“It’s really tough to think about yourself in color terms even though people of color have to think about this every day.”
That’s Tyrone Beason, a staff writer for the Seattle Times Pacific Northwest Magazine. As an African American growing up rural Bowling Green, Kentucky ("You may know it as the site of that terrorist massacre the Trump people kept mentioning that never happened," he jokes), he thought a lot about race and the role it played in the lives of his family and friends.
As a teenager in the 1980s, he searched for understanding as he read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice” and “Black Like Me,” the story of John Howard Griffin, a white man who colored his skin to understand what it was like to live as a black man in America.
Griffin’s book in particular would have a profound effect on Beason, who developed a great appreciation for the author’s willingness to physically change his skin color and walk in another person’s shoes. It would sick with him as he grappled with understanding the nuances of race in America and as he entered the predominately white world of print journalism.
Fast forward to 2016, a time of heightened racial tensions between police and communities of color and an unpredictable presidential campaign where a leading candidate maligned ethnic groups and women. Beason had some things to say, and he did so, in a personal essay titled Black Like Me: It’s time for a deeper conversation about race in America.
Beason and I talked about his decision to take on the issue of race and what he hoped to achieve for a KCTS 9 podcast. The following is an edited version of our conversation. You can hear the full podcast interview in the embedded player below.
Q. Why did you decide that you needed to write this piece?
A. As we approached the presidential election, and every week there was another video of a police-involved shooting involving an African-American suspect of one sort or another, I was already feeling like we weren’t talking about what was going on with that. And I was wondering, as a journalist, what kinds of questions can I ask of white people, actually? Is there something different we can say?
So there was a lot going on with me as a journalist and grappling with my own role and using the power that I have as a writer to get people to open up in a way that maybe they weren’t willing or able to do before. And I admit that I also had to open up and think differently about race.
And then we had the election, and … I looked at that electoral map and I saw all those red states there, and some of them are from the region where I was born and raised. … Kentucky born, country boy. It wasn’t a feeling of hostility, it was more like, oh, that’s what we are. When I saw that result, for me it’s like, we really do need to have a different conversation about race and talk about the things that drive our decisions in life, whether it’s where we choose to work, who we choose to hire, which candidates to follow, which ones we wind up voting for — everything is kind of on the table.
I think decisions that are made in a civic space reveal a little bit about our character as a society. And I wanted to get at that as best I could by using race, and … this divide, this sort of eternal romance, almost, between black and white people in this country, because we know each other so well and yet we know each other very little.
Q. You start this piece with that conversation with your father, and it has this sense of hope and change — you know, Obama’s little slogans — and then it changes [with Trump’s election].
A. Yeah, I mean, it wasn’t just a change in leadership and a passing of the baton. It felt like we did some sort of a leapfrog into the Obama years and then we got freaked out and went back to something else.
People like my dad and the generation before him, they know an America that I think a lot of us don’t want to talk about. I mean, in other conversations, he told me about using ‘colored’ water fountains, for example, and having to go to the back of a restaurant to order your food because there were no tables and you couldn’t get served if you were black in the front anyways. I went to the downtown area of my hometown with my grandma and we sat at the counter at the Wilbur’s and I had my grape soda and hamburger and that kind of thing — the same setting that she would not have been able to use in her childhood.
And so these ideas were exploding in my mind — the shift that happened with them and this fear that something was happening in the country right now, where we’d either forgotten where we’d come from or we were perhaps unwilling to explore how remnants of the past can return in the form of leadership or a change in the opinions and the ideas of a society in general.
Q. If you think about some of the things that you said, where your father was, it wasn’t that long ago.
A. It wasn’t, you know. I mentioned that we were connected by the arc of history in that story. … We are both historical figures in our own way. He grew up in the Jim Crow South and it transitioned in his formative years. I grew up in an integrated world, was bused across town to an elementary school and high school and that kind of thing. … But it didn’t take very long for his world to change and for mine to begin.
And it didn’t take very long for him to [go from feeling] very hopeful that the country could even have a black president to wondering how that president could then be followed by someone who did use a lot of racially-charged rhetoric in his campaign. I’m not in a position to say what’s in anyone’s hearts, but … life experience does affect how you see events such as elections, how you see events such as the shooting of a black person in the middle of the street, and you have to kind of go there in your own head. I want us to go there with each other, to trust each other enough to talk about what’s spinning around inside that we don’t articulate.
Q. In the article, you write about a group of burlesque performers. Tell me about why you wanted to do that.
A. I’ve written so many stories about race and identity and all of its forms as a reporter at the Seattle Times and I was just frustrated with the formula, you know: Minorities telling their stories and white people, because you know, Seattle is majority white, reading those and feeling very good that people are sharing a little bit of their lives. But we needed to mix it up a little bit.
So as I tend to do, I got inspired by a flyer on a light post on Capitol Hill that said, Dear White People, and this burlesque comedy performance about race and identity. … I love the idea of burlesque as a metaphor for talking about race because often we walk around with guises in order to get along with people that we don’t know in the workplace, in life. I’ve done it myself. We try to sort of erase a little bit of ourselves so we’re not offensive or we don’t stand out, especially if you’re a person of color in a city that’s majority white. And I’ll just speak for myself, I’m always going into rooms where I’m the only person of color, so I want to be less obvious.
Q. I’m with you. I’ve been there too.
A. I don’t want to make waves, you know? It’s exhausting to make waves in this way. To be noticed all the time because you’re an outlier. And so, these folks were just going there and talking about their skin and what’s within them in terms of ethnicity, sexual identity, gender, and it was really profound. … The act of stripping down the outer layers, the clothing, and showing what’s on the surface of the skin, and through the performances themselves giving you a sense of what’s going on in the soul and in the heart, I just thought, this is a great way for me to talk about race because I think we have to do this with each other and society. …
It’s you in the most unguarded way you can present yourself in the world, to an audience of strangers who might judge you, who might not get it, who might walk out of the room — you don’t know. And it’s taking a chance. I think that it’s an act of good faith for those performers to do that in front of a live audience and I think it’s also an act of faith for us to go and see the show and listen with an open heart and watch what they’re doing and really try to get it.
Q. One other person that you feature in the article is Robin DiAngelo, who is a diversity trainer and an author, but she also has become quite well-known because she coined this term, “white fragility.” She is a white woman, and basically she’s calling out her own folks.
A. Well, somebody’s gotta do it. I’m tired of it (laughs). You know, this is the thing. I didn’t want to write another story about race where it’s a black journalist talking about the need to talk and we don’t have any white people talking about the need to talk. The fact of the matter is, we live in a very white city and region — and for the time being country, although that is obviously changing and I think that demographic change might be part of the angst that we see manifested in election results. … In any case, we need people like Dr. DiAngelo to talk about what it is like to be white in this country right now, and what that has meant over centuries.
What she knows, and what I think I know from my years about writing about this, … is that it’s very hard for white people to talk about race in any way. And what she told me [is that] white fragility is like a defense mechanism. We kind of move to the back of the room, white people, she said, when these conversations come up because we don’t want to be implicated in it. There’s a sense, I think, just from my interview with her, that white people fear that they’ll be scuffed up … if they engage in this. They might feel complicit somehow or neglectful when it comes to discussing race, and of course that feels bad. People don’t want to be scolded and lectured and told that their entire being makes someone else’s life miserable.
Q. I read that in some of the comments, by the way (laughs).
A. Yes. And it’s a real thing, right? I was really moved by that. … It’s hard for me to hear that someone doesn’t want to talk because they’re afraid that they might have to take responsibility. Because the way I see it, people of color are always taking responsibility for race and racism and oppression, and putting themselves on the line in front of audiences often that are all white and hoping that they’re going to understand and not run out of the room and say, well these people are just complaining, they’ll never get over it. Let history lie in the past.
It’s an act of courage, I think, for anyone to talk about this issue. And white people have to come up to the table and share with us and we have to listen and understand everything that’s going on underneath their skin as well. It’s difficult, it’s painful, there are a lot of ugly moments in America’s history that people don’t want to dredge up and discuss. But that’s my life. … I can’t walk out of the room, because I’m still going to be a black person who’s attached to this arc of history that I mentioned in the piece, but so are white people. I wouldn’t have the black experience that I’ve had, nor would my father or my mother or the people who came before him, without the participation of white people.
Q. That goes to our founding fathers.
A. That goes all the way back and before that. And I carry that around with me all the time just because of the color of my skin. And, sure, it doesn’t affect every decision that I make, and it doesn’t dominate my consciousness every moment of every day, but it’s a lot. And when I walk out of my home every day, it’s with me, and it’s with white people too, whether it’s acknowledged or not. And so our conversation was really about that, having the courage to just acknowledge what is so real and obvious about us. …
Why don’t we just talk about that and come out of it stronger and having grown a little bit? We’re not going to love each other at the end of these conversations, perhaps. That may take years for us to really know each other that way. But I said this to a friend recently: You know, asking someone to talk about race is like asking someone to marry you. It’s a request for the ultimate good faith in understanding and knowing, it’s a building of a relationship that will take years to really come to fruition, but it’s gotta start somewhere. And with marriage it’s with a ring on a finger, but for me it’s, what is your story, and can I tell you mine? And let’s go from there.