A few months ago, someone I respect tried to defend Kanye West’s actions of, for the second time, stealing the spotlight from an artist who had just won an award. I was stupefied. How was this excusable? She made some reasonable arguments about how black artists are still largely passed up for awards and recognition. But I still couldn’t agree, not at all, and have found myself in similar positions where I feel alienated by reasonable arguments or perspectives. The problem is, it’s the delivery.
Effective communication and productive actions can be distilled down to two things: good content and good delivery. I could get behind Kanye if he were giving interviews on the red carpet about how he hopes black artists will be recognized. Or writing a passionate op-ed. Or actually using his (now-defunct) Kanye West Foundation for charitable purposes (it literally spent half a million dollars in “administrative expenses” and donated a total $583 to charity). To be honest, I don’t actually believe that Kanye is deeply concerned about the plight of under-recognized black artists — I think he just likes to make a scene — but even if he did care, his delivery is off. He’s delivering his message (if there is one) ineffectively, alienating people like me who could be on board, resulting in me thinking of him as an asshole instead of an activist.
But people are saying the same thing about the rioters in Baltimore. People are criticizing them on both counts, claiming that their delivery is bad and that their message is too — black people overreacting as usual to imaginary oppression. Other people, myself included, think that the message is on point. There is an enormous continuing problem with police brutality and, on a much larger scale, general suspicion and mistreatment of black people. But while we agree on that point, we are quick to criticize protesters in Baltimore for violence and rioting. We turn immediately to focus on what they could be doing better, how they could get their message out more effectively. There are lots of good ideas.
After a day of stewing on this, I realized that I’m wrong on two counts. First, the vast majority of Baltimore protesters are not violent or rioting. Based on what I was hearing from the mainstream media, violence and rioting were widespread. It took social media photos and interviews for me to learn that there had been a huge, peaceful march. That community groups were organizing clean-ups. That individuals were placing themselves as barriers between the few rogue agitators and the property they wanted to loot or destroy.
Secondly, I realized that even if some people are agitating, their actions are understandable. It is so ingrained in me that the police are the good guys, that my neighbors and my government are out to protect me, that I have had to struggle to empathize with people for whom that is not the case. If I were regarded as suspicious my whole life, if I were poor or given a poor education, if I had seen relatives mistreated or incarcerated, how could I not view the police as the enemy? Would I sit and pen a thoughtful editorial, or join classmates in planning a peaceful demonstration? Probably not. I’d probably yell and throw rocks, not just because it would feel productive to me, but because it would be exactly what was expected of me.
We expect oppressed people to magically learn to “play by the rules.” But the level of deep, self-reinforcing inequality is overwhelming. A disproportionate number of black children are born into poverty, poorly educated, denied opportunities, and most people can see this happening and bemoan it. But then these children grow into teenagers and young adults and suddenly we’ve lost all empathy — how come they are not behaving exactly the same as their privileged counterparts? How come they are “thugs?” Is turning 18 supposed to be the great equalizer? I’ve had conversations about a student facing problems of poverty and a poor relationship with her mother, and sympathetic people will share my anguish, and then turn immediately onto “what a horrible mother she has!” And I say, “don’t you understand, the mother IS the daughter! The mother was the daughter ten years ago!” They are both the result of a system that is still going strong.
Effective communication and productive action has to be taught, and learned from example. The mother sees her daughter starting to fail in school, and goes ballistic. She yells and threatens her daughter and worse. Just like the mother in Baltimore who saw her son throwing rocks at police and chased after him, swatting at him and dragging him away. Their intentions are good, and while these actions are ineffective and sad, that’s not the point. When I want to criticize someone’s poorly-delivered message, it’s easy to go for it and get hung up on the poor delivery itself, “what are they thinking? There’s a better way!” But sometimes this is the wrong choice. Right now in Baltimore it is the wrong choice, it is the wrong conversation to have. We can all agree that rioting and violence are “wrong,” but the more pressing question is why, why is this happening? Why is there this desperation?
It is happening because people are too busy criticizing the methods of protest than focusing on the valid message underlying it. It is happening because it’s easier to criticize from afar than it is to let this become deeply uncomfortable and for us to grapple with the difficult things we’ll have to do to create lasting change. It is happening because we have a self-perpetuating system that literally polices the status quo. It is happening because not enough supporters are coming together to make this a shared issue and concern, letting it become just another “this doesn’t concern me and my family, I’ve never experienced this” kind of issue.
The point is, it’s on all of us on the “outside” to focus on the real issues. To listen to real concerns and value people’s lived experiences. We can’t get hung up on word choice or volume or tone or whatever else results in us invalidating the issue at hand. If Kanye is grabbing the microphone, yes, he might be acting offensive and obnoxious, but maybe if we suspend our objections we’ll learn that he has a point. Or maybe not, but the people of Baltimore definitely do, and we need to listen up.