The Personalist Project

There's a scene in the Netflix show Dear White People that approaches the question of the political and the personal from two different directions. One of the main characters, a black student, brings his friends to a party hosted by a white classmate with whom he's struck up a friendship. The classmate appreciates the character's intelligence and wits, and the party goes smoothly--until someone puts on some music and the character hears his white friend singing along with a song that contains a particular racial slur.

"You can't say that word," he tells his friend. The friend protests that he's just singing along with the song, and it's "not like that."

Their discussion gets more and more attention from the other students around them until it has turned into a party-wide emotionally-pitched argument over race and vocabulary, all because this one young black man's discomfort with a racially loaded word was interpreted as making the personal political--bringing the context of centuries of racial injustice into a moment's personal interaction.

"Why does it always come back to slavery?" one (white) student complains. 

A fight breaks out and a police officer makes his way into the room to break the party up. He quickly zeroes in on the two individuals at the centre of the conflict, and turns to the black character to ask what he is doing there and where he's from.

His friends try to explain that he's a student, but the officer demands to see his student ID and eventually pulls a gun on him. The entire room freezes, watching what now looks like a headline in the making--and it is suddenly self-evident that the public and political is also personal. Trembling, the student produces his ID and retreats to his dorm to shake and cry.

This is a scene from a fictional show. But there is nothing fictional, unfortunately, about the shooting of Jordan Edwards last weekend. The 15-year-old was with friends leaving a party when police officers arrived in response to gunfire reports in the area. Camera footage shows that an officer shot into the teens' moving vehicle as it drove away from the party, even though there was no evidence that the truck or individuals inside posed a danger to anybody.

The Black Lives Matter movement is undoubtedly political. But it begins in the personal stories of young black men affected by the context in which they live--a context that puts them at greater risk of being injured or killed by police, a context which can't help but be both political and personal. 

Sometimes it takes witnessing the effects of our public imagination--an imagination within which young black men are portrayed as "thugs"--to see that what is personal is also public. 

In the party scene from Dear White People, the black character asks his white friend, "How would you like it if I sang along with words like 'honky' and 'cracker'?"

 The friend says, "I wouldn't care!"

"Exactly. That's the difference. You don't care. But I do. Do you get it?"

The white character is offended because, to him, it seems like his friend is making something purely personal and incidental into something political. How could he be racist? He doesn't mean any offence. The personal experience he is concerned with is his own--and he doesn't care about the words he's using, so he doesn't see why anyone else should.  

But the black character does care. He can't escape the larger context of the words.

My friends with disabled children care about words in a similar way. They are protecting the way that other people perceive their children's personhood when they take a deep breath and speak up against the casual use of words like "retard," or push to have accessibility laws enforced in schools and public places.

The political is personal. 

As Katie reflected in her post yesterday, we speak and respond out of our subjectivity. Clear communication—clear apprehension of another person’s character, intentions, and meaning—requires that we seek to understand the context that informs each person’s subjective experience, whatever it is. 

We have to listen. Even if it seems "political."


[Photo by The All-Nite Images from NY, NY, USA (Black Lives Matter Black Friday) [CC BY-SA 2.0 ([url=][/url])], via Wikimedia Commons]

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