By Cord Jefferson
Illustration by Cun Shi
A few weeks ago, an internet publication reached out to me with a proposition. The name of the publication—a good and smart website I generally enjoy—doesn’t matter for our purposes here, because the interaction I intend to describe is not unique to this specific outlet, nor is it uncommon in the broader world of media.
I was asked, via email, to write about a small news story out of New Hampshire that had begun making waves nationally. A police commissioner in Wolfeboro, a tiny town of about 6,000 people, was overheard in a restaurant calling President Obama a “fucking nigger.” Despite townspeople demanding his resignation, the commissioner remained steadfast, writing in an email to his colleagues, “I believe I did use the ‘N’ word in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse [sic]. For this, I do not apologize—he meets and exceeds my criteria for such.”
I read the short Associated Press rundown and thought about how the handful of black residents in Wolfeboro must feel knowing that one of their elected officials casually—proudly, even—throws around the word “nigger.” I felt bad for those people and the other people in Wolfeboro, some of whom probably didn’t know they were voting an unrepentant bigot into office when they cast their ballots for the police commissioner’s board in March. I guess I’d also begun to feel bad for America as a whole. Then I closed the AP site’s tab and declined to write about the bureaucrat in New Hampshire who had called the president a racial slur.
When beginning any career, it’s important to highlight the experiences and skills you bring to the table that others can’t. For some marginalized writers, that means being direct about the fact that your personal perspective as a woman or homosexual or African American—or all three—will occasionally be perceived as refreshing in an industry so dominated by straight white men. Some of these writers will set up shop at publications specifically tailored to women or gays or blacks or Jews, as I have done in the past. Others might work at generalist publications while making sure to give special attention to issues pertaining to their minority group, as I have also done. In traditional news terms, this is a “beat.”
For several years, I made my unofficial beat the stories, struggles, and politics of blacks in America. I wrote about other things, also, but never with the same frequency or interest. I was pretty good at it, and, more than that, I enjoyed it. Eventually, people began to assume that I’d comment when a particular kind of news story bubbled up—generally one about something bad happening to a black person—and I often times would. I wasn’t surprised when a website I liked asked me to write about the case of a white man of little note in New Hampshire calling a hugely powerful black man a “nigger.” But then I realized I didn’t have anything to say.
Or maybe it wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to say. Maybe it was the realization that writing anything would be to listlessly participate in the carousel ride: an inciting incident, 1,000 angry thinkpieces, 1,000 tweeted links, and back to where we started, until next time. Perhaps it was a feeling that writing anything would finally be too redundant to bear, a pursuit of too many sad and obvious words to heap onto so many other nearly identical words written down before, by me, by thousands of others.
What’s a person to say when a Wolfeboro police commissioner outs himself as a proud racist? The same thing everyone wrote when, soon after Obama was first inaugurated, another small-time politician sent out a picture of the White House lawn planted with a watermelon patch? The same thing they wrote when Ted Nugent, a Republican guest to last year’s State of the Union address, called President Obama a “subhuman mongrel”? Or the same thing they wrote when a California woman took to her Facebook page in 2012 to call Obama a “nigger” and wish for his assassination.
We can go on like this, of course, because in America the racist traumas are widespread. How about the next time a black person is stopped and patted down without cause? How do you write about that humiliation in a way that’s different from what you wrote when Forest Whitaker received the same treatment last year, and a New York City police chief before him, and thousands of other innocent black and Latino men before them? What new column shall the writer write when an unarmed black person is killed for doing nothing but frightening an armed white person? The same thing he wrote when Trayvon Martin was killed? And that’s to say nothing of when Oscar Grant was killed. Or when Ramarley Graham was killed. Or when Timothy Stansbury Jr. was killed. Or when Amadou Diallo was killed. Or when Jordan Davis was killed. Or when Ousmane Zongo was killed. Or when Jonathan Ferrell was killed. Or when Renisha McBride was killed.
A defense attorney once told me that the hardest part of his job was that he only saw people at their worst. People came to him only when they were in serious trouble. And when the case was over, he’d usually never hear from them again. He said it made him feel bad about the world, like he presided over a revolving door of misery. I thought about that conversation the day I texted a black writer friend of mine, who writes a significant amount about blacks in America, to compliment him on a piece and chat about the potential deleterious effects of writing a lot about race. “It’s not sustainable,” he replied. And though it kept him busy “I’d actually love it if people started not being the worst every day.”
I used to think that maybe I’d let my anger serve as an engine. But I’ve since discovered that my anger over each new racist incident is now rivaled and augmented by the anger I feel when asked to explain, once more, why black people shouldn’t be brutalized, insulted, and killed. If you’re a person of color, the racism beat is also a professional commitment to defending your right and the right of people like you to be treated with consideration to an audience filled with readers champing at the bit to call you nothing but a nigger playing the race card.
The hostility directed at writers who cover minority beats in America is solid proof that those people are doing important work. But that work can be exhausting. It’s exhausting to always be writing and thinking about a new person being racist or sexist or otherwise awful. It’s exhausting to feel compelled on a consistent basis to defend your claim to dignity. It’s exhausting to then watch those defenses drift beyond the reaches of the internet’s short memory, or to coffee tables in dentists’ offices, to be forgotten about until you link to them the next time you need to say essentially the same thing.
After a while you may want to respond to every request for a take on the day’s newest racist incident with nothing but a list of corresponding, pre-drafted truths, like a call-center script for talking to bigots. Having written thousands of words about white people who have slurred the president over the past six years, you begin to feel as if the only appropriate way to respond to new cases—the only way you can do it without losing your mind—is with a single line of text reading, “Black people are normal people deserving of the same respect afforded to anyone else, but they often aren’t given that respect due to the machinations of white supremacy.”
Imagine an editor asking a writer to passionately articulate why a drunk driver hitting and killing a boy on a bicycle is wrong and sad. That would never happen, because a drunk driver killing a boy on a bike is a self-evident tragedy. Asking a writer to exert lots of effort to explain why would be a disservice to the dead, as if his right to life were ever in question, as if our moral obligation to not snuff out our fellow citizens via recklessness were something in need of an eloquent plea.
When another unarmed black teenager is gunned down, there is something that hurts about having to put fingers to keyboard in an attempt to illuminate why another black life taken is a catastrophe, even if that murdered person had a criminal record or a history of smoking marijuana, even if that murdered person wasn’t a millionaire or college student. There is something that hurts when thinking about the possibility of being “accidentally” shot on some darkened corner, leaving a writer who never met you the task of asking the world to acknowledge your value posthumously, as it didn’t during your life.
I think about race and racism every day of my life. How can any American not? (James Baldwin once proffered the idea that “the Negro-in-America is increasingly the central problem in American life.”) I anticipate that I’ll always write about race and racism in some professional capacity. Still, wouldn’t it be wonderful if writers and creatives on the periphery were welcomed in from anonymity, not thanks to their accounts of woe, but simply because they have things to share—tales of love, joy, happiness, and basic humanity—that have nothing to do with their race and also everything to do with their race. I’m ready for people in positions of power at magazines and newspapers and movie studios to recalibrate their understanding of what it means to talk about race in the first place. If America would like to express that it truly values and appreciates the voices of its minorities, it will listen to all their stories, not just the ones reacting to its shortcomings and brutality.
If this doesn’t eventually happen, I wonder how many more writers of color will come to the conclusion, as my colleague did, that this life we’ve made for ourselves is unsustainable. How many essays can go up before fatigue becomes anger becomes insanity? How many op-ed columns before you can feel the gruesomeness of trying to defend another dead black kid slowly hollowing you out? How many different ways can you find to say that you’re a human being?
The Wolfeboro, New Hampshire police commissioner who called President Obama a “nigger” ultimately resigned. Less than a month later, two videos went viral within hours of each other. In one, a white woman in a western New York parking lot calls a black man a “nasty fucking nigger” in front of her two children. In the other, a young Justin Bieber uses the word “nigger” over and over in a joke song performed for the delight of some friends off-camera. That video came on the heels of another clip released only days earlier in which Bieber tells this joke:
“Why are black people afraid of chainsaws?” He then mimics the noise of a chainsaw by saying “Run…nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger.”
If you’re black and your beat is to offer your thoughts and opinions on the degradation of black Americans, you’ll never want for steady work. A steady mind is not guaranteed.