“I think if we don’t fix the institutions people can apologize all they want, but the problem will remain. And so that’s why antiracism is important, but so is thinking about how antiracism can be a structural change in addition to making people individually more aware of the problem.”
Jonathan M. Metzl is the Frederick B. Rentschler II professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University and director of its Center for Medicine, Health, and Society. He is the author of several books and a prominent expert on gun violence and mental illness. He hails from Kansas City, Missouri, and lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
Kim Crayton: Hello, everyone and welcome to today’s episode of the #CauseAScene podcast. I have been trying to get this one guest on the show since his book launched early last year, in 2019—so that tells you how freakin’ persistent I am, and also how things come around. These topics are so important that it’s just a matter of time, and I want to just stress, the time will come and it is the perfect time to have this show, before we all get together, one thousand of you, get together with me on Saturday for the “Intro to How to be an Antiracist” event.
So, I would like to introduce Jonathan Metzl, pronouns he/him. Jonathan, would you please introduce yourself to the audience?
Dr Jonathan Metzl: Sure. Well, first let me say how glad I am to be here, I’m glad we made this work. But I’m the director of the Department for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt and I’m a professor, as you said, I’m a sociologist and psychiatrist.
Kim: And tell them the name of this book.
Dr Metzl: So I wrote a book called “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland”.
Kim: OK, so we’re gonna jump right into this, ’cause I really want Jonathan to break some stuff down for you white folx. And that’s why I’ve been wanting him to get on here so badly because, you know, I really don’t give a shit about your opinions, unless you come from a place of scholarship and know what you’re talking about, because we have all been designed, and indoctrinated into this system that says that only white men have value and everybody else doesn’t.
And what Jonathan, I hope, will get you to understand is that this system of white supremacy is fundamentally impacting white people as well. It’s not just a brown and Black issue. And so I start this show every time with two questions; how are you causing a scene? No, why is it important—you can see I’m excited about this! [Dr Metzl laughs] Let’s get into this. So—let’s jump in. Why is it important to cause a scene, Jonathan, and how are you specifically causing a scene?
Dr Metzl: Well, I think you summarized my argument pretty well there, in that I think it’s so important for white people to speak out against against structural racism, against the system that they created and are a part of. And so part of what I’ve done in all my research is to say basically, that racism shouldn’t just be a conversation among any one community. Racism is a relational concept that was really created in relation to whiteness, right? Racism tells you about white anxiety, what you see in society is you see the effects of racism. But racism itself really is a reflection of the anxieties and values of whiteness.
And certainly that was the work that came out in the book “Dying of Whiteness” is to say, ‘Hey, look, this system isn’t working for anyone, including the people who it’s supposed to benefit.’ And so I personally feel like I caused a beginning of a scene with this book because the book came out and basically the argument in the book was just to show people in red states how much on one hand, they were oppressing other people with the system. But also they were trading off months and years of their life, and quality of life in all these factors, to create this oppressive system.
So, you know, since you and I—we hung out at the at the book lots, right, a long time ago. And since then I’ve been engaged with Neo-Nazis and with the right wingers and stuff like that, and honestly, I don’t mind having those conversations but I basically say like, “Is this is this idiotic system worth trading years of your life for?” And then also, if you look at other systems that are not so hierarchical, they’re more horizontal, people do better, everyone does better.
And so part of this is I just really feel like I understand right now why it’s so important, the conversation we’re having. But if this is just a conversation being driven by minoritized people and not also by white people admitting their role in this, then I think the conversation is not as powerful, right? And so part of the issue is trying to get more more white people to talk out about this system and its pathology.
Kim: Phew! OK, so thank you, thank you, thank you for continuing to call it a system, a system of whiteness. It’s a system, people, it’s a system. And this is why—it’s so funny how I used Blackness as the only parallel that I have to whiteness. Even though Blackness is considered groups, white folx have a problem with whiteness because they’re used to being individuals, so they don’t like to be in that group. But that’s the only way I can see finding some balance in this, even though we’re not talking about balance related to power and privilege, but just having a more balanced—and I need to be careful about this when I say this because when I say “balanced”, I still mean prioritizing the most vulnerable—but a balanced conversation. So yes, you—I remember I was watching AM Joy and you were on the show and you mentioned your book, and I immediately put it on my wish list, and you bought the book for me.
Dr Metzl: I remember that. I remember that.
Kim: You purchased it, yeah, you purchased it for—’cause I was like, “Who’s buying this book? I’m watching this show, who’s buying this book?”, and you’re like, “I will.” And—when was that, that was a year ago?
Dr Metzl: Yeah, about a year ago. Yeah, I forgot about that. That’s awesome.
Kim: Yeah. And so I figured, you know, and I’ve asked several times, and I understand, particularly when people have books coming out, that they’re on the go. And so I was just like, “OK, I’ll send a message every two or three months and say, [both laugh] hey, is this a good time to talk?” And what prompted this one was, the video that I did saying we should stop recommending “White Fragility” at this time. “White Fragility” is strictly a book about whites that belongs deeply in the white studies. I do not think it’s advantageous, and I actually believe it’s harmful because I’ve seen how, just in our community, how the language of an academic term—this is the difference between when something is theory and something is practice, and how does it look differently in the world?
I’ve seen the harm that people can cause when everything is “White Fragility”. I’ve seen it, it discounts any experiences that any marginalized person has, because now it feeds into the narrative of “whiteness can only be hero or victim and never villain”. And I appreciate your scholarship because it’s rooted in history. And this is the big problem that I’m seeing, and this is why I’m sending everybody to, instead of reading “White Fragility”, to listen to “Seeing White” podcasts because it’s such a great historical perspective.
Because we’re so ignorant, as you were saying in the beginning, this is by design; these systems, this lack of education was a design. It was designed so that whiteness as a system wouldn’t be questioned. So not only whiteness as a system wouldn’t be questioned, it would be defended. It would be actively defended as the righteous path, as the righteous thing.
And so I’m gonna be quiet cause I really want you to break this down ’cause my audience is white people. That is who I talk to. And having a scholar on who’s studied this, I want you to tell me some hist[ory]—how did you get to this place? And give me some real stories. People need to hear concrete examples of how whiteness is harming white people. So, I’m gonna mute myself and I’m gonna let you go.
Dr Metzl: Don’t mute yourself, let’s have a conversation. You know, I think that on one hand, you know, it’s great that all this antiracist work is happening now. So, Robin’s book and Ibram’s amazing work, and so the fact that we’re having a conversation, and I think what’s important about that, before I tell you how I differ, is just that a lot of people haven’t really, believe it or not, thought about this stuff before. And so I think it is useful to give people language and the language about antiracism is “how am I complicit?” In other words, “how was I living in an apartheid system, and what was wrong with me that I didn’t see that?” Right?
And so partially I think that that literature is important. But I’m a structuralist, right? In other words, I’m saying that whiteness is not just about what’s happening in white people’s minds, right? That’s important, and it’s important to recognize, but it’s also reinforced by laws, by zoning, by school boards, by redlining by, you know, where you put a grocery store, and where you put a bodega, all these kind of things.
And so, in a way, for me, it’s kind of like, you could have the most woke white people in the world and if there still are these structural issues that are at play, and those structural issues impact language, they impact understanding, they surround us in ways that we just don’t see. And it’s not just about attitudes.
And I’ll give you one example that’s kind of counterintuitive, from a paper I’m working on right now, which is I’m doing a paper on mass shootings, right, horrible tragedies in our country. And what I’m finding is that when the mass shooter is white, it’s a moment of trauma, it’s horrible, it’s murder. But society always says, “This is mental illness, in the white mass shooter. This person has some mental illness, we need to get them to a psychiatrist.”
And the notion is basically, as you were saying, that it’s all about the individual mind, right? But when it’s a quote-unquote “gang shooting” or something, all these terms we use for Black-victim mass shootings, all of a sudden the problem is “it’s culture, it’s society” and things like that.
I didn’t even realize that until I started going through three years of media reports about mass shootings, and I realized, like, wait a minute, one of these is is being coded as an individual act and—you know, they all suck, right? People die in all mass shootings—but one is basically saying, “Here’s a disorder—here’s an act created by a criminal individual because of their disordered mind”, and the other rhetoric is saying, basically, “There’s something wrong with culture” or, “If you live in an urban area, that’s what you deserve,” all these kind of things; “It’s a societal problem.” Even the language used about these bigger issues reinforces this idea of kind of white individualism versus Black culture.
Kim: And also, I would like to add on to that, when we infantize whiteness, white men can be called boys until they’re damn near dead—
Dr Metzl: We have one as president.
Kim: Well, no, see, that’s—let’s talk about that, because you adultify Black folx, boys starting at 10 and girls starting at five. The thing is, he’s not a infant. And we need to stop saying it. This is a grown ass, old ass man, making very conscious decisions. And so when we say, “He’s a baby,” when we say, “He’s throwing a temper tantrum,” all those things infantize him, makes him not responsible for his individual behaviors. And that is problematic because Black folx don’t get the same the same treatment.
And this is where—and it’s in my own community—and this is why I talk about Black people really need to reconcile, and come to grips with our own internalized white supremacy and anti Blackness, because we have been bathed in this system of white supremacy. And it could only happen for us to be complicit in this system when we have been taught—you know, our communities, Ican hear, I know family members who will still to this day say derogatory things because they understand that their role, even if they’re not conscious of it, is to assimilate. And, anything that’s not assimilation is bad.
And if you look at the opioid epidemic, same thing. When crack was the thing, it was the community was Blacks, it was our problem. When opioids became a problem, we didn’t get into the opioid—there’s so much systemic shit going on with the opioids, because we weren’t initially impacted in our communities because Black people are never believed about pain. So we were never prescribed opioids like that; “We have thicker skin, we can take more pain”. So we were never prescribed those things.
But as soon as it became a white issue, you have the president talking about it—and that includes Obama, all these people talking about it as if it’s a, now it’s a health issue. It’s a public health issue. When it was Black people dealing with crack, it was a criminal issue. And as our criminal justice system shows, it is filled with people who, if for no other reason than the color of their skin, it would be a public health issue.
Dr Metzl: And that’s exactly, it’s actually a perfect example of what I’m talking about, right? Because I think everybody would agree there is a huge problem with opiate addiction, right? Rural white communities are really, really suffering, and actually, there’s great work by economists that show that because of opiates and other factors, white life expectancy in parts of the country is going down. So it’s not like it’s a problem, it’s actually a huge problem.
But the reason that it’s hard for white communities to address the opioid epidemic doesn’t really have to do with whiteness or Blackness per se. It’s because they live in states where they voted in politicians who have completely de-funded the addiction treatments system, the health care system, no Medicaid expansion, and there are profoundly racial, and racist, reasons why those politicians get elected, ’cause they’re saying, “Our policies aren’t going to give money to undeserving immigrants and minorities”.
But it turns out it boomerangs, and then, and really it’s part of the fuel on the fire of the opiate addiction epidemic, which then influences white communities. And so the point is, we’re all related. We should better build structures that help everybody and see it that way. Because the minute we start thinking, “We’re gonna build a structure that hurts you that helps me,” that’s when that structure is not gonna work for anybody. And so that’s one of the examples I actually talk about in the book.
Kim: Can you give me an example of what it’s like—’cause I stay in my bubble, I really like my echo chamber, because as a Black woman, I just cannot, I refuse to have a conversation with anybody who wants to deny my humanity—but could you tell me what is like to have a conversation with a neo-Nazi or anybody who’s challenging you on this? Who has really extreme—because another thing, I don’t believe, my job is not to convince or convert. I’m here to assist people who understand at some point that something is wrong, even if they can’t articulate it. I did see a video where you’re at a bookstore and people came in and I was like, “Oh wow, that was that was kind of intense”. So how do you handle—I don’t even know what those conversations are like. What are those conversations like?
Dr Metzl: Well, let me make two points. The first point is actually counterintuitive, right? Which is, not everybody I spoke to in interview—I did five years of research in the book, right—and not everybody I interviewed was some flaming racist or neo-Nazi. In fact, most people weren’t, right?
And so part of the argument I make in the book is that—I mean, definitely, of course, that the press around the book and the readers and me, probably, like the stories that got publicized were the really, really crazy things I heard, right? But 85% of people I spoke with were just trying to live their life, and it turned out the racism for them wasn’t about their individual attitudes, it was that they lived in a state where they voted for politicians who cut Medicaid expansion, again for racist reasons—
Kim: But Imma challenge you on that, because then why did they vote for these individuals if they’re—?
Dr Metzl: Right. And some people, again some people, also didn’t vote for these people. So my point is that the racism ultimately wasn’t about whether or not one person was racist. The racism was if they lived in a city or state that voted in policies that punished people basically on racial terms. So some people I interviewed were white people who voted for Hillary Clinton, and they hated what was happening. But they also lived in states that refused to allow the Affordable Care Act, as one example, and stuff like that. So ultimately, it was the system that had negative effects. Now of course, the system is built by individuals.
Now I will say that some of the individual stories—I mean, one story that jumps out at me was I was doing interviews about the Affordable Care Act, and I was interviewing very, very medically ill white men who really would have benefited—this is in Tennessee, and in other places in the South where they didn’t expand the Medicaid, they didn’t create the competitive insurance marketplaces—and I said like, “Hey, you guys are dying because you don’t have healthcare. Why don’t you get down with the Affordable Care Act? What’s your reason?”
And I would say a number of people told me things like, one man told me, “There’s no way I’m supporting a system that would benefit,” as he said, “Mexicans and welfare queens,”—like total racist stereotypes. And so, even though he would have benefited—and his guy, ultimately over the three years of interviews, he passed away because he didn’t have medical care—so he was literally willing to die rather than sign up for a program that he thought was gonna benefit immigrants.
But I also want to make clear that the other half of the people that I interviewed didn’t say crazy stuff, and I don’t know what was going on in their minds or their hearts, I don’t know what their feelings were, but they were also racist whether or not their individual attitudes were in support of that because they lived in a state that tried to penalize Black people by not expanding Medicaid. I mean, that’s about as clearly as I can put it.
So really, it was this bigger issue and part of the reason I’m making that point is because we live in this world where the sensational stories get the air time right now, right? It’s all about you know, the one crazy Trump supporter who does this crazy thing, then it goes viral on Twitter and all those things. And that’s important because they come to stand in for things.
But really, part of what I saw in my research was not just crazy people saying racist things—which I’ll tell you in a minute I mean, it was pretty intense to talk to people about that—but it was also that there was this bigger system that was more important, I thought, than whether or not one individual person was racist, because ultimately, a lot of people were dying because the system was not expanding healthcare. It was cutting education, it was letting guns go everywhere, it was doing away with addiction centers, all these things. And so in a way, it’s always gotta—for me, at least, it’s not just about being woke or apologizing. It’s actually looking at these systems.
And I also say, you might be able to hear, I take my real inspiration from people like Stokely Carmichael, right, who basically used to say, “I don’t care about the individual,I care about the racism that’s in the zoning board, in the school, in the redlining,” all those kind of things, that in a way, it’s in part about the institution. And part of the reason I’m saying that in line with what we’re talking about is I think if we don’t fix the institutions, people can apologize all they want, but the problem will remain. And so that’s why antiracism is important. But so is thinking about how antiracism can be a structural change in addition to making people individually more aware of the problem.
Dr Metzl: …in addition to making people individually more aware of the problem.
Kim: And so the reason I asked about the extreme is because again, like I said, I never come in contact with them, so anybody having a conversation with them about this, I really would like to hear what languaging are you using just to have that conversation? And yes, this is—I totally agree. OK, this is why my default is, “All whiteness is racist by design, and can’t be trusted by default, without consistent antiracist behavior.” That’s one. That gives me a baseline, so that when I say “whiteness”, I’m talking about the system.
I don’t wanna talk about individuals ’cause talking about individuals gets me—unless there’s an individual that’s doing something specific that I need to address—we’re talking about systems. If we don’t—it’s the same thing in our workplaces—if we don’t deal with the policies, procedures and processes that are in place that are actively harming, we do absolutely nothing. Apologizing means nothing ’cause it’s gonna happen again in some shape or form, because you’ve not removed, or repaired, or fixed the policies, the things that are actually enabling the discrimination or whatever happening.
And also just from somebody who has talked to—just trying to understand—I understand it on an intellectual level, but I need the audience to understand about how individual white people—and based on my definition, all whiteness is racist by design—actively, consciously make decisions—now, this is not all, ’cause I don’t do all—but actively, consciously make decisions that will negatively impact them in order to preserve a system.
And I say that because we see it time and time again with white feminism. There’s a, it just came out about—so the CEO of CrossFit last week had his racist tirade, you know, did his little thing. He apologized, which you know, is like, uh-huh, right on cue. And then it comes out this weekend that it was a sexist environment. And this is what happens and it talks about what you just said.
If white women had prioritized all women’s equity during suffrage and every other moment since then, and not made it about just white women, white women wouldn’t be dealing with the same sexist bullshit that they’re dealing with, because all “ism”s are rooted in this mess [laughs]. And had they brought in, and allowed to rise, their voices and supported women who are more vulnerable than them, we would be having a totally different conversation 100 years hence.
Dr Metzl: You know, that’s the great argument and, for example, “Hood Feminism” right now, this great book that I’m reading, and I think it’s a powerful point because it ties into so many examples of that.
You could also think, I mean beyond feminism, which I think is a great point, I encourage everybody read this book, it’s a remarkable book. But Du Bois wrote this book called “Black Reconstruction”, and the whole idea was, “OK, we’ve just fought this idiotic civil war. We killed a million people or more, and it was over this idea that we should now move beyond that one race is more superior than the other. Obviously that’s just going to lead us into this horrible place.”
And so after the Civil War, there were two groups of people who were really getting treated like shit. There were poor white people who were not landowners, they didn’t own anything. They were in the South, they didn’t really have any rights, they didn’t have any privileges. They were incumbent, they were kind of beholden to these white elites.
And there were newly freed slaves who, of course, didn’t have any land, they didn’t have any wages. And they were very disenfranchised also. And the point was, wouldn’t it be awesome if the poor white communities and the poor Black communities got together, because then they could change the labor force almost overnight, that they could extract all of these concessions from capital, from northern corporations. They needed people to do the work, right?
And so if they got together, they could really form a powerful force. And why didn’t they do that? It was not just because of racism, but what Du Bois calls the wage of whiteness, right? This idea that being white means something and to advocate for that is in effect to advocate in this sense against your self interest. Because the minute white people started saying, “Yeah I’m white, I’m better than those people,” it cut off their bargaining power and they’ve been screwed for the last, you know, [hollow laugh]150 years or whatever.
Kim: And this is the same argument I have with white-presenting Jews. This is the same argument I have with white transgender women. I’ve not heard it—and I’m saying women ’cause I’ve not heard it from in the white transgender men community, I don’t have many connections there—but every time that anybody who can find an opportunity to leverage whiteness for their benefit in the long run, it harms them.
Dr Metzl: It’s funny, you know, because—so my dad’s a Holocaust survivor, right? Our family came to the US. Our entire family was exterminated pretty much in the Holocaust, we lost 80 family, no—85, my dad and his parents escaped. We came to the US, they came to the US in the ’50s, right? And so I think for people in our community, like, on one hand it’s been too easy to make this argument, which is true, right? Our family technically didn’t obviously own slaves, we weren’t part of Jim Crow, all these kind of things. But also, and there’s this book about “How did Jews become white?”, right?
Kim: Yeah, I got that. [laughs]
Dr Metzl: But, you know, I grew up in Missouri with tons of antisemitism, but at the same time, I don’t think that gets me off the hook, right, because—
Kim: No, to me, you’re a white dude. I don’t see Jewish, because no one ask me what kind of Black I am, so I don’t ask white people what kind of white you are. I go by what you look like. [laughs]
Dr Metzl: And again, that’s my point, right? And in a way, there are divisions in everything, right? I mean, like, Hutus and Tutsis are both Black. And all kind of things, like—but I would say that the minute you’re white in America and you’re walking down the street, you’re white. I mean, that’s kind of—so for me, I think white identifying Jews—because that’s me, I’m gonna stand up for us, right?—I feel like non-white identifying Jews, that’s where I go crazy, ’cause I’m like, “It doesn’t matter. You walk down the street.” So maybe there’s a historical difference. I mean, we could talk about that, too.
Kim: But no one’s asking. No one’s stopping you to question you about your “historical difference”, and that’s the caveat that white-passing Jews miss, as well as their behavior causes harms to Black and brown Jews because they get erased. And so with the event that I have coming up this weekend, there have been people who have reached out from communities—’cause I said it was just for white people, but they reached out from people from South Asian communities who get the benefit of the doubt more than any Black person in the United States.
Anybody who is fundamentally leveraging white supremacy or whiteness to their benefit are reaching out and saying, “Hey, is this for me?” Hell, yeah it’s for you! It’s for you because I need you to understand, just like you said, it doesn’t—this is where the angst in my community comes from.
And since I have a white male Jew on here, I’m gonna have this conversation [Dr. Metzl laughs]. Because this is where the pull, the tension comes in my community. So. And we’re just gonna have a real conversation, so—
Dr Metzl: I’d like that.
Kim: Yeah, so we saw this with the Women’s March—there was solidarity until there was an occasion where one of the organizers has a relationship with Louis Farrakhan.
Let me explain something to you, to people, about what Louis Farrakhan means to my community. There have always been people in our community who we—what they say, “handle with a long spoon.” You know, it’s like, “OK, he’s over there but I ain’t got to be around, you know, I ain’t got to deal with that.” Because we’ve always had to—again, ’cause I want to talk about the difference between just groups and individuals.
Black people have survived because we’re community, and whiteness is about individuals. So those are the differences. So Farrakhan definitely has said some very antisemitic shit. People can admit that. What we will not do, though, is throw him away, and his message away, when he talks about how Blacks are treated in this country. And how his, like, Nation of Islam, I could never—I don’t… there are some very misogynistic, patriarchal things about most religions, particularly that’re led by Black men. That’s just what that is. That’s trauma in my community. That’s a whole nother conversation for us to have. Not for white folx to stick their finger in and tell us what we supposed to be doin’. That right there pisses us the fuck off. [Dr Metzl laughs]
That right there makes us double down, because when all these—and this is just me being real, and this is where there are people who will not listen to me because they say I’m a antisemite—you need to stop throwing that shit around when people challenge you. That is harmful as hell because when white folx, Jewish people who could benefit from whiteness, when our communities were being ravaged, Farrakhan was there.
So you hard pressed to get—I’m an intellectual. I see that shit. But if that’s in your community and that’s the person whose feeding you during a pandemic or whatever it is, you’re not going to throw that away. And for white people to come in, I don’t care white by Anglican or whatever, to come in and dictate how we are to commune with members of our community is stepping over the fuckin’ line.
And I had a problem with this when Obama had to disavow his minister. Look what y’all got now. [Dr Metzl laughs] You may such as think about that without understanding the historical context of what his minister was talking about. You made that such a big deal. Obama’s an assimilist. I don’t see him as an antiracist. He’s a person who believes that assimilation will help us all.
He said it with your pants hanging down and all kinds of stuff, to me again, that’s a whole ‘nother internalized white supremacy anti-Blackness we have to deal with as a Black community.
But what we will not have is for white folx to come in and dictate to us what keeps us safe. What we need to be following. Who we need to listen to. And this is why you get people—Robin DiAngelo is the number one book, a white studies book is number one when people are talking about anti-Blackness, that is the problem. People do not understand—whiteness lives in binaries.
We don’t survive in the binaries. We survive in shades of gray. We all got a uncle or aunt who it’s just like, “Shut the fuck up and put her in the corner somewhere”. [Dr Metzl laughs] But when it comes to somebody attacking that aunt or uncle, oh hell, no, you ain’t gonna do this. This is why we don’t understand—we are sittin’ back freakin amazed at how white people are talkin’ about sacrificing Mama and Paw Paw for pandemic so they can get back to work. Black people is lookin’ at y’all like, “What the hell is wrong wit y’all?”
Dr Metzl: [laughs] I mean, let me say a couple things, because I think that that’s about as good of a articulation of this as I probably ever heard. So I’m gonna tell you a few random things. Number one, of course, is that, of course, Nation of Islam also has a history, right? It wasn’t just here recently, right? Nation of Islam, going back to its role in helping people during the Detroit riots, and during the—I mean, there’s a whole history there that is similar to other groups, right?
I mean, that’s why, for example—so it’s easy to stereotype what those groups do, and that’s not just a question here, for example, Hezbollah in the Middle East. It’s like, yeah, they do terrorism, but they also they build hospitals. They give people blankets, they give people food and stuff like that. So in a way, you’re oversimplifying when you just say, “Oh, here is this one thing.”
I will say before we get back to the other stuff, the question of Jewishness for me—I really don’t even talk about this that much—is kind of complicated, right? ‘Cause I can tell you honestly that I couldn’t do the work I do if I didn’t grow up the way I did. In other words, I do feel like—not that it’s in any way comparable or not that it gets me off the hook of privilege or benefit—but I also grew up in a family that my dad’s grandparents were murdered, and all of his aunts and uncles. And so I’ve grown up seeing what happens when the state turns on you.
When we grew up my dad was always like, “Pack a night—two weeks of toilet paper and toiletries in a bag under your bed just a case the Nazis come back or something like that.” So we grew up kind of recognizing what happens when you feel like you’re part of state, then it turns on you.
And then where I grew up, I grew up in Missouri, and we were the Jews in our neighborhood, right? And so none of the other kids would play with us. The neighbors actually built a fence around our property so that it would block the other kids from playing with us. So all of our friends, actually, were not like—when were growing up no other white kids would play with us.
Kim: Exactly. Exactly. [Laughs]
Dr Metzl: And so part of what I’ve thought about for myself at least is, it kind of made me think that I was definitely not white on my block, right? Nobody would think that I was white on my block, I was Jewish. And then the minute I left my block, I was white ’cause I looked like every other white person. And so in a way, it kind of speaks for me to the relationality of all of all this stuff that I—
Kim: The transient nature of whiteness.
Dr Metzl: Yeah. Exactly, exactly. And also that I just do think that people who have suffered historical trauma understand a little bit more what’s happening right now.
Kim: And this is what gets me, though. Can we stop trying to compare pain, right?
Dr Metzl: Right, exactly.
Kim: Can we stop saying, trying to make the Holocaust or slavery, but they both are—we both have a legacy of trauma, and use that shared legacy to move forward instead of tryna—
Dr Metzl: Another thing is I do think that Jews kind of bought the whiteness narrative a little bit too much, you know? And so that was part—
Kim: Imma let you say that ’cause Imma tell you the most racist, most damaging racial experience I had, and I don’t share this often, was when I just got my master’s degree in training and development, and I was living in Chicago and I was doing work in out-of-school time with students, and that’s after school programs, summer camps and that kind of thing, and I was taking a training at the Anti-Defamation League.
And it was to take one of their trainings into schools. That was the most triggering and racist experience I had. I want people to understand what I mean by this. So there were maybe 40 people there, three or four Black people. And so this is another reason why I don’t like those exercises, those, “Everybody start in the back of the room” and then they tell you your privilege and you get to move forward and all these other things. This is why I have a hard time against a lot of these triggering exercises, because people don’t know how to unpack them well.
So we go through a whole day of just this shit, just these Black people always in the back, just, it’s just really bringing up a whole bunch of stuff for us. We’re really traumatized, we’re crying and everything. And we’re told that when we try to talk about this, that this was not the place for it because this was a Jewish space.
Dr Metzl: Well, you know, I would say first that sounds like shit, that sounds terrible.
Kim: Oh, it was. That was—I literally, I went to bed, I woke up in the middle of the night and I was scr—’cause I was still living with my mom—and I woke up with this scream and she’s like, “I’ve never heard you scream like that before,” it was just like this pain. And I immediately got up the next [day] and found a therapist ’cause that really impacted me. It so impacted me that I’m only really remembering it now. Years later, am I now like, “Oh shit, that happened to me.”
Dr Metzl: Well, again, it’s not one thing right, that’s what we were saying. Like, the Anti-Defamation League is doing incredible work right now about all this stuff, too. So it’s never one thing, but it’s funny because I was thinking you asked me what it was like to talk to racist Trump supporters, and I will tell you that, maybe 15-20% of the people—and also the people who didn’t talk to me ’cause I told them I was writing a book about— I was very clear what I was doing—probably the people didn’t talk to me, but I did speak to a lot of people and some people were just racist to the core. And again, I don’t know what they were like, I don’t know what was in their heart or their soul, but I will say that there was no way I was gonna get through to them.
Dr Metzl: …in their heart or their soul, but I will say that there was no way I was gonna get through to them.
And then another big group of people were kind of like anybody’s crazy relative, right? Including my crazy relative, your crazy relative, which is that they have these really idiotically racist ideas about certain things, but they were also like, you just met them and you almost, like, they were short or they were weak or they were frail or they were anxious, or they were your crazy uncle who had these crazy views or something like that.
And so part of the issue was having spent a lot of time in communities like this, it wasn’t like, “Oh, I bonded” and I was gonna go out and vote for Trump or anything like that. But it made me realize how, when we meet people like on Twitter, for example, and in two sentences, they can say their most racist thing or something like that, it become—it almost feels like the problems are unsolvable, right?
They’re unsolvable because that crazy, racist thing that your uncle says or that antisemitic thing or something, that becomes their whole being when we’re only engaging each other on Twitter, right? And so part of it also made me frustrated because when I spent time in communities, I also realized people are more complicated than they are on Twitter.
You know, that we’re being forced to fight with each other because we only have two sentences to say stuff, or the most crazy person is the person who gets on Instagram and all that stuff. And so it is also frustrating, right? Because there’s a lot of benefit in convincing us that we we can never get along. I mean, the media makes money, Trump makes money, everybody makes money. But, I don’t know, over the pandemic I’ve been interviewing a lot of my libertarian subjects, you know?
Kim: Mmm, oh they quiet right now, oh my god. They ain’t saying shit right now! Ooh, they wanted to debate everything until now! [laughs]
Dr Metzl: But what I’m saying is across multiple groups that I’m interviewing, people just are afraid right now and they’re isolated. And part of the frustration is for me is there’s no way we can talk to each other because we’re all socially distanced, and all we have are these two sentences, and those become—they come to stand in for us.
Kim: And so for you, you’re frustrated. For me, it’s what I’ve been asking. This is what I’ve been talking about since I’ve been in this space that I said that white people weren’t in enough pain to do anything other than lip service. And this is why my issue with Robin DiAngelo’s book was—and this was before the pandemic—I stopped recommending that book last year, because I saw how it was being used, the language, and people used it as a way to get a language to have a conversation but actually not do any work.
And so, and I kept saying, white people aren’t in enough pain. And unfortunately, when white people get in enough pain, the most vulnerable are gonna have to, are gonna suffer. And we saw that with the beginnin’ of the pandemic and who was dying. We saw that with the marches, who got to march with guns and who still gets to march with guns.
And yet, a Black man who’s running away with a Taser—should he have grabbed the taser? Of course he shouldn’t have, but he was running away, and so he got shot in the back. These are the stories that people don’t want to—and these are the honest conversations I wanna have, because it’s like, OK, let’s look at all of this. Let’s see, let’s talk about—so your libertarian friends or people—this is why I, this falls back on the narrative that all speech is equal, everything is equal. No, no, no, no, no, no. Everything is not equal. So the libertarian set, who is really quiet right now, it’s because you can’t, there’s—OK, let me back up.
People ask me what is different about this moment, and for me what’s different about this moment is that we were in the middle of a pandemic. People were dying, people were losing their jobs and they didn’t have a distraction. There is no sports, there’s no nothing. There’s no movies. There’s no nothing. There’s nothing that people really fundamentally in large groups feel safe doing or be distracted from.
So what you saw was that angst, and it was one of the reasons why I quarantined as soon the South by Southwest was cancelled because I knew that white folx was gonna start feeling pain. And when white folx feel pain, or feel discomfort, people like me get harmed, and I saw that with how many guns were being bought. People just buying out gun stores—it’s like, what the hell?
And it’s interesting to see this play out, and it’s—this is a time that is so uncomfortable, but I see so much in hope and potential in this moment. People keep—I’m like, I feel, this feels different to me. Now, I’m not as old as my aunt who marched with King, my dad marched with King and John Lewis. I’m not—I wasn’t around then. But what I could tell you is, this moment feels different. I mean, they fuckin’ changed the racism definition in the dictionary. [Dr Metzl laughs] It’s like what!? I mean, AP, one of the largest media outlets, news media outlets, is now using Capital B when referencing Black people. What!? [Dr Metzl laughs] And we know when language changes it forces behavior changes. I see—this is huge.
Dr Metzl: Well, I could not agree with you more. And I feel again like every piece of data will show that the structural changes that emerge from that, are important, right? I mean,
they’re not just important for minoritized communities, they’re important for society, right?
You know, societies that have better access to resources, that more people can take quality public transportation to work—those those cities do better, those communities do better. Corporations that have more diverse voices sitting around the table, people come at a complex problem in a different way—those corporations actually do better at solving complex problems. And conversely, that’s where the Trump administration can’t figure out the pandemic, ’cause it’s the same kind of person sitting around the table, people only, you know, in a way—and so in a way, those those changes are going to be important, and they’re gonna benefit everybody, and—
Kim: And that’s on that system level that you were talking about.
Dr Metzl: Exactly right.
Kim: I can—you and I can have in our slide deck all we want, this social science definition of racism. But when the dictionary, the dictionary people change it, it’s like, OK! [Both laugh]
Dr Metzl: No, and it’s incredible. That part is unimaginable. It’s unimaginable. But the flip side is that there’s also a danger in this moment. I mean, you mentioned guns as one example. And so even though there were white people marching with guns—like the NRA would love for Black people to buy tons of guns, ’cause they’re an arms dealer. They’re not, you know—but the thing is, we know from 1966 to 1970 that the minute that happens, that leads to, you know—
Kim: New policies! [laughs]
Dr Metzl: Yeah. But also, like potentially better outcomes, right? More guns doesn’t just mean more white privilege, it also means more partner shootings and more suicides, stuff like that. I keep telling people that answer is not that everybody should get a gun, right? The answer is, actually, nobody should have a gun, you know, in a way, that that would be a better outcome of this. And so I just think that right now everything is—I mean, the terror of this moment, number one is that we’ve I got this virus out the window. And number two is that everything feels up for grabs, and that’s a moment of potential change. And part of that is about putting a capital, you know, B, for everybody. I think that is where we have to start. But the flip side, and this is—you know, we can do our next show about this—
Kim: [Laughs] Oh wow, get you booked for our next show next year! [Both laugh]
Dr Metzl: The other thing is, if any political group ever want to talk to me, I would also say just based on my research, you know who benefits if we think all Trump supporters are the same? Trump, right? Because—so in other words, I’m trying to push campaigns to actually take the fight to Trump by reaching out to Trump supporters right now, and basically saying, “Hey, where is your healthcare? Hey, where’s your education? Hey, whatever.” It’s not like they’re all total zombies who are just making decisions based on being hypnotized or something like that.
They’re also really afraid right now as well. And I’m not in any way trying to—I’m not in any way trying to excuse any of this crap, but what I’m saying is that now is a moment not only for justice work to be done, that’s the most important, but it’s also moment where we can create new coalitions and alliances, and I think that the possibilities are—I mean, that’s why Trump is doing all this work to make it seem like it’s us against them, because this idea of rethinking that whole wage of whiteness idea is, like, if you’re living in a pandemic and the Democrats are gonna offer you a universal healthcare plan, and there’s a virus and you’re going broke, maybe you’re gonna support that, or something like that. So this idea of this binary, that’s an imposed structural binary, is something that works for Trump, that works for Twitter—
Kim: But let’s talk about it. It just doesn’t work for Trump. Trump’s just an outcome.
Dr Metzl: Oh, of course, of course.
Kim: It works for white supremacy. And so that’s another thing, because people want to blame him. No, no, no, no. He’s a by-product of years of systematic racism, white supremacy, and policies, and aligning this, because I’ve been starting to study, just like the origins of our capitalist economic systems, because I challenge Dr Kendi. Well, I challenge him on two things, I don’t get into the second, but I challenge him and anybody who says that we have to have antiracist anti-capitalists.
I don’t have a problem with capitalism. Every system we have in this world is rooted in white supremacy. Can we try to see if we can have, just for—get these libertarians who want to have a debate—can we have an antiracist capitalist system? Can we have a capitalist system that is about private investment, but also is about prioritizing the most vulnerable? You see it in some of the businesses that are being created now, and the business models that are being created and how they’re taking their lead.
And until we deal with these systems—because you mentioned the gun thing—yeah, white people got guns, but there is a binary there. White people with guns have a power that Black people with guns don’t, and so even there it’s not equal. So Black people could have guns. Black people with guns are “criminals”. White people with guns are for “self-protection”.
Until we can have a language that is about—again, this is why I say “Blackness” and “whiteness”, this the only thing I can see that puts them on the same level—until we can have those conversations, we’re not actually dealing with the problem, ’cause you can have all the affordable healthcare you want to, just like this Medicare-for-all, that does not change the fact—and I continue to talk about these three things—the fact that, it’s nowhere written in a book, but doctors being trained today still believe that Black people can endure more pain and we have a thicker epidermis.
The fact that it doesn’t matter how much money, how much privileged wealth, whatever, Black women and their babies are still dying in childbirth. And, when you take away these hospitals in rural areas, like—I live in a city, you live in the city, that there’s major hospitals. Somebody 50 minutes from here can’t get to a hospital.
So until we start really talking about the systems in place, and this is why I’m not happy with any—and this is the only political thing I have to say—I’m not happy with any candidate, because none of them had a fundamentally antiracist agenda. Medicare-for-all is no longer progressive, and it’s only progressive because white people get to define what progressive is. If you ask the most vulnerable, that’s not progressive, because that is the middle of the road for most Democrats at this point.
What we need is somebody who’s willing to fundamentally even talk about race and not make it a class issue, and who has some some gravitas or something. It’s not the knowledge to change it, the power and the privilege to endow those who have the ability to change this to do that. And go sit yo ass down somewhere.
That’s the only thing I care about Biden, that’s on the—please get a Black female vice president candidate.
Dr Metzl: It’s coming. It’s coming.
Kim: Almost definitely, ’cause they don’t—and this is where, it took a pandemic, George Floyd, all of this to get us here, because I don’t want him saying shit. I need him to just be the figurehead and do it because he is fundamental—he is problematic himself.
But this is the closest we’ve got here. And so everything—this is just like where I, when we talk, I could always just go again, and I’m sure it’s from my lived experience, can always go deeper like, “Yeah, that’s not, that’s just scratching the surface,” and I need folx who are willing to just keep going deeper. What I won’t tolerate, though, are—I’m just not having a conversation with people who just think fundamentally that I don’t have a right to exist or that I’m—by DNA—less, inferior to them. Y’all can have those conversations ’cause I could care less about a Trump supporter.
Dr Metzl: Well, I’ll tell you three things ’cause I just agree with everything you said pretty much. [Both laugh] You know, number one, of course, is that I mean, I think elections really matter, right? And I think that elections matter, and to win elections, you need to build coalitions, right? Just the way the American system is working. And particularly because of the Electoral College and swing states and all these kind of things. But I think it’s important that antiracism, just like racism is structural, antiracism is structural.
Dr Metzl: So what are the things that you would have to put in place to have structural antiracism? Well, it would be better access economically, better job market, better health care, better education. It turns out, the things that help minoritized communities that are structurally antiracist—
Kim: Help everybody! [Laughs]
Dr Metzl: —pretty much help everybody. Exactly. And so in a way, I just think that that’s a coalition building moment, right? It’s not like, “Oh, we just want something for any one group.” It’s actually, if we create an antiracist agenda—
Dr Metzl: —the world’s gonna be a better place.
Dr Metzl: And so the number one is I think that’s got to be the line, right? It’s not like we’re just, “Oh, just giving whatever.” That’s the conservative line, like, “Oh, affirmative action just helps Black people.” No, affirmative action friggin’ helps everybody and so—
Kim: Well, let’s be clear. Right now, it benefits white women. So let’s be clear. [laughs]
Dr Metzl: No, but I’m saying the idea—so my point is that antiracism is a platform, not—because, when you start to say, “Oh, yeah, healthcare and access, and jobs, and fairness, and safe communities,” that’s actually good for the country, to right these historical wrongs. And so part of the issue of what I’m saying, like, reach out to Trump supporters is I think there’s a kind of antiracist platform that could convince a lot of people, including people you might not expect.
Kim: Oh, and that’s my point. I let other people do that work; that’s not work I choose to do.
Dr Metzl: Yeah. Number two is about capitalism. And I had this thing, I gave a talk in a bookstore and it was in Harlem, right? And it was like, half the group was super liberal, progressive white people, and the other half were African American people from Harlem. And the guy who introduced me got up and he said “We’re anti-capitalists. We’re gonna do a revolution. We’re throwing away our earthly goods into the thing. We’re rejecting the capitalist system,” and I think all the Black people in the audience were like, “Yeah, that’s not gonna work for us, exactly…” [Kim laughs] “you know, because—”
Kim: Like, “Urr, did we say that? Did we agree to this before you got up there?”
Dr Metzl: And the thing is like, all the progressive people were like, “We’re gonna throw away our earthly goods.” And all the Black people were like, “Yeah, who’s gonna get screwed by that?” And I think that’s true for a lot of things. Guns the same thing. Like who’s gonna—if we give everybody a gun, who’s gonna get shot first and stuff like that? So I think in a way there are these liberal white positions that are to themselves, and I think that critique of capitalism I would put on top of that list, I could not agree with that more, so I like the critiques of racial capitalism, this idea that basically capitalism itself needs to be, of course, analyzed. But it’s not like that means we’re anti-capitalist.
Kim: Exactly, exactly!
Dr Metzl: Yeah, you could see where I get in trouble saying stuff like this. [Kim laughs] But I really think that’s the point. It’s just hard to imagine a system outside of that and also, honestly, look at this country who’s going to get screwed first for anti-capitalists, right? So I think people like me need to be aware of that argument and make it very, very carefully, because the safety net doesn’t catch everybody in the same way if we do away with capitalism.
Dr Metzl: So, yes, that’s my other point. And the third is I would read, there’s great stuff on racial capitalism right now that is kind of trying to make that point. But again, it’s not like doing away with capitalism, just like for me it’s not like give everybody a gun, you know? That’s where we get as we get into trouble.
Kim: So what would you like to say in your final moments on the show?
Dr Metzl: I just love this conversation, right? I mean, these are the conversations that we we should be having and modeling. As we move on from this horrible event, this horrible moment and recognizing the bigger issues, I would just love to have more conversations like this, and I’m honored to be part of this conversation.
It shouldn’t just be any one person or group of people talking about this system. It should be modeling conversations. We should be modeling conversations, right? It should be many different voices saying, “This system sucks, and we need to change it.”
Kim: Yes. Thank you. Wow, this was, as I told you this hour would go by really fast. It was well worth the wait. [laughs] And I look forward to seeing what you have next.
Dr Metzl: We’ll see. I mean, right now it’s like, where can I get a mask and some Purell? But I’m gonna start on something else after that, so… Well, thank you. This was really terrific.
Kim: Thank you. And have a wonderful day.
Dr Metzl: Take care.
Kim: Bye bye.