Tag Archives: ta-nehisi coates

“The Hard Work of Compassion” – TNC

I read something today that was among the most remarkable pieces of writing I’ve ever read.  It’s by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes a blog for The Atlantic.  Coates, who is African-American, has been doing a lot of reading and blogging about the Civil War.  In the post that struck me, he was writing about Drew Gilpin Faust’s Mothers of Invention, a history of women in slaveholding families during the Civil War. It leads to a meditation on what it takes for him to understand such women, and why:

To answer such a question, it is not enough to understand cause of the Civil War. A debate over the meaning of the Confederate Flag is almost beside the point. You have to remove the cloak of the partisan, and assume the garb of the thespian. Instead of  prosecuting the Confederate perspective, you have to interrogate it, and ultimately assume it. In no small measure, to understand them, you must become them. For me to seriously consider the words of the slave-holder, which is to say the mind of the slave-holder, for me to see them as human beings, as full and as complicated as anyone else I know, a strange transcendence is requested. I am losing my earned, righteous skin. I know that beef is our birthright, that all our grievance is just.  But for want of seeing more, I am compelled to let it go.

More than any other book, Mothers has confronted me with the hard work of compassion.

In this society, we view compassion as a favor, something along the lines of forgiveness extended to the humble and deserving. No. My compassion is utterly selfish, and is rooted in a craving for power. It is compelled by my curiosity, itself, just another name for hunger, for desire, for want of the great power of knowing. It is not enough for me to sit around scoring morality points on dead people, all the while blind to the living morality of this troubled time. There’s no power in that. I need to know more.

Those paragraphs just totally kicked my ass.  “The hard work of compassion.”  A compassion that is not charity, but that also does not excuse.  Does not draw its eyebrows together and go “awww.”  That rolls up its sleeves and says, you can understand this but it won’t be fun.

Reading this, I thought of a couple of recent reviews I’ve read of Breaking Night:  A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.  The title is pretty self-explanatory, but the reviews both* made clear that, while the author’s childhood was rendered almost unimaginably awful by her parents’ drug addictions, she has deep compassion and love for these flawed people.

As I sat there feeling stunned that an African-American can undertake the work of compassion toward Confederate women and a former cocaine baby can write compassionately about her mother, it dawned on me that it was Yom Kippur,** and appropriate to repent, or start the process of repenting, or start thinking about what a really good idea it would be to repent, of the many areas of my life in which I am too lazy for the hard work of compassion.  And after all the repenting, it’s time to get off my ass and get to the hard work.


* OK OK the other review was in People Magazine.  I’m traveling this week, so I’m fully caught up on celebrity news, fashions, and – um – books.

** I’m half Jewish and a half-assed Jew.  It’s the closest generally acceptable label for my heritage and religious views, though still off by a considerable distance.  Fair warning:  there’s probably going to be future blog post about all that.

Update:  TNC is also the genesis of the “drinking with white people” concept which I found so evocative.  Also updated to correct an embarrassing error in punctuation.  Not telling.

Drinking with White People

I hate talking about disability with people outside our community.  Especially people I respect.  Especially for the first time.

I think this is similar to what  Ta-Nehisi Coates called “The John Mayer Rule.”  He called it that because he was posting in the wake of some profoundly vulgar remarks by that singer.

But then he went on to discuss his concern, as an African-American professional, about drinking with allegedly-enlightened white colleagues:  after a few drinks, someone would say something ignorant that would reveal them to have a layer of racism you wish you didn’t know about.

Coates gave two examples, from two perspectives.  First, he explained, he would often skip after-work gatherings at his first job for “fear of being the only black guy [and] fear that someone would get smashed, say something ignorant and I’d do something that would get me fired.”  But his second example came from the opposite perspective.

I had a dinner party when I first moved to Harlem with a bunch of friends. One of my homeboys was dating a mutual friend, who happened to be Korean. Anyway, after dinner someone pulls out blunt, rolls up and we all partake. One of my other friends, who was black, goes “Damn dude, your eyes are all chinky.” I laughed like nothing had happened. It never even occurred to me what had happened, until the young lady called both of us on it.

That was the end of the party–in more ways then one. What I was left thinking about was the power dynamic, and the trust factor. She was in an apartment surrounded by black people who she trusted were fairly enlightened. As it turned out, some us weren’t. Would she not be justified with her own John Mayer rule?

There is a disability equivalent of the “drinking with white people” problem:  listening to someone you respect — outside the community — talk about disability for the first time.

The most striking example I recall — both because of its egregiousness and because I was new to the community* — was Hillary Clinton’s speech on what must have been the third anniversary of the ADA.  There was a big event on the White House lawn and Tim and I worked at a Big Law Firm that frequently had spare tickets to random high-profile political events, which they would give away to associates.  Of course, the high-profile ADA event tickets went to the lone disabled lawyer and his fiancée.  So Tim and I were sitting there on the White House lawn surrounded by amazing people (whose amazingness I would not appreciate until years later), when the First Lady stepped up to speak.  And the theme of her address — to the collected disability rights royalty — was that if we provide sufficient funding for medical research, there won’t BE any disabled people!  (I’m doing this from memory — let’s see if the Internets have the actual address.  Nope.  Sorry.  We’re stuck with my July-in-DC-heat-addled memory.)

Anyway, this is why I never, ever, even for a nanosecond thought of voting for Hillary Clinton.  I’m confident with the right advisors, she eventually said more enlightened things about disability.  But deep down inside, to her, it’s a problem to be cured, not a natural part of the human spectrum to be embraced.  And she wasn’t even drunk.

On a more personal, no-drinking-with-white-people level, I have often had the experience of listening to a friend — or someone I know less well but (want to) respect — start talking about disability, only to hear something so ignorant I want to hit the rewind button.  And then the delete key.

Like the time a woman we had recently met asked to bring her son to meet Tim.  Career advice?  Male bonding?  No, the son had gotten a traffic ticket and she wanted to show her son “what could happen if he continues to drive recklessly.”  I was actually confused for a second, then realized that she was planning to simply exhibit Tim to her son as example of the horrible fate he would face if he continued his careless ways.

(Of course, I only sputtered, rather than saying, “you’d like to show your son a Stanford law school grad who co-founded a successful civil rights practice as an example of a horrible fate?  What would be the positive role model, Larry the Cable Guy?”)

Then there was the presentation I gave to a roomful of trial lawyers — supposed to be the good guys, right? — who were shocked and then angry to learn that they, too, had a legal obligation to make their offices accessible and hire sign language interpreters for deaf clients.

Another time a friend explained in some detail what a pain in the ass it was to make facilities accessible.

And then there are just the garden variety off-hand comments or usages:

“I sprained my ankle once — now I really appreciate what it’s like to be disabled.”

“That’s so retarded.”

“It’s so amazing that she’s out and about” or its close relative “she’s so inspirational.”  It sounds like praise, but it contains an assumption of incompetence as the default setting and no matter how well-intentioned, automatically distances the person from “the mainstream,” whatever the hell that is.

I don’t, per Coates, actually avoid drinking with people outside the community — and the experiences above show that people don’t need alcohol to say dumb things about disability — but I do have fairly sensitive antennae and have learned when to start steering the conversation quickly in another direction.

* I was almost completely ignorant of disability rights issues until I started dating Tim.  And God knows, I’m fully capable — in fact, expert — at saying stupid things.  I also have to acknowledge my own weird position here — I’m not disabled.  Hence the use of the vague word “community.”