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.

There is nothing romantic about an empty farm

On a run this past weekend in Mississippi, I ran over the levee and past some dilapidated farming homes that had been abandoned after this springs’ floods.  I was struck by the nobility of the structures and the spirit of farming, and I caught myself thinking nostalgic thoughts about farm life and all that it represents.

But these were not quaint relics, they’re not there to remind anyone of our past – they are, or were, someone’s livelihood that had, again, let them down thanks to climate change, increasing farm productivity and a changing global economy.  What was once a thriving rural community on the banks of the Mississippi River has seen agricultural incomes decline, the Air Force base go away, and a downtown that’s been hollowed out into a living ghost town.  It may be that there’s a brighter future in sight, but it’s hard to see the path that lead from here to there.

This isn’t a new story.  Nor did I think it was a particularly instructive story for our current economic woes…at least I didn’t until I read a new piece by Nobel Prize-winning Economist Joseph Stiglitz in this month’s Vanity Fair titled “The Book of Jobs.”  In it Stiglitz argues that while everyone notices the banking system parallels between the current economic downturn and the Great Depression, Stiglitz’s own analysis, together with Bruce Greenwald, tells a different story.

While the financial sector, specifically poor monetary policy (a monetary tightening by the Fed just when there should have been a loosening) pushed the American economy from recession to full-blown depression in 1929, this analysis masks what was really going on: the fundamental shift from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy, one in which the rising productivity of the agricultural sector caused supplies to balloon, prices to plummet, and real incomes (and towns) to decline beyond repair.  So too today, Stiglitz argues, during our Long Slump: while it looks like we are having a financial crisis, what we really are experiencing is a tectonic shift in our economy from manufacturing to services.  Huge increases in productivity, coupled with globalization, are causing a decline in income and jobs in the US.

If Stiglitz is right, then the medicine we’ve applied (tons of free money to the banks, with no strings attached) is all wrong.  No amount of monetary tinkering will get you out of this kind of crisis; instead, like in the wake of the Great Depression, one needs a huge fiscal stimulus (read: huge government spending) to get out of this sort of mess.  Back then it was, ironically, World War II.  What will it be this time around?

Whether this is precisely the right analysis isn’t what’s on my mind.  Rather, what worries me is that the chance that we’re going to find and execute the right policy seems preposterously low.  Whereas in the 1930s we simply didn’t know enough in terms of monetary policy to respond appropriately, today each and every issue is so politicized that it feels almost naïve to think that we’ll turn to apolitical experts who just plain know more (about the economy, the environment) than everyone else. No one is seen as smart enough or neutral enough to be fully above the fray (remember when the chair of the Fed was someone everyone liked?).

How do we get to a point where certain issues are important enough that they become nonpartisan? It happens when we weave them into the fabric of our identities rather than leave them at the periphery in the realm of ideological debate.  It happens when we create new narratives that transcend ideologies or, worse, when issues become so dire that we have no choice but to act together.  I hope we get our act together before then.