I’ve been thinking about a machete.
It wasn’t mine, though I was brandishing it as my friend and I walked up a Philadelphia street early one summer morning some 17 years ago. En route to the train station, I asked my friend if I could see one of the two machetes she’d brought back from her trip to the Dominican Republic. I swiped it back and forth a few times — a swashbuckler manque.
Without turning on its lights, the patrol car made a leisurely U-turn and pulled up alongside us. No one got out. The driver’s partner rolled down the passenger-side window and stuck his elbow out.
“Is that a machete?”
“Why don’t you put it away?”
I mumbled my assent, and the cops pulled off before I’d repacked it.
I recalled this story while reading the most affecting part of Dax-Devlon Ross’s new book, “Letters to My White Male Friends.” Just back from Europe and about to start his third year of law school — also right around the turn of the 21st Century — Ross waits on a street corner. His friend does a couple of pull-ups on nearby construction scaffolding. Almost immediately, a patrol car materializes.
The scene unfolds all-too-familiarly, more cars arrive, the young men’s bewilderment is taken for resistance, and the police batter them both. Ross spends four nights in jail. He ultimately accepts a plea deal in which no charges are filed and the arrest is expunged in exchange for his staying “out of trouble for a year.” His friend — more severely beaten — fights the charges, an ordeal that exacts a severe toll on his mental health. He doesn’t finish law school. He’s never the same.
“Tell me,” Ross asks his reader. “Do you think that as a young white male you would have received the same treatment?”
That’s why I was thinking about the machete: I did not.
Not long after the police murder of George Floyd, Ross posted “A Letter to My White Male Friends of a Certain Age” on his non-profit’s blog. Reposted on the website of Non-Profit Quarterly, it went modestly viral. In the letter, Ross describes being contacted by various Gen-X white men — old friends from high school, CEOs he’s worked with — who asked for guidance. He tells them to “step the [expletive] up,” implores them not to “turn away from the pain you are witnessing in this moment.”
“I need you,” Ross wrote. “[T]o want to fight racism with the same intensity you fight your love handles.”
Ross has expanded his original post into this book, a series of letters that is part memoir, part non-profit white paper.
In the memoir sections, Ross describes his upbringing. A middle-class Black kid in Washington, D.C., he tests into Sidwell Friends, where he developed an awareness of how the rich, white side of town lives. First at Rutgers and then at George Washington Law School, Ross traces his slow awakening to the fact that the colorblind meritocracy — the putatively progressive regime that all late-80s/early-90s kids know — was just the latest self-justification of capitalism’s winners.
The open letter is a durable genre, and a venerable tradition in the literature of Black America’s fight for Civil Rights: from James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew in “The Fire Next Time” and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” up through Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” a memoir written as a letter to the author’s son.
These classics new and old derive much rhetorical power from their address to specific people — nephew, fellow ministers, son. It’s a literary device, but an effective one: the reader has the sense of eavesdropping on an intimate communication, of discovering how the writer “really” feels. In this book, there’s a dilution of that impact. The letters’ recipients are ill-defined.
Ross’s original post was aimed at people in the non-profit sector. He usefully extends some of his critiques here. Charities treat “the symptoms but not disease of racism … exploit entrenched racialized symbols, stories, and stereotypes to fuel their missions. …” and “do all of this for the benefit of wealthy white audiences whose generosity keeps the lights on.”
But Ross’s criticisms of the non-profit industrial complex, as well as his accounts of dealing with the (mostly-white) administrators in charge of programs that serve (mostly) communities of color, lack the specifics of the stories he tells about his upbringing, and his disillusion with the myth of meritocracy.
I’m a white, Gen-X man, but I don’t work in the non-profit sphere. As an outside reader, too often, I felt I was grasping at a vague non-profitese: “People of color … are demanding to be brought into the process, afforded legitimate space to be heard and contribute and to change the rules to center lived experiences and impact analyses if need be.”
Ross urges non-profit leaders to “[s]peak from the heart,” and when he does it himself he models the vulnerability and openness that sustained anti-racism work seems to require.
Ideally, that work will result in the extension to everyone of the benefit of the doubt I received almost 20 years ago in Philadelphia. The existence of Ross’s book and others like it — and the brutal events that occasion them — suggest the attainment of that goal is still more than 20 years away.
Sebastian Stockman is a teaching professor in English at Northeastern University. He writes A Saturday Letter at sebastianstockman.substack.com
Letters to My White Male Friends
St. Martin’s Press, 240 pages, $24.99