Why white people shouldn't use the n-word, as explained by writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. pic.twitter.com/T4uYZH7O5V
— AJ+ (@ajplus) November 14, 2017
I love this video clip of Ta Nehisi Coates explaining why white people should not use the N word. Coates is the finest journalist working today and if you haven’t watched this clip, take a minute to do so.
It reminded me of an experience I had back in the nineties when I was a twenty-six year old music video producer. I was up in the South Bronx shooting a video for a new rap act called Pearl. As was typical for these low budget videos, the rap act had brought along a few dozen of their friends to be in the video. One of these friends, a young black man about my age, approached me during a lull in the shoot. He gestured to a pair of grips who were laying some dolly track and asked: “How do you get a job like that, you know, setting up and stuff?”
I told him those young men were grips and that if he wanted to work as a grip it was actually pretty straightforward. He just had to call around to some production companies in the city and tell them he wanted to work. I told him I’d gladly give him a list of phone numbers. He’d have to start out as a production assistant, or maybe even an unpaid intern for a few weeks to get his foot in the door. But basically the world of low budget indie film production was wide open to anyone who was willing to show up and work hard.
The young man looked at me like I’d just told him a strange and unbelievable tale. And it took me a long time and some conversations with other people of color to understand why.
When I decided I wanted to work in the film business, I did exactly what I described to that young man. And it worked. I started as an unpaid intern, graduated to production assistant and within a year I was producing music videos and commercials. I think it probably would have worked for that young man too. But here’s the difference: I grew up believing I had every right to march into a production office with my very sparse resume, ask for a job as a production assistant, and be taken seriously. I was (and am) white, middle class, and college educated. I grew up assuming I had the right to pursue any job I wanted. He did not. The world was my oyster. It was not his. The gulf between him and me, between him and those grips, was huge. And it was perceptual. Never mind the structural barriers that keep people of color out of the work force, which are real and rigid and rooted in history. The enduring legacy of those barriers is the internalized sense that some things are off limits to some people. Like that young man in the South Bronx.
And if you don’t know what that feels like, consider yourself lucky.