Modifying the Zoot Approach

I’m do a lot of reading about Black Lives Matter and Criminal Justice Reform and I follow a lot of writers who address white privilege and how to be an ally. And there is a definitely a divide in how people think we should be discussing white privilege and racism with non-believers. There’s what I like to call the Zoot Approach which is where you try to get people to understand with relatable language (I often bring up the lessons I’ve had to learn so no one thinks I’m perfect) and empathy. It’s less confrontational and more conversational. It allows for time as it sometimes takes awhile for people to really understand the complexities of systemic racism. People like me hope that in the long run, this method changes more hearts and makes more progress than harsh confrontation and criticism.

But some days I wonder if the Zoot Approach is validating racist systems before it tries to tear them down.

Kimberly Foster does amazing videos on the For Harriet channel that often encourage the opposite approach. And every time I watch one I think. Shit. She is totally right. Her most recent one criticized Trevor Noah, not for the Lahren interview, but for his response to criticism afterwards as he pushed the Zoot Approach (he didn’t call it that, obviously). Here are some of the best quotes from it.

In theory, coming to a base level of understanding with the Right seems like a great idea but that requires betraying the trust of the people who are most marginalized. We are talking about people who can’t leave their identities at the door to come to a compromise.

we’re asked to engage racism as a valid political viewpoint

Yeah, there might be people who are converted through conversation but racism acts as a complex deeply entrenched set of systems, it’s not just about individuals.

To say both sides are equal is to say both sides are equally threatened or threatening that’s not true.

And I’m just so tired of people wagging their finger at us, the people who are victimized daily by systems that threaten to kill us, to tell us that we are being impolite.

I got another taste of it reading this soul-punching piece in reaction to Van Jones’ Love Army (which I adore as a privileged white person, of course). Here are some key quotes from that.

I learned from this dumbass ordeal that bigotry is based in belief. It’s emotional, not factual or scientific. That is the reason that you can’t reason it out of people. But you can’t love it out of their asses, either. Sorry Van Jones.

In the same way that so many millions of black people can harbor generational resentment of white people but still deal with them nonviolently, civilly, and productively, white people should be forced to deal with us the same way, even if they believe every single bullshit stereotype about us. It shouldn’t matter whether they “like” us or “love” us or not.


I’m just saying–black people are already a love army. The fact that we haven’t attempted, at any time, on a wide scale, to burn this country to the ground for what it did and continues to do to us, despite how we have fought, labored, and died for it–and in it–and because of it–shows that we are filled with love for our fellow Americans.

Racist people’s selective blindness to that is an indication that they will only ever see what they want to see when they look at us, no matter what we do.

So we should stop putting on all these performances of “respectability” and “morality” for them and do something that will actually improve our condition.

We should love ourselves enough to fight for what we want, not roll over and beg like good little pets.

Both of these angles address something called “tone policing” and I see it often. I got added to a bunch of Pantsuit Nation groups after the election and I can’t keep up with all of them, but there was a debate in one of them that involved a lot of tone policing. I didn’t dig into it because there’s too much going on in most of those groups and I can’t keep up with it all, but there were people calling out someone’s tone policing when they talked about how they (as a privileged white person) feel beat up a lot by black writers taking the stances I mention above and requested that everyone just “play nice” type of thing.

There were plenty of people calling her out on it and by the time I saw it the conversation had gotten a little out of control, but this is something I have to make sure I’m not doing. The Zoot Approach is not as much a deliberate decision to be passive, it’s really a reflection of who I am at my core. I’m not confrontational, I have a lot of empathy so I try to relate to people no matter how much I disagree with them. However, I am starting to feel more and more like time is not on my side. And I’m still letting people say things that I should be calling out because I’m worried about upsetting relationships or hurting feelings.

(Yes. I know. I’m adequately ashamed.)

I have had many people tell me my approach has helped them open their eyes to something they wouldn’t have seen if it had been yelled at them. So I’m not saying there’s not a point to my approach, but where do I need to draw the line? This is not just casual friends on Facebook. I’ve got deeper and more important relationships in jeopardy. These people who just say they’re not going to be friends with Trump supporters, I just can’t do that. Someone told me recently that putting politics into relationships was petty and part of me understood and agreed but then another part of me heard Kimberly Foster’s voice reminding me, “WE DO NOT HAVE TIME TO BE POLITE.”

Our criminal justice system is so complexly racist and it is removing men from families indefinitely. If they return, they are broken and thrown into a society that won’t have anything to do with them. They can’t get jobs, they can’t vote, they are angry and find solace in other angry people abandoned by the same system and they turn to violence and crime and then end up imprisoned again. It’s a cycle that starts with suspension in schools that puts kids in the private prison pipeline where businesses make money of criminals.

My friend Leah posted something the other day and I think it’s valid. She said she can’t engage in conversations without people agreeing to educate themselves in certain ways. And y’all? I am starting to kinda take the same approach. If you REALLY want to have a conversation with me defending our criminal justice system? I need you to read The New Jim Crow and watch The 13th first.

So I learn these things, I read these books, I watch these movies and I think about the Zoot Approach. And I think about lives in danger. I think about Mexican families who have raised children here and now may be sent home any day after doing nothing wrong other than trying to create a future for their children. The hope of a path to citizenship from the Obama administration for children who grew into adulthood as illegal immigrants knowing only our country, is now gone. They have committed no crimes other than trying to escape harm and poverty. And now they might be sent back to a country that hasn’t been home for a long time and thrown into a war zone. I think about mothers raising black sons in a country that has demonstrated time and time again that their lives are valued less than those of their white counterparts. I think about poor people who have been misguided by their trusted media sources to think this new President has their best interest at heart. I think about trans men and women who live in parts of the country where they can be forced into a dangerous situation simply for using the bathroom.

There are lives at stake. The Zoot Approach is too slow. I need to learn to pushback on tone policing as equal rights are to be afforded to all people – not because they’re nice – but because they are citizens of this country. I need to not let people openly support laws that prevent our marginalized citizens from having their voices heard in their votes, without challenging them. I need to ask people who cite the Black Panthers like some sort of pantheon of violence and white hatred if they’ve ever watched Black Power Mixtape or Vanguard of the Revolution. Did you know the Black Panthers provided meals and education to the black children abandoned by our country? I need to call people out for spitting out lines from Breitbart as if they’re a fact-based news source.

And I need to check myself when I a black activist calls out the Zoot Approach (not by that name, that would be weird) and I feel defensive. People of color suffer in silence all around me. They quietly take the abuses because if they jump up and speak out and point out the unfairness, they have a lot to lose. They could lose their job, their freedom, their life. What do I have to lose? Nothing. Why do I feel the need to so gingerly step around the issues? My skin color protects me, and yet I’m trying to be careful? If anyone should be bold with their stance it should be those of us with little at risk. I can’t change the inherent nature of my peace-keeping, but I will take steps to be more deliberate with my approach, I will be more bold with my arguments, I will risk losing friends because that’s small in comparison to the things the marginalized around me risk losing every day.

3 thoughts on “Modifying the Zoot Approach”

  1. I’m #14 on hold for The New Jim Crow at my local library. I forget what I started at, but I’m glad that there are other people also wanting to read this in my community. And I’m waiting for my husband and my finals week (last week of school, hurrah!) to watch The 13th because I don’t think my brain can take much more seriousness just yet. I also generally ascribe to the Zoot Approach but recently had a moment where I very deliberately, unflinchingly, baldly called someone I love very much a racist, and calmly countered every single “but” that he said before he finally threw up his hands and changed the topic. I don’t think it changed his mind about being a bigot for a second, but I do think it changed the way we will interact in the future, and I don’t think this is a bad thing. Even so, I still did some validating of his viewpoint before I shot down one of his arguments (black people don’t want to work and they are too lazy to go to school). “You were poor. You grew up in rural Mississippi when everyone had nothing. You know how hard it was to pull yourself up out of that. Now imagine how much harder it would have been if you were black.” I was so disgusted I just couldn’t take it anymore. I have no idea what he will say behind my back but I’m pretty sure he will at the very least be careful of his words around me. And then I ate ten cookies, no joke.

  2. Thanks for having these conversations Kim. I watched The 13th at your recommendation and have now recommended it to others.

    I’ll have to sit with Kimberly Foster’s video for a while before responding. My first reaction is defensive, so I know there has to be more there for me to learn. I did really like Trevor Noah’s interview recently where he discusses his take on The Zoot Approach:

  3. “I have had many people tell me my approach has helped them open their eyes to something they wouldn’t have seen if it had been yelled at them. So I’m not saying there’s not a point to my approach, but where do I need to draw the line? ”

    I’ve been listening to a lot of the same discussions you mention recently, and have been hearing two related but different aspects of this–1) calls to arms for people of color to stop policing their own tones, and to stop putting in effort to cushion the landing for white folks who may not be “ready” to hear what they have to say, and 2) calls to white folks to teach our own families and communities rather than tagging in people of color or otherwise relying on people of color to do the teaching. It’s a lot more work to have the long, coddling conversation with a white racist (especially one who doesn’t think they’re racist), and that’s not work that people of color should to have to do. But if you as a white person think you can change that racist’s mind based on your personal experience and relationship with them, maybe it is on you to put in that effort. This two-part frame doesn’t adequately address the whole validating racist systems in order to have the conversation angle, but it might be worth thinking about what people of color are doing to protect themselves a bit separately from our obligations as white people who want to do something to help.

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