic masculinity, even if it can border on vitriolic, there is always a follow up of education and it never comes with abandonment. With a fierce defense of you and the things that might hurt you. Black women are primarily the ones who I see talk about the hypersexualiztion and fetishizaton of black boys in culture and it’s harmful effects on Black men. In pay gap conversations black women are always the first to point out that, Black men earn less than white women.  Black women want black men to succeed, we want you to have fully realized lives, we want to share power and resources. We just don’t want you to kill us in the process. But because there has never been a point in history black men have had to face the struggle without black women, it has exacerbated the entitlement inherently tied to their maleness.