This piece was first published in Frederick Joseph’s Substack newsletter, In Retrospect.
There is a gaping absence that festers in the American spirit, two abilities in fact, striking in their scarcity. These are, the capacity for critical thinking, and the understanding that two things can be true at a time. When combined — they often lead to growth.
I consider these abilities the basic currency of human life, as crucial as the blood coursing through our veins, as vital as the air that gives rhythm to our chests. This truth becomes more pressing as we examine our evolving societies, especially in the United States — a patchwork of cultures, a rainbow of existences, increasingly linked, quickly dissolving communication boundaries, and tumbling into one another.
But such skills, or even virtues, are in short supply, not because they are finite but because they are not cultivated, nurtured or prized. Which is largely by design.
In the landscape of cognitive frailty, enter the politicians, the corporations, the vested interests, preying on the those who lack these abilities, bending minds to their will, to their version of truth, their singularity, manipulating perception like puppeteers. Which is why most powerbrokers in this nation invest in us not learning to slow down and consider one another.
The Jamie Foxx situation is a grand example of just how that sort of grace is rarely afforded to Black people — though it is often afforded to those who harm Black people.
A recent moment involving Oscar and Grammy Award-winner, Jamie Foxx, “Friends” star Jennifer Aniston, as well as the Black and Jewish communities is a perfect case study for why critical thinking and understanding duality is so necessary as cultures collide more often than ever.
Foxx found himself apologizing for a phrase, common in the colloquialisms of Black America, received by some as a painful stab at an old, deeply held scar of Jewish history.
An Instagram post, now deleted, stirred the turmoil. Foxx had written, “They killed this dude named Jesus … What do you think they’ll do to you???!” It was the “they” which some took as a coded reference to Jewish people and linked it to the persistent and toxic falsity that blames Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion. An antisemitic dog whistle from some.
A Wider Frame, a Jewish-centric newsletter, labeled Foxx’s words as “horrifically antisemitic.” Aniston appeared to have ‘liked’ Foxx’s post, prompting her to issue a vehement denial and denunciation of any form of hate.
In an expired Instagram Story to her 50 million followers, Aniston said Foxx’s post “really makes me sick.” “I did not ‘like’ this post on purpose or by accident,” she said. “And more importantly, I want to be clear to my friends and anyone hurt by this showing up in their feed − I do NOT support any type of antisemitism. And I truly don’t tolerate HATE of any kind. Period.”
The moment then went viral and thousands of people proceeded to comment on Foxx’s social media account, calling him a bigot.
Foxx, though still recovering from an undisclosed health scare that nearly killed him, quickly issued an apology. He sought to clarify that his intention was not to attack the Jewish community but to reflect on personal experiences of deception. “To clarify,” he said, “I was betrayed by a fake friend and that’s what I meant with ‘they’ not anything more. I only have love in my heart for everyone.”
Regardless, some have since gone as far as to leave comments on Netflix’s social media account, the home of Foxx’s latest film, and asked that the film be pulled from the streaming service because of his perceived antisemitism.
Upon learning about the incident, I immediately understood how some might take Foxx’s words out of context. Though that’s largely because of the nature of my work on race and social psychology, and the fact that I hold a degree in history. But as a fellow Black American who grew up in the Christian Baptist church, I also knew what Foxx was saying. As that phrase is deeply ingrained in the vernacular of our community, “They killed Jesus...What do you think they’ll do to you?”
In our hymns and prayers, it was always ‘they’ who had crucified Jesus. ‘They’ who had hung him wide, pierced his side. In many ways, ‘they’ was a stand in for the Romans, but it was more than that. Much more.
In the sermons of pastors who steeped their words in metaphors, weaving intricate analogies to lay bare deeper meanings, ‘they’ became a personification of the world’s sins. A mirror held up to us all, revealing our own inherent flaws, our shared culpability. Jesus was crucified for our sins. It was a collective ‘they’—not an indictment of Jewish people or a race-specific accusation.
In the broader dialect of Black America, ‘they’ takes on a more vague shape. The ‘they’—can be anyone, an employer, a coworker, a neighbor, an oppressor. ‘They’ could be the world at large, seemingly conspiring against your dreams, ambitions.
It is a phrase used and reused, echoed down through generations, so common that its significance may have blurred around the edges. But never once have I heard it mentioned in regards to the Jewish community from a Black person’s mouth.
Language, in that way, is a complex combination of culture and history. African American Vernacular English (AAVE), is a testament to that complexity, a language rich in nuance and layered with centuries of shared history. It is not merely a case of ‘saying things differently’, but a symphony of experiences and cultural narratives, uniquely ours.
Therein lies the necessity for critical thinking, as Jamie Foxx doesn’t necessarily see the world through a lens of other community’s traumas, or have the background to do so. It also demonstrates how essential it is to understand that two things can be true at a time, as his words meant one thing to his community and something else to another.
What I find troubling, is that there are people who can think critically and understand the duality of moments such as these, but they don’t utilize their abilities for people beyond themselves or the cultural groups they belong to. This is called grace.
All someone had to do was ask why he said it, rather than project his why on him. Foxx and Aniston have co-starred in films together and she or her team could have easily reached out before framing him as a bigot over what was ultimately a cultural difference.
I believe the handling of the Jamie Foxx situation is a grand example of just how that sort of grace is rarely afforded to Black people — though it is often afforded to those who harm Black people.
If 2020 taught us anything it’s that many non-Black people know far less about us than we know about them. Yet, in the shadow of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others, this lack of knowledge was not met with hostility, but rather a myriad of books, movies, documentaries, and panels, aimed to shine a light on centuries of orchestrated ignorance and daily traumas.
All forged in the truth that people who are not Black rarely understand the harm and history of Black people, even when they are the ones causing said harm and benefited from said history.
So, that begs a question: Why is there an expectation that someone such as Jamie Foxx, who is not a race scholar, will have a better understanding of how he might hurt a community than people have for how they might hurt his community?
It’s a peculiar demand, to insist upon someone understanding you without extending the same in return, a power dynamic that seems as quintessentially American as apple pie.
When a Black person missteps or fumbles in grasping the complexities of others cultures, we often aren’t handed teachable moments, but indictments, held accountable for a failure that seems to illuminate less about our ignorance and more about the expectations laid upon us. This is a subtle brand of anti-Black racism that paints itself as good intentions. Inherently devaluing the existence, experiences, and traumas of Black people by comparison.
This situation, like many others, was an opportunity for discourse and understanding, yet it seemed easier, more expedient to strip away nuances and lean into punitive measures. The court of public opinion demanded swift, unthinking retribution; Foxx became a dart board rather than a bridge for collective learning.
Teachable moments are invaluable. They offer a path towards enlightenment. Yet they are so often relegated to the few. Is it easier to believe in the malice of a Black individual than to confront the presence of differences? Is it easier to punish than to forgive?
We find ourselves gathered on this land, cast together, huddled side by side in our cities, and nestled amongst one another in our neighborhoods. In this ensemble of difference, we may learn to hear the unfamiliar notes, the half-heard melodies that don’t quite conform to our known scales. Or we may choose to merely hear the familiar refrains, those tunes that sound like our own, believing in the fallacy of sameness, ignoring the diversity that surrounds us.
Perhaps what we need, in our pursuit of unity and understanding, is not just a vision, but also a sense of sight; the ability to look beyond ourselves, beyond our preconceived notions. It is a journey we must take to see others not merely as an extension of our own story, but as individuals with their own narratives, their own truths.
We stand in a microcosm of the global community. We share our lives with individuals whose backgrounds differ from our own, whose histories bear tales of struggle and triumph, of sacrifice and hope, that we may not fully comprehend. They are our neighbors, our coworkers, our fellow citizens. Yet how often do we pause to truly know them?
The challenge, is not insurmountable. What it requires is the will to engage in a process of learning and unlearning, of accepting and discarding, of listening and speaking. It requires humility to recognize our biases and courage to confront them. It requires a commitment to seeing our neighbors not as figures upon the landscape of our lives, but as fully fleshed beings, with dreams, hopes, and struggles as real and as poignant as our own.
It requires that we give what we expect, lead with grace, and make space in our daily lives to critically think about those we come into contact with and understand that both of our truths might be true at the same time.
Frederick Joseph is a two-time New York Times bestselling author, activist, philanthropist, and poet. He is also the recipient of the International Literacy Association’s 2021 Children’s & Young Adults’ Book Award amongst other honors.