An Adventure In Twitter Debate: Totally Biased Edition Featuring W. Kamau Bell

Earlier today W. Kamau Bell posted the following to his Facebook page, sharing it on Twitter as a screenshot soon after.

Donald Trump isn’t a Republican issue or a rich people issue or a human issue. Donald Trump is a white people issue. Whenever Ben Carson says batshit crazy nonsense, Black people rise up, and let him know that he needs to STFU. Whenever Raven-Symone pops off, we put her cap back on. We even handled Rachel Dolezal for you. Yes, we also make jokes and come up with clever memes and hashtags, but at the core of all that is that we are letting these people know that they are embarrassing us as Black people. It is time, white people, for you to finally step up and recognize that you also (even more so) have a responsibility to your race. It is up to you to silence Donald Trump. Don’t just insult him and make fun of him. You have to connect it to your race, Recognize that he is embarrassing you as a white person. Simple snark won’t win here. You have to feel it. You have to use words like “as a white person” and “he is an embarrassment to my race.” Stop acting like Trump isn’t the pinnacle and the result of America’s history and tradition of white supremacy. And again, I don’t care if you had no plans to vote for Trump or anybody, if you are white, he is your problem above all else. Simply put, white people, come get your boy.

I wanted very badly to agree with all of the above because I do think Donald Trump is a problem, and a symptom (and symbol) of a much larger and ultimately more dangerous problem. I cannot, however, fully agree with Kamau on this, and when I tweeted my disagreement, hijinks ensued.

I want to address more specifically what troubles me about Kamau’s Facebook post, but first some tweets to establish the background.

In a followup tweet to another user by Kamau:

To which I replied:

This broke down further into mutual accusations of irony failure and people noting that Muslims have condemned ISIS. My reply to one of the relevant condemnation tweets:

It should suffice to say that I find all those sample statements I tweeted equally offensive. Fortunately another Twitter user came along with a bit of levity (something for which I am always thankful).

It even occurred to me to tweet to Kamau this, from the Quran, as it’s both poetic and strangely relevant. (Thanks to Yahia Lababidi for having tweeted this piece of verse earlier.) “And no bearer of burdens shall bear another’s burden, and if one heavily laden calls another to (bear) his load, nothing of it will be lifted even though he be near of kin.”

Though I was no longer participating in the debate by this point, I think think peak obnoxiousness may have been reached here:

This tweet cuts to the heart of the matter best. I think Kamau’s original post can be understood as both comedy and activism, given Kamau is both a comedian and an activist. If I read the post purely as comedy it’s easy to have a chuckle and move on. If I read the post as activism I question its wisdom of its apparent hypocrisy given the climate in which we (whether we’re white or otherwise, but mostly white) are making demands of persecuted minorities. (Obviously whites are not a persecuted minority, though I’m sure Trump’s followers would have us all believe whites are. Make American White Again!)

Another way to think about the comedy/activism framework is to ask: does the post expose hypocrisy or engage in it? A lighter read suggests the former, (a la an article at The Onion, say) but a more serious read leans toward the latter.

And if the post is satire, does it punch up or down? Given the post is aimed at whites, the privileged majority, the post certainly punches up. That much at least is to its credit.

Even so, I feel most like what has happened here is Kamau has violated the Golden Rule. As I tweeted earlier, it’s not fair to claim not wanting to be essentialized, stripped of individuality and agency, and then do the same to others. And what is perhaps more troublesome is when people of goodwill who want the same things do this to each other, out of an overbearing loyalty to identity politics. I posted the following tweet to Kamau, asking, if he had an opportunity, to read the thread surrounding it.

I follow W. Kamau Bell on Twitter because I admire his work as both a comedian and an activist, despite my relative lack of exposure to what he does. (Regrettably, I’ve only seen a few episodes of the short-lived talk show Totally Biased.) My criticism of his Facebook post, both on Twitter and here, is offered out of respect rather than a lack of it. Twitter is, as is typical, a poor medium to express oneself with sufficient depth, and lacking the time to further engage I brought the rest of my thoughts here. I don’t know as Kamau will see this post, but if he does I hope the clarification helps.

As for the original directive, I think I’m willing to go along. I, as a white person, disavow Donald Trump. He is most certainly an embarrassment to me and other white folks. More importantly, what he represents, a growing fascistic fervor, is dangerous to everyone who isn’t both white and a willing participant in that fervor. Trump, and the growing fascism in the US, need to be stopped. I’ll do what I can, little though it may be. I’ll start by offering a link to an excellent dissection by John Scalzi: Eight Things About Donald Trump.

My thanks to W. Kamau Bell and the Twitter users with whom I spoke. As much as Twitter can seem limiting I’ve also found it to be a fine place to learn and share. Today’s conversation, in spite of getting a touch hot, was an especially good example of that, and I really do appreciate everyone’s participation.

4 thoughts on “An Adventure In Twitter Debate: Totally Biased Edition Featuring W. Kamau Bell

  1. Your post is laden with white privilege but i know you will deny that now that I’ve said it. Anyway…

    You are choosing when and how to engage in your whiteness (like most white people) and my original post is addressing that. I can’t choose when and how I want to engage in my Blackness. It was thrust upon me and I have to deal with it. I don’t reject it. I just choose to embrace it and turn the hatred and destruction of white supremacy into pride of my people’s survival and our ability to thrive under oppression . You can continue to turn your nose up to the struggle of people of color OR you can choose to address the issue of white supremacy directly with the white people who are the leading members of your tribe. The choice is yours. Unfortunately for Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Laquan MacDonald, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Sean Bell, Mario Woods, Alex Nieto, and many others they were not allowed to have your luxury.

    • I’m going to struggle to keep this brief and fail, so before I go on I just want to say I really appreciate you posting here. You didn’t have to expend another keystroke or thought on me. That you did is something I value a great deal.

      Everything you just said is true with one exception: I’m not going to deny that my post, and by extension me, is awash in white privilege. Up until getting on Twitter I think I was like most white folks. I’d never heard the term “white privilege” and it never occurred to me there was another way to think about racism beyond the conventional Don’t Call Blacks The N-Word thing. When I got on Twitter I was expecting to just follow a few friends and celebrities. Instead I ended up following lots of journalists and activists, the sort who get derisively called Social Justice Warriors by racists, neocons, etc. I’ve been exposed to a lot of new thinking which for you and others may be old hat, but for me is revelatory.

      You state that I can choose when and how to engage my whiteness, where as you can’t choose when and how you engage your Blackness. I agree with those statements. But there’s a flipside. I can’t choose to disengage from white privilege. I don’t say that to ask for sympathy. White privilege deserves none. I say that because it’s like being in The Matrix, only there’s no way to unplug. I can’t tell you what white privilege is like anymore than I can describe what it’s like to breathe air other than to say it happens. It’s frictionless. It’s the thing that makes my life easy compared to anyone who isn’t white. It’s the difference between me getting stopped by a traffic cop where the worst thing I can expect is a ticket, versus you getting stopped by a traffic cop and meeting the possibility you could end up dead in your car seat and turned into a hashtag a few hours after. You already know this because you get to feel the friction I can never touch.

      When I read your Facebook post and subsequent tweets, I was thinking about principles and responded to you based on them. I don’t have to give up my principles to recognize that you very legitimately kicked me in them. What I ought to have done is offer you my unequivocal support. Instead I prattled on about fairness. That’s the white privilege talking. I apologize for that. You’re talking about reality, a reality in which a black person gets killed every 28 minutes. Your reality supersedes my principles.

      If you’ll forgive me a movie reference, I realized I’m feeling a lot like Jules in Pulp Fiction, when he talks about the bible verse to Ringo in the coffee shop. “And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.” And it’s not just a riff. White privilege and its dad white supremacy really are the product of the tyranny of evil men. I don’t want to be a part of that. I’m trying to figure out how not to, or, how to become the shepherd.

      I could say more but this is already too much, and it need to listen more than I speak. Peace to you, Kamau, and thank you.

  2. Respect for your response to Mr. Bell. You are not perfect — as you acknowledge, your initial response was not a good one, but you are clearly making sincere efforts. Keep doing that. The world needs more people who do that. (I am in much the same boat. As a white cishet man I have all the advantages, and I was blind to the way that our society was biased in my favour. I’m working on unlearning the problematic things, and learning to act ethically with respect to race & gender issues. We mess up a lot while we’re doing it. And that’s not good, but it seems to be inevitable. Making sincere efforts to learn is morally good, even if not morally sufficient).

    My comment about your original post is that it seems fair to call Trump’s racism and his political popularity a white people problem, and to suggest that we are obligated to respond to it. From my perspective it is fair because privilege comes with obligations.
    I have an intuition that it is fair for other reasons, but I can’t articulate why right now. I will think about it and come back if I reach any conclusions.

    • Thanks for your comment here!

      One of the things most difficult to articulate, moreso on Twitter but here as well, is the idea that no one person’s moral intuitions and the principles that derive from those are necessarily right, especially such that other intuitions and principles must therefore be wrong. And our shared white privilege does obligate us to speak out against the abusers of that privilege. That this may be difficult to square with certain notions of fairness (but easy to square with other such notions) is philosophy at work. And after all that’s happened, I can say with honesty I would rather have embarrassed myself on Twitter and learned something than kept silent and learned nothing. Messing up is not good in that it can hurt others, but if messing up is inevitable there is the bright side of being able to learn from it.

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