A very distinguished journalist used a very ill-considered metaphor today, illustrating just how far we white folk have to go in rooting out deep-seated prejudices that may manifest themselves despite our own best efforts. While considering the relatively small polling gap between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote of Mr. Trump, “Every week he manages to stain his character a deeper shade of black” (my emphasis).
This metaphor suggests that misbehavior makes you blacker. In a time when being a large black man instantly gets Terence Crutcher labeled “a bad dude” by an observer in a helicopter, we white people must pay more attention to the metaphors we use. Equating blackness with misbehavior, even metaphorically, undermines the attempts we might otherwise make to treat black folk with dignity and respect. It’s not just arguing over words. Breaking the metaphorical link between blackness and evil can be an important component of uprooting deep-seated personal prejudices and systemic biases. (Insert obligatory reference to Lakoff’s and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By here.)
To anticipate one possible objection, I don’t in the least think that Mr. Brooks specifically chose that metaphor with the intention of disparaging black people. I can’t even imagine that of him. But that’s a part of what makes this conversation so important: we have to expose our own blind spots. Mr. Brooks could have written “manages to stain his character more deeply” or “manages to stain his character further” or “manages to stain his character again” or something like that without compromising his point in the least. But somehow, it felt natural to Mr. Brooks to qualify the stain on Mr. Trump’s character as “black.” And we need to make that feel unnatural if we white folk are ever going to get over feeling that we’re inherently superior to black folk.
To anticipate another possible objection, I understand and accept that Mr. Brooks was probably thinking of the jet black color of licorice, “RGB(0,0,0),” not the range of skin tones characteristic of, say, Barack and Michelle Obama, usually labeled as shades of brown in a box of crayons. If you hear that Mrs. Obama wore a black dress, you don’t immediately think the dress blended into her skin. But in our cultural moment, I think we need to refuse ourselves refuge in this sort of distinction when it comes to metaphors that attach value judgments to colors. “Black-like-licorice is bad” just bleeds over far too easily into “black-like-Barack is bad.” We know all too well nowadays how pervasive, and how damaging, the latter type of association can be.
Given Mr. Trump’s seeming disdain for black Americans (or at least very clumsy missteps in courting black voters), and his apparent popularity among American white supremacists, it is particularly jarring to think of Mr. Trump’s misbehavior making him blacker week by week. Would it not be more accurate to say that Mr. Trump’s particular varieties of misbehavior make him whiter week by week? Would we white Americans have read so easily past Mr. Brooks’s metaphor—would we have noticed it more readily, would we have been more uncomfortable, would we even have taken it as negative—if he had written that Mr. Trump’s misbehavior “manages to bleach his character a whiter shade of pale”?