Who Should Do The Hard Work Of Being The Race Ambassador?
On our post-election episode of the Code Switch podcast, Shereen Marisol Meraji and I interviewed Negin Farsad, a comedian and filmmaker, and Gustavo Arellano, the editor of the OC Weekly and the author of the satirical ¡Ask A Mexican! column.
Our guests suggested that, in the wake of Donald Trump's election-night victory, racial animus in America — or at least, Americans' boundless capacity to countenance it — could be combated if people of color more actively engaged white people, assuaging their anxieties.
Farsad and Arellano presented that idea humorously, but the ask was a serious one. Farsad pointed to her film, The Muslims are Coming!, in which she traveled across the country on a comedy tour with other Muslim-American comedians, as an example of outreach.
"The goal was to meet people where they were, and I feel like if they do that, they will come around," she said. In other words, people of color need to be "ambassadors" to the larger, skeptical, anxious white world. If respectability politics is predicated on the performance of public uprightness — or at least agreeability— being an ambassador is the strain that concerns itself with the hand-to-hand, interpersonal engagement. Say, explaining why black people can say nigger and white people should not. (It's a little trickier than that.) Or calmly explaining to a person on Twitter who asks if "nappy" is an offensive word. (Short answer: it depends, but she probably shouldn't say it.) My inbox has been full of questions like this from strangers since the election.
If you'll allow me to indulge in a bit of understatement here: listeners had opinions about this idea. To crudely characterize the many responses we got, there was an obvious, vocal split between black folks and other people of color. Many black listeners suggested that having to make the argument for your humanity was itself an indignity.
A letter from one black listener captures a sentiment we heard over and over:
"When Negin Farsad says that we need to get out to the other side and show a different image of ourselves, what does she mean? Black people for better or worse have been in American media since that media began. We have shown many many sides of ourselves through media, what else were we supposed to show? Just images palatable to people who are not convinced of our humanity? When Gustavo Arellano says it's our responsibility to move to swing states, what are we being asked to sacrifice for that, job and education opportunities, our happiness, our safety?"
Another was more pointed:
"[I] think it's misguided of [Farsad] to a) assume that's enough for people who benefit from white supremacy to see a POCs humanity and b) to even think that she should have to prove her humanity in the first place. It's going to hurt so much more when she realizes that no amount of shucking and jiving on behalf of white people will ever prove to them the fullness of her humanity. [...] But then again, Negin might be right. Maybe if enough brown people infiltrate mostly-white communities, white people will fight against the forces of xenophobia and racism to protect them when the time comes. Because even then, when they consider the fullness of Muslim and Asian and Mexican-American citizens' lives, we'll still have Black people around as a scapegoat. We are here for those groups who are allowed assimilation into whiteness to look down upon."
My first response to our guests was not terribly dissimilar: Um, nah. "Ambassadorship" struck me as a strain of respectability politics, the idea that people in marginalized groups can sway people who have negative opinions of them by being beyond moral reproach, or at least, actively endeavoring to make the people with those opinions less uncomfortable. It's a polarizing notion, even as it has long been a critical, controversial component of rights movements for people of color and for queer people.
But on Twitter, Shereen added some important nuance to this conversation: this might not be a crazy idea to the many, many first-generation immigrants of color have been thrust into this role of ambassadors in their lives for practical reasons. "This idea ... is one that comes very natural to many [first-generation people of color] who are often interpreters/ambassadors," she wrote. "I'm not saying it's right and I'm not saying it's not exhausting, but it is how we've learned to navigate life in the U.S."
There are also some big questions about whether the ambassador approach might work. On Tuesday, Vox's German Lopez surveyed some of the research about how white people respond to difficult conversations about race, and concluded, as did Farsad and Arellano, that there are plenty of people whose prejudices can be undone with nonjudgmental engagement on their feelings. "The key to these conversations, though, is empathy," Lopez wrote. "And it will take a lot of empathy — not just for one conversation but many, many conversations in several settings over possibly many years."
And therein lies the rub: even the folks who favor ambassadorship have to concede that it's labor-intensive and requires tremendous patience from the people doing it. While many of us have certainly served as ambassadors in informal, impromptu ways — maybe a friend gingerly asks you a question about some issue that affects a community you belong to, and you can discuss it candidly with them because you've established some trust and goodwill — that seems qualitatively different from serving that role for strangers in whom you might not be particularly invested.
"I think that no one should be asked to do this kind of work because it's exhausting and because [people of color] have enough problems," one person wrote on Twitter. "On the other hand, if segregation is the central obstacle (and I think it is), then it also seems necessary for someone to do it."
He went on: "Another thing that occurs to me is that ambassadorship can't just be from people of color toward white people. Because different people or groups are often also blind to each other's experiences. I know I've often been guilty of this."
Shereen, Gustavo and Negin probably have a point. And it's very likely that ambassadorship, as a strategy, might be more effective for some people of color. We're pulling on different histories and understandings, and pushing up against often similar but often very distinct skepticisms. Shereen says it's just what we do — in some ways, this is part of our actual jobs at Code Switch. But I'd really rather not.
We'd love to hear your thoughts on this at @nprcodeswitch and at firstname.lastname@example.org.