Lately, a lot of people have started having some much-needed conversations about white privilege. Unfortunately, many of these conversations have been generating more heat than light. Nobody likes to be told that they are ignorant, and people whose own families have only barely escaped from grinding poverty (and who are at risk of sliding back in) resent being told that they have had it easy at someone else’s expense. Thus, the discussions about white privilege could easily serve as a way to divide black people from the working class white people who should be their natural political allies. So I suggest that progressive activists think carefully about how they frame these discussions. Rather than carelessly accusing strangers of being ignorant exploiters, we might try to talk about what it means to be cool, why so many black people are so effortlessly cool, and how a white person can become somewhat less uncool.
The Birth of the Cool
African-Americans popularized coolness, and white Americans have been coveting black coolness ever since. Even during the days of slavery, white Americans tried to steal that coolness by wearing blackface at minstrel shows. Yet there is no quicker way for a white person to show how uncool he or she is than to try to mimic black people. The African-American community remains the arbiter of coolness. The black community has the power to decide what is and what is not cool. This power can be used to great advantage in fighting an unjust social system. People who are at the top of a power structure do not mind if the people beneath them are angry or unhappy, as long as the underlings stay in their places. However, even high-ranking people want prestige, and coolness is an elusive form of prestige.
The Nature of Coolness
I got a vital insight into the nature of coolness by spending a lot of time in street protests of various kinds. (As a white woman, I can do this without fear for my personal safety.) In particular, I saw that black people tend to respond differently to protesters than white people often do. Most white people seemed to be indifferent or even hostile to protests against any aspect of the military-industrial complex. Many white people have come up to me and told me how evil or stupid I am for holding a peace vigil. (However, a few white people have come up to me to thank me for speaking out.) In contrast, black passersby have been overwhelmingly supportive, but they generally express their support in very subtle ways. They would rarely approach me. Instead, they would signal solidarity through extremely subtle looks and gestures. One person might make eye contact from a distance and then give the faintest nod. Another might seem to be looking off in another direction but then twitch his index and middle finger slightly, to indicate a barely perceptible peace sign.
The Anatomy of Coolness
I am not cool myself. I never have been cool and never will be cool. When I was growing up in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood, I took a dim view of the white kids who thought that they were cool, because their concept of coolness seemed to be based on willful ignorance and cruelty. But I think I understand why so many black people are undeniably cool. There seem to be two aspects to black coolness. One is emotional self-control. Like a good poker player, a cool person never expresses an unscripted emotion while the game is afoot. The other aspect is solidarity. A cool person is so in tune and in step with the people around them that the cool person can communicate through the most subtle nonverbal cues.
Why Dancers Are Cool
One of the ways in which coolness is developed is through music and dance. When you dance with other people, you have to keep to a rhythm that matches the music and the movements of the other dancers. Thus, dance is a way to develop awareness of other people’s feelings and intentions. When you coordinate your body movements with other people’s body movements, you actually create a hormonal state that helps to promote social bonding. Thus, it is hardly surprising that dance plays such an important role in the social and religious practices of so many societies. On the other hand, it is also hardly surprising that some religious sects forbid dancing, which tends to build solidarity among the people as opposed to obedience to authority. So people who have been encouraged to take part in social dances from early childhood will naturally be cooler than children from societies where people don’t dance. The more complicated their rhythms are and the more creative their dances are, the cooler the people will tend to be.
Why Jazz Is Cool
Coolness can be expressed through music, such as the blues and jazz. For example, a cool musician may adjust a rhythm slightly, so that the music “swings.” (It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.) A cool musician may “bend” notes slightly: playing or singing some notes slightly off-pitch on purpose, to create tension. In other words, musicians are “cool” if they can subvert expectations ever so slightly: enough to create tension but not so much that it becomes irritating. It takes a lot of skill to do this effectively. Cool musicians also take familiar tunes and play them in completely new ways, such as when John Coltrane played My Favorite Things. To do this, you must master and then transcend the conventional, which is totally cool.
How Oppression Created Coolness
Coolness was developed intensively by African-Americans because coolness arises out of a shared experience of oppression. To survive in that situation, you must be continually aware of the emotional states of your oppressors, while extremely cautious about expressing your own emotions. Since your oppression is shared, you have the opportunity to build a strong sense of community with other people who are facing the same oppressors. As a result, you will learn to express your emotions in ways that are subtle and hard for outsiders to see or understand. For black children growing up in the black community within a racist white society, the black dialect of coolness is like a mother tongue. For everyone else, it is like a second language that they will never speak with perfect fluency.
Why Uncool People Are Infuriating
Cool people understand how other people feel. When white people are extremely uncool, it is because they are being clueless about black people’s feelings. Part of this cluelessness results from a lack of knowledge about the problems that black people have faced and are still facing, but part of it results from being oblivious to the kinds of nonverbal corrective messages (i.e., “shade”) that black people have been giving them. Cool people notice the slightest hint of shade and adjust their behavior in response. Uncool people are oblivious to shade. They need to have things spelled out explicitly, and even then they may not be receptive to the message. So when a cool person is interacting with an uncool person, the cool person will become increasingly frustrated.
The “Dear White People” Conversations
A cool person may expect other people to be equally cool. This means that they expect other people to pick up on subtle social cues. So when cool people are confronted with an uncool person, they start off by throwing a bit of shade. When that doesn’t work, they have to escalate to a higher level. When a cool person is calmly using their words to explain to you that something is wrong, that cool person is actually expressing white-hot rage. That is why the “Dear White People” conversations get so heated. The very fact that a conflict has escalated to the point of actual conversation means that the black person is probably already very angry. Unfortunately, uncool people do not recognize that the very existence of the conversation is a sign that the conflict has escalated to an uncomfortable level, so they do not realize that they need to do something to cool things down.
Don’t Take It Personally
Sometimes, the anger that is being expressed through a “Dear White People” tirade is displaced. In other words, the person of color may really be angry at someone who is not even present, which is actually uncool. So a black person may say something like “I want white people to stop touching my hair!” If you are a white person who has never even dreamed of touching a stranger’s hair, you may be perplexed or even annoyed at being yelled at for this sort of thing. But don’t get defensive. Being defensive will just escalate the conflict when you really need to cool things down. Just listen and nod and keep your mouth shut. This is actually your opportunity to feel what it’s like to be unjustly accused on the basis of your race. Black people have to put up with that sort of thing all the time. Thus, these awkward conversations will give you just a harmless taste of something that black people have to deal with countless times a day. Such experience can even give you valuable practice in being cool.
Can You Become Cool?
Since coolness is a communal response to a shared experience of oppression, you cannot be effortlessly cool unless you grew up as part of an oppressed community. If you are white, you can never be totally cool, no matter how hard you try. Even if you dedicate yourself to the movement for equality and human rights, as you definitely should, you are still just a tourist. Your white skin is like an exit visa. You could walk away from the struggle at any time, but black people are in it for life, whether they want to be or not—and every black person you meet understands that basic fact. A few black people are going to resent you for that reason, even if you make yourself valuable to the movement. But you will have to deal with jealous people in all walks of life. Be cool about it. An angry young person may not be impressed, but the elders will think that you are kind of cool.
The Value of Coolness
Coolness may seem to be “a black thing, you wouldn’t understand it.” But coolness is actually a universally human thing that everyone should try to cultivate. Black people just have a more pressing need to be cool, and more opportunities to practice being cool. Cool people know what’s going on. They know how they feel, and they know and care about how other people feel. However, they are not slaves to their own emotions but can keep a poker face while other people are losing their cool. Cool people can communicate with each other on a wavelength that only other cool people can hear. Cool people also have an appreciation for the finer things in life. They have good taste in music, and they know how to dance. In other words, cool people command respect in any social setting.