Review: You Can Keep That to Yourself

You Can Keep That To Yourself, Adam Smyer. New York: Akashic Books, 2020

Summary: A humorous and pointed list of “things not to say” to Black friends or colleagues.

“HELLO, WELL-INTENTIONED PERSON OF PALLOR!

“It’s Daquan–the black coworker you are referring to when you claim to have black friends.

“You are reading this book because you want to know what not to say. They get mad at you when you say the wrong thing. But no one will tell you, up front, what not to say. Well, I will tell you. Because I am your friend. Your real black friend.” (p. 7)

Adam “Daquan” Smyer more than delivers on that promise in a book that made me alternately laugh and cringe (“I’ve said that–ouch!”). The book is literally a list of things not to say to Black people, organized alphabetically. Here is the first:

Ally

Well-intentioned people of pallor went seamlessly from not seeing color to being allies. Being part of the problem was never considered. And, really, “ally” was fine for a while. It was aspirational. But now “I’m an ally” is the “Don’t hurt me” of our time. Don’t nobody want you, Karen. You can keep that to yourself.

Smyer, p. 10-11

Smyer can be blunt and use vulgarities. But that has become commonplace both in publications and public discussions. Think for example of the reference of one president to “sh*thole countries.” I’ve heard most of what Smyer says even in informal Christian circles. I’m not keen on this trend but I wouldn’t let the language distract from the message of the book, which it actually underscores, of the simmering frustration engendered by the repeated insensitivities of “people of pallor” And if you think this is just being “over-sensitive,” that’s in the list as well:

Over-sensitive

Y’all snap after you have been unpopular for two weeks. I’ve been black my whole life. In America. And I’m at least functional. I’m oversensitive? The record reflects otherwise.

Smyer, p. 67.

As for one of my cringes?

Yowza!

It’s weird–one minute we are having a normal conversation, and the next you are blurting out a minstrel show catchphrase. Verbal blackface.

So inappropriate! But mostly just weird. A thought: you could not.

Smyer, p. 111.

I did not know that. Now I do. I will not.

So much comes down to being considerate–to trying to imagine being in another’s place. When it comes to being Black, I cannot. But I can listen to how I am being heard by a Black person. That’s what Smyer does for us here. He says what is often only thought when we say what we people of pallor should keep to ourselves.

So what do we talk about?

There is so much that you can say. If we are at work, you can talk about work. (It really would be great if you could only talk to us about work, but we understand that you don’t know where you are.) You can talk about weather and/or sports. You can talk about your favorite shows. You can even talk about current events if your family raised you properly.

Smyer, 121.

This is a quick read that might be worth a periodic review. Old habits die hard. And it is probably worthwhile learning that we don’t have to say all we think or want to say. The truth is, black people have been doing that for a long time.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Speech of Freedom

voltaireI have been observing some of the latest discussions about safe speech and free speech. I get the concerns about micro-aggressions. If you are part of an ethnic minority, for example, you may hear comments that reveal stereotypes that are offensive. The comment may not always be deliberately offensive, which reveals how much such stereotypes are part of the fabric of our society.

Yet it is also troubling that speech is often suppressed, or safe zones are declared. Many of us remembered fighting for free speech on campus,  We would even say,”I might not like what you are saying, but I will defend your right to say it.” It is concerning that in universities where it once was thought that the best answer for a bad argument was a better argument, we now seem to think the best answer for an argument we don’t like is to suppress it–disinvite the speaker, get the administrator or faculty to resign, shout down the opposition.

What I want to explore is an understanding of responsible free speech. Short of slander and liable, our free speech protections have been sweeping, and on the whole, the best protection our democracy has against tyranny. We protect a lot of irresponsible speech–speech that hurts, belittles, polarizes, and stirs hatreds. Some of the efforts toward “safe speech” are intended to address these irresponsible excesses. I actually think that efforts that bar such speech are misbegotten at best and tyrannous at worst. I’d like to propose something different.

I would propose that the ethic that follows from believing in free speech is a commitment to the speech of freedom. What do I mean by that? It is that we practice a kind of golden rule in our speaking. I ask, does my speech afford the dignity, and seek the freedom and flourishing of those I am speaking about or with, particularly those with whom I disagree? Do I want for them what I want for me?

Notice that this is not a proposal that suppresses disagreement or even vigorous argument. Rather, I would suggest that it creates the necessary foundation for such argument. I always find myself more willing to engage with, and more hopeful of a meeting of the minds with those who assume the best about me and want the best for me even if they disagree with my way of thinking.

I’ve often mentioned  Martin Luther King, Jr. in these columns. Though hardly perfect, I believe he practiced the speech of freedom. He contended for justice for his people, but said this could not be done with hatred in one’s heart. The aim was not an isolated safe space, but a “beloved community” that had room for the transgressors, as well as the aggrieved.

I think this kind of speech reveals the deep wellsprings of who we are. I would suggest that the test of our hearts is do we love the neighbor with whom we most deeply disagree? This kind of speech calls out what is noblest in us, the “better angels of our nature.”

I do not think we can wait until others practice the speech of freedom to begin to practice this in our lives. And I wonder, in our deeply divided society, if we can afford to wait? Do we want to settle for safe speech, or speech that is free at the expense of others, when we can forge a bond across our deepest differences in pursuing the speech of freedom?