“Teach them the game, so they know they position, so they can grow and make decisions that change the world, and break old tradition.” – Talib Kweli
Talib Kweli had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day (as in the title of Judith Viorst’s book). Or at least, he could have. Saturday night, as he flew into Grand Rapids, a flight attendant began to whistle the Carmina Burana. A portent of sorts? Sunday morning, he encountered a number of rude personnel at the airport. Sitting waiting for his flight, he wrote, “… this Grand Rapids airport experience is the worst get me out of here!” It was in this context, about an hour later, that he wrote, “Ever haves convo with someone who don’t know they racist? That’s happening to me right now…”
His interlocutor was a white woman who “apparently used to teach in the inner city and has all types of opinions [about] why young black men drop out…” Among these was the theory that black mothers love their daughters more because they were scared their sons would turn on them “cuz ain’t no fathers in the hood.” When he told her he was a rapper, she told him she hoped he didn’t degrade women and said she had “[thrown] her sons vulgar CDs out the window.”
Kweli could well be forgiven for simply thinking, “whatever,” and moving on. Rather, he observed, “Interesting convo. Nice Lady. Still racist tho lol.” One of his Twitter followers pressed him on the observation, and he responded she had every right to her opinions, but the opinions themselves were nonetheless racist. He added that “Racism often partners with evil, but one can be racist without evil intentions. They don’t know any better.” Twitter obviously precludes a lengthy analysis, but he did say that after hearing the woman out, he “explained that the pathology of slavery has horrible affects on black families & provided her with an alternative to her opinion.”
We don’t know, of course, how or even whether this interchange affected the woman. Kweli clearly respected her humanity and her good-if-misguided intentions, and perhaps that climate of respect opened her ears to something which she might not otherwise have been able to hear. Certainly he would not have sounded like someone who degraded women. At a minimum, if this woman encounters other people down the line who respectfully challenge her racist views by simply providing additional information and perspectives, she may think back to her encounter with that nice young man in the airport and begin to question her own thinking.
As it happened, at the end of Sunday’s flight, Talib Kweli discovered that someone had taken his carry-on bag. He had been using his computer, so he still had that, but his other stuff, much of it important, was gone. He was certainly upset, especially right after making the discovery, but did recognize the possibility that someone took it by mistake and would return it “but if not, sigh and oh well.” With that, he wrote “someone tell me a joke I need to laugh lol” and shortly after “Ok, now someone tell me a funny joke lol.” There followed a series of retweets of some of the jokes his followers sent him.
By showing grace in trying circumstances, acknowledging the truth of what was happening, holding to his core beliefs, being willing to look beneath the surface and see the human being behind the comments and actions, and using a sense of humour, Talib Kweli may well have turned what could have been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day into one that at a minimum had some redeeming qualities and some good moments. Those of us who are doing social justice work, not just anti-racist but also anti-sexist, anti-classist, anti-heterosexist and more, regularly encounter people like the nice lady in the Grand Rapids airport. It’s up to us to decide how to react, and in so doing, it’s up to us whether or not we (and to some extent they as well) will have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
- Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean