There’s a Village Voice piece on R Kelly going around. Voice writer Jessica Hopper interviews Jim DeRogatis, a journalist who helped break the story of R Kelly being a sexual predator years ago. It’s a good read, very thorough and timely, and it looks like it’s getting the reaction the writer (presumably) hoped for: people are reading and talking about it. Which is good.
I’ve been watching it spread over Twitter since I first saw a link this morning. My black friends have met it with a “yep :/” or whatever whatever, acknowledgement that it’s real, true, and that they’ve been known that fact. My non-black friends and followers, though, are coming with surprise, shock, “I can’t believe it,” that kind of thing.
The reactions from non-blacks tend toward the sympathetic and horrified almost universally, which is entirely appropriate and (for lack of a better word,) welcome, but—and you’ll have to pardon me if this is too flowery, but I’m trying to choose my words very carefully—the reactions feel like what happens when someone is initially dragged from ignorance toward knowledge. That combo of shock and acceptance, horror and belief…
I remember when the George Zimmerman thing happened, and myself and several other black people spoke out like, “Hey, this is real life, this happens all the time, our mothers constantly live in fear.” The reaction from black folks, men and women, then was “Right on, I’ve been there, keep your head up, stay safe.” A lot of us had shared stories or tips, too, like driving to a well-lit area when you’re being pulled over because you should never be alone with a cop. From non-blacks? “Holy crap are you for real? You have to live with this? I’m so sorry, I had no idea,” and so on.
I can’t fault somebody for not knowing, and I try to avoid treating people who don’t know the things I know differently. There’s a lot I don’t know, and there are some things I definitely should know that I don’t. Learning is part of being alive, possibly the best part of being alive. I think it’s important to educate, to put people up on game, before you condemn them for not having had the privilege—no matter how painful or ugly—of knowing what you do.
And part of me knows this is unfair, but the other part of me just watched a group of black women take part in a wide-ranging Twitter conversation on R Kelly with first-person accounts not two weeks ago. The other part of me knew about him messing with girls in the ’90s, despite living in Virginia and Georgia, away from the girls he preyed on. The other part of me has a mom who told him how to stay safe when dealing with the police before he was a teenager. The other part of me knows men who got beaten up, stabbed, and kidnapped for garbage reasons. The other part of me spent forever pulling teeth to write about race and comics and watched white people eat while I got stuck with the beef. That part of me says “Fuck fair.”
There is a gap, a gulf, between us. Between me and you, between black and white, between Latino and Japanese, between everyone. Every time one of those “This is what racism is” things roll down tumblr, and it’s somebody getting dragged behind a truck or beaten up on account of their skin or left in poverty because it’s economically convenient, I want to roll my eyes, which is a terrible reaction to sympathy. But I have that reaction because sure, this over-the-top and horrible example is racism, and that’s bad! But so is you calling your butt a “ghetto booty,” so is what motivates that dude at parties (literally every party I’ve been to with strangers as an adult) asking me stupid questions about my hair, like if I can store things in my afro. Racism is the Klan, but racism is in us, too. Racism is a lot of things. It’s the death of a thousand minor humiliations.
There is a difference between my experience and yours, is what I’m getting at. I don’t know the fullness of your experience, and you don’t know mine. I figure if you aren’t in it, you aren’t in it, so it’s unfair of me to expect you to know. I know that intellectually, as someone who makes a little bit of money spitting words for profit on occasion. But it still sucks to see your reality treated as a source of surprise. “It’s like that?” hurts when it’s been like that, when it’s never not been like that.
The gap in our experiences is real and the reasons for the gap are complicated. Sometimes it’s down to happenstance. Sometimes it’s thanks to the white supremacist standards that this country was founded on and which still infests a significant part of it today. “Black” news is special interest news. “White” news is the punchline to a joke. There’s a reason for that. And for situations like this, where R Kelly raped a lot of girls or a lot of boys live in fear of the police, that’s painfully relevant. The girls and boys are black, which makes it a “black problem.”
Knowledge is key and spreading that knowledge is vital. But at the same time, it’s draining to see people demonstrating their ignorance of something that is very plain to you, something you took for granted as being a capital T Truth, something you’ve lived with so long you can’t imagine life without that weight on your back. So you feel triple-bad. You’re frustrated at the situation and the country that let it happen due to malicious negligence, you’re frustrated at your friends for not realizing how much it matters to you, and you’re frustrated at yourself for being frustrated at your fam for matters beyond their control.
Y’all really shoulda known about him and Aaliyah, though. That’s on wikipedia.