Because of some mechanical issues, a Megabus trip last week from D.C. to Pittsburgh — a journey that’s usually six hours long — ended up lasting close to nine. Aside from spending an hour cursing my decision not to just drive to D.C. and back, I spent a good part of that trip reading Greg Howard’s Deadspin piece on Jason Whitlock, forwarding it to friends, discussing it with those friends, and then re-reading it. (I also ended up missing the entire game three of the Finals. I was not happy.)
The first read left me amazed. Amazed at the thoroughness and length of Howard’s profile. Amazed at some of the stories told and tidbits revealed. Amazed at how vehement some of Whitlock’s peers were in their dislike and disgust. Amazed that Howard’s piece mirrored many of the reservations I have about Whitlock’s work. Amazed that both of the first two people I showed it to — two of my most thoughtful, reasonable, and pragmatic friends (And yes, Panama Jackson was one of them) — reacted the same way when I spoke to them about it. (Summary: “Good piece. I f*cking hate Whitlock.”)
And then I read the comments attached to it. And I felt less amazed, and more uneasy.
In the piece, Greg Howard writes that “Uncle Tom” is the second worst insult you can give a Black person. I respectfully disagree. While nigger has its historical relevance and definitely still stings, its an insult from an “other.” It’s also strangely objective. When someone calls a Black person a nigger, they’re basically saying “Every Black person is a nigger, nigger. Including you.”
Uncle Tom, on the other hand, is deeply personal. It suggests a Black person is a phony, a fraud, and, even worse, a traitor. And there are few things worse than being a traitor. It’s the reason treason is still punishable by death.
The idea that Jason Whitlock is an Uncle Tom is repeated throughout the piece. Howard doesn’t actually say it, but he quotes and references enough people who say it and think it that you can’t help but come away with that as the prevailing point of the piece. “Jason Whitlock will sell out his own people for his own benefit and the interests of Whites.”
And how does Whitlock do this? By writing pieces for predominantly White audiences that blame Black culture — hip-hop, specifically — for the ills the Black community currently faces. Everything, from Washington Redskins’ quarterback Robert Griffin III second-year struggles and Donald Sterling’s racist rants to high incarceration and unemployment rates gets connected in some way to the Black community being taken over by rap music and prison culture. Naturally, these types of messages are adored by those who already believe that a particular Black pathology exists.
Personally, although I won’t go as far as to call him a sell-out, I do think Whitlock’s race-related work tends to be myopic and, ultimately, disappointing. I believe his heart is in the right place. When it comes to race, though, his brain too often isn’t.
Yet, despite how closely some of Howard’s thoughts on Whitlock mirrored my own, reading the comments attached to the piece reframed the entire conversation.
I do not know the demographic information for Gawker Media’s traffic. But, it wouldn’t be a leap to assume that the Gawker readership — and this includes Jezebel and Deadspin (where Howard’s piece was published) — is predominantly White. Although Gawker employs (a few) Blacks, it’s run by and read by mostly White people. Howard’s main criticism of Whitlock isn’t his "low-information" criticism of Black culture. It’s the "low information" criticism in front of White people.
But, by writing a piece for a White company and a predominantly White audience where it’s suggested that a Black man — another Black writer, even — is an Uncle Tom, Howard is effectively doing the same thing he’s accusing Whitlock of doing. Although there’s no worse thing a Black person can be than an Uncle Tom, there’s no worse place to have a serious conversation about a Black person’s Blackness and integrity than in front of a bunch of White people.
Granted, Howard works for Gawker Media. Since he’s paid by them, I’m assuming he’s contractually obligated to write for them. But the piece is the latest in a disturbing pattern, where Black writers make racially explosive criticism of Black people and/or a Black person, but choose a “White” venue to do so. It happened two months ago, when Homeboy Sandman chose Gawker to publish a scathing critique on Black America, calling us all “cowards.” It happened when Whitlock used his national column at Fox Sports to tie Trayvon Martin’s death to rap music. And it happened when Greg Howard used Deadspin to publish an epic takedown of America’s most prominent Black sportswriter.
Howard’s beef with Whitlock undoubtedly has a personal edge to it, a fact made clear in Howard’s first few paragraphs. But although much of what Howard said was on the mark, when things are that personal — and when you make some very personal criticisms — as any Black parent will tell you, you don’t do it around company.