Why Ta-Nehesi Coates Won’t Call His Father “Billy”

A video of Ta-Nahesi Coats has been spreading like crazy online. In it, Coates responds to a question from a white woman in the audience who asks whether white people should be able to sing along to rap lyrics that contain the N-word.

For once, the Internet has it right. Coates’ answer is a masterful example of how to use narrative to address a difficult topic and to help others understand an uncomfortable truth. At a time when, as a society, we are caught in echo chambers and building up thicker walls that separate us, and when the preferred mode of response seems to be anger, vitriol and accusation, our opportunity as change-makers is to learn from Coates to become more skillful in talking in ways that others can hear.

What I notice about Coates’ response begins at the energetic level: one can imagine him feeling frustration, or exhaustion, or even anger, at hearing this question (again) from a well-intentioned white woman, but no negative feeling comes out. His demeanor conveys thoughtfulness and reflection, and, rather than put the audience on the defensive, he draws them in with accessible, sometimes humorous stories.

And not just any stories: he is making a deliberate point that “words don’t have meaning without context,” that this context is one of relationship, and that one’s right to use a particular word with another person starts with one’s relationship to that person.

Of course, he doesn’t say it that way. Instead, he starts by talking about his wife calling him “honey” and how it would be unacceptable for another woman to call him that if they were walking down the street. The audience laughs.

He goes on to describe how, when he was young and he would go see his family in Philadelphia, his family members would call his father, William Paul Coates, “Billy.” But “no one in Baltimore calls my Dad Billy, and..

…if I had referred to my Dad as Billy that probably would have been a problem. That’s because the relationship between myself and my Dad is not the same as the relationship between my Dad and his mother and his sisters who he grew up with. We understand that.

Indeed we do. It’s easy enough, and safe enough, to understand that there are certain ways we can and cannot address our parents. With this straightforward example, Coates invites us to step in at the shallow end of the pool.

Then he ups the ante a bit, both in terms of tension and humor, by saying, in furthering the point:

My wife, with her girlfriends, will use the word ‘bitch.’ (Pause) I do not join in! I don’t do that. And more importantly, I don’t have a desire to do that. You understand?

Indeed. With the story as foundation, and with the disarming humor of Coates saying that calling his wife “bitch” would not go well for him, we start to see the broader point.

With these two stories—told with all the humor and narrative and seduction of stories—Coates helps the listener experience that language and its usage sits within the context of relationship; that, if you do not have a certain kind of relationship with a person or a group, then it is not OK for you to use that groups’ language; and that it is normal for groups to appropriate potentially offensive language and use it in an ironic way. He has shared all these points in ways that are both approachable and repeatable, so that those who are ultimately persuaded by his argument are armed to persuade the next person with these same, simple stories.

With all of this scaffolding masterfully put into place, Coates then gets to the heart of the issue, and says, in no uncertain terms, that white people are not in relation to black people in a way that allows them to use the N-word. And he goes a step further to say, essentially (my paraphrase): and I think this is an instructive thing for white people to experience, because American society has taught white people that they can, essentially, say and do anything, and that it is the job of those around them to shift to accommodate that sense of entitlement and privilege. And, experiencing a time when you cannot, as a white person, use a particular word, is a great chance to feel what the everyday reality of everyone else feels like in this country.

No punches pulled here, but if you’re going to disagree with this hard-hitting truth, then you have to find your way to explain why Coates should be able to call his father Billy and his wife “bitch,” and that’s a heck of a hard argument to have make in any sort of objective way.

I hope you enjoy and share the video, and that you find space to work this sort of narrative dexterity into your own practice. To change minds, we need to meet people where they are, we need to ensure that they feel heard and respected, and we need arm them with the tools to see a different set of first principles in a way that doesn’t cause shame or separation. This is the opposite of creating a win/lose setup where to acknowledge my point of view, you need to discard your views and values, and essentially admit your own stupidity.

Much easier to accept is: “thank you. I’d never thought of it that way.”

Enjoy the video.

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