For Us Dreamers That Read ‘Between the World and Me’

Toni Morrison is right of course. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which won the National Book Award last year, is required reading. A lyrical letter from Coates to his teenage son after Eric Garner’s murderer was not indicted, the text invites thought and response. I’ll be focusing on his message for the Dreamers–especially the people who think they are white.

Coates seems to agree that race is a social construct when he writes:

Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world. (146)

He’s saying that the people who think they are white are the people who are most susceptible to believing that they have not and cannot do wrong, particularly on a massive scale. You might have heard (or said or thought), “I wasn’t alive during slavery,” or, “I can’t help where I was born.” These albeit true statements deny that contemporary privilege was generated from slavery and accept privilege as a birthright. In fact, the statements perpetuate a dreamworld where privilege is bestowed without cause (but if this world is real, then there has to be a cause). Coates tracks the journey of privilege when he writes:

Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting , must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline. Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent.

When well-meaning Dreamers, especially those who think they are white, recognize their transgressions against other humans or the environment, they feel guilty. There are two ways to remove guilt: forget about it (i.e. fall back asleep) or try to make it better. Since the fallout of plunder is so large, it’s easier to retreat into the Dream, but solutions exist.

First, acknowledge having invoked privilege in the first place. Two questions help determine if privilege has been invoked:

  1. Given their circumstances, can most other people reasonably attain what you have?
  2. Given our planet’s limited resources, could we all have what you have?

Let’s check answer these questions with the basics of the American Dream:

  • Owning (paying mortgage on) or building a detached single-family home. NO
  • Owning (through payments) a car for each person of driving age in your household. NO
  • Taking annual vacations outside of your home state. NO
  • Going out to eat. NO
  • Getting out-of-season food at the grocery store. NO
  • An appearance augmented by fashion, gyms, cosmetics, and services. NO
  • Children YES (unless you have 3 or more kids)
  • Friends YES
  • Work NO
  • Education. NO

For all of these no’s, the typical middle-class American (especially those who think they are white), invokes privilege, putting their unrealistic level of comfort over the basic comfort of others. If you’ve been affected by the Recession, you might recognize these as privileges, because you once had them, and now you don’t (privilege does not just follow racial lines, but also socioeconomic and gender lines as well, among other things).

In the coming posts, I will invite anyone who wishes to wake from the Dream to acknowledge their privileges, then invoke privilege to maintain that status quo or revoke privilege to stand for equity. This is not comfortable work, but all people struggle. Choose your struggle wisely.

If you want to do this with me, please comment below. I’m scared to struggle, but I’ll be less scared if we’re in it together.

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