Saturday, July 4, 2015

An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates

Dear Mr. Coates,

I just finished watching your PBS Newshour ‪#‎BriefButSpectacular‬ video on the role of police in black communities and white supremacy and it was spot-on!

The ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ movement is blessed to have people of your caliber keeping its wheels on the rails and headed in the right direction.

As you stated, the contributing factors to the shooting of unarmed black men, like officers not trained to help the mentally ill but tasked with apprehending them, deadbeat dad imprisonment and overzealous policing in high crime areas (aka many black communities), need to be addressed if we're seriously having a conversation about reducing these tragic incidents. Otherwise we're just venting our anger and frustration with very few plausible objectives. Whether these law-enforcement practice are flawed due to being racially biased or merely incompetently thought out and executed, we must demand they be re-evaluated and rectified. If not, the status quo will prevail.

But, that's not why I'm writing this letter.

The reason I've dropped everything to write to you is because of the power you packed into the following statement:

"There's a great deal of energy spent on making sure that people who are different than you understand what you are saying. And I actually believe that corrupts the language. You end up softening things and you end up insulting people's intelligence. I'm really not thinking about how to get the average white reader to see my perspective. I'm trying to communicate as directly and forcefully and honestly as possible."

As a burgeoning journalist, those words felt like a Master's course in Journalism condensed into five sentences, like a thesis that so many writers need to heed. I wish I had had someone tell me such a thing a few years back. Perhaps I would not have become a cautionary tale.

I'll explain.

Here in Japan, a country that is not my homeland but is my home nonetheless, I'm regularly confronted with the choice of whether to soften my language or to let it flow unfiltered. I usually choose the latter these days, to varying results that I can live with, but that wasn't always the case.

When I first began sharing my thoughts on life in Japan, via my blog, I only knew one way to speak my mind: directly, forcefully and honestly. I kept it creative and entertaining of course, but I didn't add any softeners to it. And the readership I'd nurtured, practically one reader at a time, responded strongly, both in agreement and in disagreement, but respectfully. And what more could a writer ask for?

But as time went on, and word of my work spread, I (in retrospect perhaps stupidly) started to become skeptical about my approach to issues that arise here in Japan. I questioned whether or not I should tailor my style in order to reach (and please) a broader audience or stick to the voice that launched my blog and garnered me the respect of a considerable readership. But based on some of the critical comments I'd received over the years, I had come to believe that the tone I struck was not quite the right one.

These- yep you called it- mostly average white readers (but also other ethnicities, as well) were uncomfortable with the picture my blog painted of Japan; a Japan many of them never got to see (for whatever reasons). They strongly recommended a more moderate approach to the problems here, warning that if I didn't take some of that bass out of my voice, “people” would begin to label my work as the over-the-top, out-of-touch, extremist, rantings of an angry black man, other words, readers would begin to tune me out.

Stupidly, I let their opinions seep into my thinking, and I broke down and did it. I toned down the rhetoric. Dramatically so.

And...readers began to tune me out.

Not because they thought I was coming on too strong but because, as you said, they began to feel that I'd insulted their intelligence with my newly adapted softer approach and borderline apologist views. And it took some time and some doing to weed out the corruption of my writing, re-establish my voice, and to regain the trust and credibility I'd lost with readers who thought I'd dumb down and punked up just to appease the sensibilities of a handful of fence-riding readers.

So, I just wanted to thank you for reminding me that, with the column I write now via a mainstream newspaper, to stay true to myself whatever may come, and to continue to respect my readers time and intelligence by presenting my views as honestly, forcefully and directly as possible.

Continued Success to you, sir!

Best regards,

Baye McNeil

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