When this blogger was first informed about Salon Editor-At-Large and MSNBC Contributor Joan Walsh’ book What’s The Matter With White People, the first thought was “What The F—?” Is Joan playing with the fire of white guilt or what? There are so many directions to go with that title that it made this one’s head spin. Then, I listened to an interview Joan gave on CSPAN, and told her via Facebook (where we’re connected) that I wanted to interview her about the topic – but I had to read the book, first.
Well, after taking three days to pour through it, this blogger has a lot to say about What’s The Matter With White People, but here’s a confession: the title’s really hard to say in the middle of a book store.
The scene was Walden Pond Books at 3316 Grand Avenue in Oakland last Sunday. Having ordered the book two weeks ago, then got a call that it was in the store on Election Tuesday, the time to read it finally presented itself. Yippee!
So I walked in to the store, and as is typical in 21st Century Oakland Lake Merritt, I’m the only black guy at Walden Pond Books (wasn’t always that way). After the white guy ahead of me paid for his book, but was still in front of me slowly putting his purchase in his bag, it was my turn. There was another white guy behind me, waiting his turn to pay for the book he wanted. I figured it would be a cinch: I’d give the book clerk my name, pay for the book, and leave. Simple, right?
“What’s your name?,” the book clerk asked. “Zennie Abraham,” I responded. To which the book clerk looked down beneath the cash register, then kept his head down there, and finally said “I don’t see anything with your name on it?”
I thought the dude was kidding.
Then, it got worse.
“What’s the title of the book?,” he asked. I could not believe this guy was actually putting me in a position to say the title of Joan’s book out loud. I thought of all kinds of ways to escape this purgatory. So, I said “You don’t see my name?”
After that, and with the man behind me waiting, I figured ‘What the hell.’ It’s not my fault Joan came up with that title. So, I blurted out “It’s called ‘What’s The Matter With White People.'” The book clerk said “Oh,” and the guy behind me got out of line, and walked away from me and toward a display of cards, pretending to look at them. I fully expected glass to break and horses to scream, the experience was so bad.
With a title like that, you expect to find the answer in the book. Well, what Joan gives is a kind of combination pop-culture political history and biography of her life at the same time. Ms. Walsh gives a loving view of the evolution of her own parent’s political thought and involvement, and how that came to impact her experiences with America through her own eye, growing up white, Irish, Catholic, female, and middle class to a Father who was arguably a political trailblazer, and a Mom who walked the line between her husband’s liberalism, and her attempts to cope with rapid social change. Through this, Joan covers everything from The Tammany Hall Political rein, to the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King.
Eventually, Ms. Walsh gets to the pivotal 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary and then-Senator Barack Obama battling then-Senator Hillary Clinton. At this point, after reading and thinking “There’s something amiss here,” I realized that Joan seemed to be conflicted with how much of her own evolved racism she should show. I kept wondering how her own views of black Americans have evolved. Did she ever use the “N-Word” in private? It feels like Joan’s hiding a view of her own evolution just by how she expresses herself in the book.
For example, in talking about why she backed Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama, Joan doesn’t start by saying that Ms. Clinton was a white female like herself. Instead, Joan points to her perceived policy differences between Hillary and Barack as the reason she supported Hillary. All the while, I’m quietly screaming at the book, “Joan, you know you want to say ‘I wanted to see a white woman in the White House more than I wanted to see a black man.'” It would have been awkward, but it would have been real.
For example, my support of President Obama started on December 6, 2006, when I donated to the campaign via BarackObama.com, the then-new and revolutionary social media website. To me, Barack Obama was like every friend of mine who ran for junior high school, and high school president, only he was running for President. POTUS. Barack was a smart, engaging, cool dude who’s skin was brown like mine, and like me, was into Star Trek, Star Wars and in short, perfectly reflected America’s pop-culture evolution, where a set of us were defined less by race, and more by television shows. Most of our friends (and in my case, girlfriends) were white, and many of our ideas were indistinguishable from our white friends. This is the man I wanted to be President, because he was the sum total of all that I experienced, and yet had not been seen by mainstream America – until now.
See, I didn’t entirely get that from Joan in her book, so I feel like I still don’t quite know her. What does come out in What’s The Matter With White People, and provides a clue as to the root of the problem, is a constant use of a term I totally hate: “race card.”
The term “race card” is vile, and in my experience is used to stop what can be meaningful talk about race, racism, and race situations. “Race card” is a term I’ve seldom heard anyone black use, and always here someone white employ. As I told a friend of mine who blasted out the term while we were covering the Democratic National Convention, “Race is not a card to play. Using the term seems to try and diminish the other person’s perspective on how race came into play in a situation. Even if the person’s wrong, let them express their view.”
Joan comes from the other side of that coin, at least that’s the impression I get from reading her book. I don’t think Joan intends to do that, but it comes off that way. Using terms like “race batting” and “race card” allow her to wholly ignore the reasons why someone like a Jesse Jackson would make an observation that Hillary Clinton’s failure to show appropriate remorse for Katrina victims, many of whom were black, could be seen as a kind of racial insensitivity. That’s not “race-batting,” but an attempt to point to an explanation for why then-Senator Clinton didn’t shed a tear for Katrina victims.
But that issue aside, as it deserves a book all its own, I give Joan high marks for writing a book that’s topical, controversial, and introspective – even if I think Ms. Walsh is holding back a bit.
I can’t wait to interview her. Of course, she might kill me in the process!