A lot of hyperbole gets thrown around on the Internet. You may have heard, even from me, how a movie is the worst ever or a video game is an actual AIDS golem built by Hitler’s colon polyps. So I understand if you don’t believe me when I tell you this is the most problematic book I own. You aren’t ready for it. It’s “Upsetting Day” on a comedy website built by two men who grew up in an era where a stand-up special was just Denis Leary coughing into a crippled person’s mouth for 40 minutes and calling it Learn to Walk, Wheelie: The World Fuck You Tour, and there’s still no way you’re ready for it. Okay, unprepared readers, let’s look at How to Get Along with Black People.
You may already be worried this book was written by two whites who have spent enough time around African Americans that they think they have permission to say it. About that, I can set your mind at ease. It was written by two intelligent, sometimes silly black women who graduated from Ivy League law schools. But it was published 49 years ago, and we don’t even have adjectives left in circulation to describe how different racism was in 1971. In 1971, you could still get a near-mint Whites Only trampoline. In 1971, the government could still ship black neighborhoods to Vietnam. And in 1971, people still asked Bill Cosby to do the foreword for their book. This is going to sound like I’m making a weird joke, but he starts by helping you feel more comfortable with racial slurs, then encourages you to try them out when firing black subordinates. I personally wouldn’t listen to him, but I’ll let you decide for yourself:
When you’re writing a book about race relations in 1971, you need to approach it with tact and understanding. This one opens with a rapist using the n-word, so if fixing racism has any kind of a fail condition, these women are charging pretty hard toward it. There is no way to safely test this theory, but I don’t think you would get along better with any black people by telling them, “You might think I don’t understand your struggle, but as Bill Cosby once said, gulp, THE N-WORD WITH AN R, you’re fired!”
The least a white can do is try to be self-aware of all the racism built into us and work to undo it. You should be constantly annoyed at the racism you find in dusty corners of your neural map. For instance, when I go to Habesha restaurants, I always order kitfo, a traditional Ethiopian dish that makes all American dishes look like stupid pussies. It’s a pile of raw meat served on a pancake with a side of cheese. I would eat it every meal. But still, after all these years of overeating kitfo, when I hear “Ethiopian food” the first thing my brain conjures is not the hundreds of delicious raw meat pancake tacos I’ve stuffed into myself– it’s Michael Jackson and Kenny Rogers singing together so crates of grain make it to desert baby hobo camps.
I’m pretty sure when I first heard the words “Ethiopian” and “restaurant” together I pictured a kitchen filled with starving toddlers heating up UN rice in disarmed landmines. My point is, this racism was branded onto the inside of our skulls as children and we have to always be watching for it. And it is with this vigilance I stopped reading How to Get Along with Black People every few paragraphs to think, “I am fundamentally more racist after reading these things.” My daughter said her first words to me during this book and they were, “Honkie, this advice is going to backfire.”
For the first 25 or so pages, How to Get Along with Black People is a light-hearted comedy routine about stereotypes which I recognized as a trap. Giving white people permission to laugh at racial stereotypes is how we got Zach Braff. Plus, this book’s authors are lawyers, not pioneering voices in comedy. They can’t navigate the complexities of these issues like someone who has, say, seen Dolemite 2: The Human Tornado 68 times. And as that someone, I have a note. Don’t call one of the chapters in your book on racial harmony ‘EENY-MEENY-MINY-MO (WHAT TO CALL “THEM”).’ I typed those words one sentence ago and I’m already getting targeted ads for Jordan Peterson videos and something called “Lawn Cross brand lighter fluid.”
The most unbelievable part of the book, and I haven’t forgotten about the Cosby hard R n-word incident, is “The Integration Index.” It’s a list of all the types of blacks, how “white” they are, and how you can spot them. They’re each categorized by a silly name like a READY RICHARD, who is a middle-aged man “found with whites when he can manage.” The READY RICHARD, and please understand the rest of this sentence is a direct quote, “prefers ‘Negro’ but will answer to ‘colored.’ He tends to be lighter-skinned.” This reads like a handbook for a Kentucky militia to help distinguish between enemy hostiles and the good ones, but it was published by educated women of color in an effort to undo intolerance. Which is very much like writing a book called Safe Woodworking Projects and only including knock knock jokes about sawing your dick off.
The other “portraits” in the Integration Index are HUSTLIN’ SAM, a dark-skinned huckster who can trick the whites into thinking he’s one of them. There’s also KWAME JONES who adopts African traits but can be found in all-white corporations. GHETTO JIM is a servant or a day laborer– “the black whom whites know best– and least.” I could feel every syllable of it making me a worse person; plus, I have no idea where I’d apply this knowledge. Are these conversation starters? If I meet a black stranger am I supposed to say, “I’m an Aquarius, so I get along best with a GRANDMA CHURCH-HAT or a THUNDERCOCK JENKINS. Which are you on the Integration Index? Or, oh! Oh!! Can I guess!?” It’s becoming more and more clear I don’t understand any of this, but I remain confident you shouldn’t open a book intended to make white people more inclusive with a funny 4 Blacks You Meet At Every Cookout list.
As the book goes on, there is a pretty serious tone change. It starts to complain about the cliche things caucasians do and say to them and absolutely stops even trying to be cute. Discussing and researching the subject matter seems to have exhausted the authors’ patience for our white bullshit. And fair enough. There is a tiny Zach Braff inside each of us, desperate to get included in a complicated handshake or given permission to wear blackface for a Scrubs cutaway. So I get we suck, but look at what that contempt for us did to this book. It turned an artifact of pure insanity into an academic study of the harsh truths of our hypocrisies:
In the end, this book promising you an exciting life of diverse friends turns into lecture on all the ways you’ve hurt people with your ignorance. It makes a strong case for how the well-meaning white is nature’s most obnoxious animal. Even assuming every white person was trying to not be racist, and history has shown this to be closer to the opposite, there were about 178 white Americans for every 22 black Americans when this was published. Which means in 1971, every African American had to be someone’s first black friend eight different times. They had to field the same stupid questions and hear about the same stupid Scrubs gag eight different times– at least. Meeting nice caucasians seems like running into a different crazy ex at every party you go to, and not being able to talk to anyone else until you’ve fixed them. Maybe? The one thing I definitely learned from How to Get Along with Black People is no one likes it when white people offer observations like this. Anyway, happy Upsetting Day to people of all colors from the obnoxious well-meaning whites of 1-900-HOTDOG!