Last July saw the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers in Baton Rouge and St. Anthony (Minn.), respectively. In the aftermath, author, professor and ordained Baptist minister Michael Eric Dyson wrote an essay for The New York Times titled “Death in Black and White,” which aimed to explore the pain police violence rains on Black Americans and implore their White counterparts to see beyond the privilege their skin affords them.
With today’s (January 17) release of his new book, “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America,” Dyson amplifies those themes. Dedicated to Beyoncé, Solange and their mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson, the book is broken into sections that mirror a typical church service, from the invocation to the benediction.
In the section titled “Call to Worship,” Dyson writes about why he chose this structure for the book: “Sermons are tough, not only to deliver, but, just as often, to hear. Yet, in my experience, if we stick with the sermon—through its pitiless recall of our sin, its relentless indictment of our flaws—we can make it to the uplifting expressions and redeeming practices that make our faith flow from the pulpit to the public, from darkness to light.”
Here, three must-read passages from the powerful work:
On the invention of Whiteness:
Beloved, let me start by telling you an ugly secret: there is no such thing as white people. And yet so many of them, so many of you, exist. Please hear me out. I know you’re flesh and blood. I know that you use language and forks and knives. I’m not talking about your bodies or your garages or your grocery stores. I’m talking about the politics of whiteness. I’m talking about an identity that exists apart from the skin you’re born in. I’m talking about a meaning of race that supersedes the features you inherit when you come out of the womb. You don’t get whiteness from your genes. It is a social inheritance that is passed on to you as a member of a particular group.
And it’s killing us, and, quiet as it’s kept, it’s killing you too.
Race has no meaning outside of the cultures we live in and the worlds we fashion out of its force and energy. Whiteness is an advantage and privilege because you have made it so, not because the universe demands it.
So I want to tell you right off the bat that whiteness is made up, and that white history disguised as American history is a fantasy, as much a fantasy as white superiority and white purity. Those are all myths. They’re intellectual rubbish, cultural garbage. The quicker you accept that, the better off you’ll be, and so will the rest of us. …
My friends, I know reading this frightens many of you. It may even anger you. Please bear with me. Until you make whiteness give up its secrets none of us will get very far. Whiteness has privilege and power connected to it, no matter how poor you are. Of course the paradox is that even though whiteness is not real it is still true. I mean true as a force to be reckoned with. It is true because it has the power to make us believe it is real and to punish those who doubt its magic. Whiteness is slick and endlessly inventive. It is most effective when it makes itself invisible, when it appears neutral, human, American.
On Black dissent in the face of White fragility:
Beloved, you are ensnared in one of the bitterest paradoxes of our day. You say we black folk are thin-skinned about race. You say a new generation of black activists focus too much on trendy terms like “micro-aggressions.” You say they are too sensitive to “trigger warnings.” You claim they are too insistent on safe spaces and guarding against hateful speech that hurts their feelings. You argue that all of us are too politically correct.
And yet you can barely tolerate any challenge to your thinking on race. I say thinking, my friends, though that is being kind. Many of you hardly think of race. You shield yourselves from what you don’t want to understand. You reveal your brute strength in one contemptible display of power after the next, and yet you claim that we reap benefit by playing the victim.
To be blunt, you are emotionally immature about race. Some of you are rightly appalled at the ash of white racial demagoguery. Yet you have little curiosity about the complicated forces of race. You have no idea that your whiteness and your American identity have become fatally intertwined; they are virtually indistinguishable. Any criticism of the nation is heard as an attack on your identity.
But, my friends, your innocent whiteness is too costly to maintain. We are forced to be gentle with you, which is another way of saying we are forced to lie to you. We must let you down easy, you, the powerful partner in our fraught relationship. Your feelings get hurt when we tell you that you’re white, and that your whiteness makes a difference in how you’re treated. You get upset when we tell you that whiteness has often been damaging and toxic. You get angry when we tell you how badly whiteness has behaved throughout history.
But we must risk your wrath to speak back to a defiantly innocent whiteness. You often deem black dissent as disloyalty to America. But that black dissent may yet redeem a white innocence that threatens the nation’s moral and patriotic health.
On the obsession with “Black-on-Black crime”:
Beloved, let’s try a brief thought experiment. Let’s apply the logic of some of your arguments about black folk to you. Take your argument that we should pay more attention to black-on-black crime than white cops killing black folk because more blacks are killed by other blacks. Now let’s compare the number of white Americans killed by whites to the number of Americans killed by terrorist acts. I can already feel your hair standing on end. You see how hurtful it is to make such a comparison? You see how it could miss the point of giving each cause of suffering its due? According to your logic, we should not be concerned with political acts of terror committed on American soil because, since 9/11, less than 100 people have been killed in such attacks in America while 11,208 people were killed by rearms in 2013 alone and 21,175 died by suicide with a firearm.
By Giuliani’s logic, then, the obsession with terror is both misplaced and hypocritical. We should focus instead on the plague of rearms on the American population. Far more white folk kill each other than are killed by terrorists. So let’s stop worrying about terrorism and worry about white-on-white homicide. Stop griping about a couple of planes crashing into a couple of towers. Stop crying over a few folk getting butchered by a few religious fanatics when the routine crime that snuffs white life lies in a white man’s assault rifle.
Notice how just reading those words makes your blood boil? See how your nationalist bravado ashes? Can you imagine how your rage might spill over if that were said to you with the same callous disregard for white life that Giuliani speaks with when he dismisses cops killing unarmed black folk? See how your temperature rises by just reading those words? These are words that are rarely spoken directly to white America. Words that reflect back to you your dishonesty and indifference and tone-deafness to our plight.
Get your copy of “Tears We Cannot Stop” here.