Tears We Cannot Stop

Tears We Cannot Stop, A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson


Below are some of the quotes from Tears We Cannot Stop that jumped off the page at me. Pick up this book, read it for yourself. We have work to do. It starts with me and continues with you.


I offer this sermon to you, my dear white friends, my beloved comrades of faith and country. My sermon to you is cast in the form of a church service. I adopt the voices of the worship and prayer leader, the choir director, the reader of scripture, the giver of testimony, the preacher of the homily, the bestower of benediction and the exhorter to service, and the collector of the offering plate. I do so in the interest of healing our nation through honest, often blunt, talk. It will make you squirm in your seat with discomfort before, hopefully, pointing a way to relief.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 7

To paraphrase the Bible, to whom much is given, much is required. And you, my friends, have been given so much. And the Lord knowns, what wasn’t given, you simply took, and took. But the time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future. If we don’t act now, if you don’t address race immediately, there very well may be no future.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 7-8

In regard to little white girls calling Dyson’s daughter and her friends the N-word, the first time his daughter had heard the word being at a hotel swimming pool where she was playing with her friends.

I know they’re your creatures, too, Lord, but sometimes white folk act like the Devil is all in them. The Holy Ghost is nowhere in the vicinity.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 22

Lessons of race that are learned early are hard to get rid of later on. often they harden into warped perceptions of black folk. Those perceptions turn to cudgels that are wielded against us when we least expect it.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 25

Don’t let it happen, Lord, please don’t let it happen. Oh Lord, I cannot bear the thought of seeing another black person perish because of the weaponized fear and armed hostility of a society that hates black folk in its guts. It can happen to any of us. It can happen to all of us. That is why we are all scared, Lord.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 27

I am beyond rage, Oh Lord, at the utter complicity of even good white folk who claim that why care, and yet their voices don’t ring out loudly and consistently against an injustice so grace that it sends us to our graves with frightening frequency. They wring their hands in frustration to prove that they empathize with out plight–that is, those who care enough to do so–and then throw them up in surrender.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 31

Whiteness has privilege and power connected to it, not matter how poor you are. Of course the paradox is that even though whiteness is not real it is still true. I mean true as a force to be reckoned with. It is true because it has the power to make us believe it is real and to punish those who doubt its magic. Whiteness is slick and endlessly inventive. It is most effective when it makes itself invisible, when it appears neutral, human, American.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 46

They swore that their invented history was objective and built on fact. Any other interpretation had to be challenged. Whiteness has only two modes: it either converts or destroys. My black body was a thorn in the flesh of whiteness. My very presence as a black man revealed that whiteness was as artificial as the idea of race on which it rested. And so my flesh, my history, my culture, my mind, my tongue, my being had to be removed.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 49

Admit it: you go on your merry white way as if the police aren’t routinely hammering black folk without cause, aren’t daily brutalizing us in front of your faces, aren’t murdering black folk without so much as blinking an eye. You didn’t care then. And tell the truth–many of you don’t really care now.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 59

Can’t you see, my friends, that whiteness is determined to get the last word? That it is determined once again to make its unspoken allegiances and silent privilege the basis of justice in America? Don’t you see its your way or no way at all? Please don’t pretend you don’t understand us.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 63

The historical erasure of blackness strengthens this radically blind version of American history, makes it easier to make the argument that black folk never did a damn thing for the nation. Iowa congressman Steve King wondered in 2016 where in history “are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people . . . where did any other subgroup of people [other than whites] contribute more to civilization?

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 74

As much as white America invented us, the nation can never be free of us now. America doesn’t even exist without us. Thats why Barack Obama was so offensive, so scary to white America. America shudders and says to itself: The president’s supposed to be us, not them. In that light, Donald Trump’s victory was hardly surprising.

Although it sounds delusional, perhaps more than a few of you feel the way Donald Trump’s former campaign chair in Mahoning County, Ohio, Kathy Miller, does. “If you’re black and you haven’t been successful in the last 50 years, it’s your own fault,” Miller said. “You’ve had every opportunity, it was given to you. You’ve had the same schools everybody else went to. You had benefits to go to college that white kids didn’t have. You had all the advantages and didn’t take advantage of it. It’s not our fault, certainly.” She also said, “I don’t think there was any racism until Obama got elected.”

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 76-77

Civil rights icon Joseph Lowery often says that we live in the fifty-first state, the state of denial. Denial is even more sinister than amnesia because there is some concession to facts that are then roundly negated. Here is where the gaslight effect goes wild. Black folk are made to feel crazy for believing something they know to be true.

Beloved, you must admit that denial of fact, indeed denial as fact, has shaped your version of American history. This is how you can ingeniously deny your role in past racism. You acknowledge that bigotry exists.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 78

White denial thrives on shifts and pivots. “It was my ancestors, not me, who did this to you.” But what looks like confession is really denial. The “them, not me” defense denies how the problem persists in the present day. It is best to think of systems and not individuals when it comes to racial benefit in white America. Thinking of it in individual terms removes blame from many of you who are present beneficiaries of past behavior. The institutions of national life favor your success, whether that means you get better schools and more jobs, or less punishment and less jail. Not because you’re necessarily smarter, or better behaved, but because being white offers you benefits, understanding, and forgiveness where needed. A great deal of white advantage has nothing to do with how you actively resist black success, or the success of other people of color. It’s what you do for each other, how you take each other into account, that makes up a lot of what we have come to call “white privilege.”

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 79

My friends, if you simply look around, and reflect on even recent history, you’ll see that denial shows up in painful ways, even among your folk. A recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that 56 percent of Millennials think that the government spends too much on black and minority issues, and an even higher number think that white folk suffer discrimination, and it is just as big a problem as that suffered by black folk and other minorities. Or those white youth wonder why they don’t have a White Entertainment Channel to match BET.

imagine how this sort of reasoning makes us just a little bit crazy? How it makes us think that white folk are hell-bent on denying how much the past is still with us? Black folk were successfully voting because they were being protected. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg torched her conservative colleagues with blistering eloquence. She argued that “throwing out preclearance [the Section Four formula] when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella because you are not getting wet.”

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 80-81

American history hugs colorblindness. If you can’t see race you certainly can’t see racial responsibility. You can simply remain blind to your own advantage. When some of you say, “I don’t see color,” you are either well-intending naïfs or willful race evaders. In either case you don’t help the cause. The failure to see color only benefits white America. A world without color is a world without racial debt.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 86

Whiteness is having all the advantages on your side–the referees blowing the whistle for you, the arena packed with only your fans. In fact, whiteness means you never even have to play the game at all, at least not in head-to-head matchups with the talent and skill of black folk.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 89

on white savior movies

In Free State of Jones, Matthew McConaughey plays real-life figure Newton Knight, a poor gamer from Jones County, Mississippi, who galvanized a group of white army deserters and escaped enslaved folk against the Confederacy during the Civil War. And in Freedom Writers, Hillary Swank plays a white teacher in Long Beach in the mid-nineties who educates nonwhite high school students in the midst of inner city hardship. With white friends like that black folk need no heroes of their own.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 91

American history is the history of black subjugation. The Constitution is a racially hypocritical work of genius. The north and the south are divided because of us. The history of the twentieth century in America is the history of our struggle against white America.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 93

Beloved, you must give up myths about yourself, about your history. That you are resolutely individual, and not part of a group. That you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps. You must also forcefully, and finally, come face-to-face with the black America you have insisted on seeing through stereotype and fear. Whiteness can no longer afford to hog the world to itself or claim that its burdens are the burdens of the universe. You must repent of your whiteness, which means repenting of your catastrophic investment in false grievances and artificial claims of injury. You must reject the easy scapegoating of black folk for white failures, white disappointment, and white exploitation.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 94

What I ask my white students to do, and what I ask of you, my dear friends, is to try, the best you can, to surrender your innocence, to reject the willful denial of history and to live fully in our complicated present with all of the discomfort it brings.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 101-102

There is a big difference between the act of owning up to your part in perpetuating white privilege and the notion that you alone, or mostly, are responsible for the unjust system we fight. You make our request appear ridiculous by exaggerating its moral demand, by making it seem only, or even primarily, individual, when it is symbolic, collective. By overdramatizing the nature of your personal actions you sidestep complicity. By sidestepping complicity, you hold fast to innocence. By holding fast to innocence, you maintain power.

The real question that must be asked of white innocence is whether or not it will give up the power of life and death over black lives. Whether or not it will give up the power to kill in exchange for brotherhood and sisterhood. If it does, it can at long last claim its American siblings and we can become a true family.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 105

There’s no question that Donald Trump has “huge” charisma. He possesses a brutally appealing magnetism that, tragically, amplifies the most virulent rumblings of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia this country has reckoned with in quite some time. That is because Donald Trump is the literal face of white innocent without consciousness, white privilege without apology.

It is not simply a matter of voicing disapprobation for Trump; his supporters, too, must be answered. Many are driven by rage that for eight years a black man represented a nation that once held black folk in chains and that still depends on the law to check black social and political aspirations. Barack Obama so spooked bigoted whites of this country that we are now faced with a racist explicitness that we haven’t seen since the height of the civil rights movement.

Trump, more than anything else, signifies the undying force of fear unleashed by Obama’s presidency. He manipulates a confused and self-pitying white public.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 109-110

Yet Obama’s impact has been so quickly and thoroughly eclipsed by a pervading sense of racial and national doom. What many of us didn’t see coming is that Obama’s success would also be counted as his failure. The election of the nation’s first black president tapped into a deep vein of escapist hope, that it would be a simple, painless way to heal our historic wounds. We projected onto Obama our desire to crush bigotry with enlightened democracy. Obama, a stalwart of social justice, a wonder of political rhetoric, would be the unifying force of national identity and speak redemption into our bones.

But too many of you, my friends, more that I could bear to imagine, resented Obama’s rise. What we did not fully understand, or account for, is the deep-seated, intractable anger of the white Americans who never viewed Obama as fully American or quite human. Donald Trump has exploited these people, promised them a different transformation, one that returns the country to what they would like to believe it once was: theirs. This is the naked, unapologetic face of white innocence on steroids. We have moved backward in so many ways since the high point of Obama’s first election.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 111

What some of you are missing is that Kaepernick is the best kind of American there is: one willing to criticize his country precisely because he loved it so much. James Baldwin said it best when he wrote, “I love America more that any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Both Baldwin and Kaepernick have offended you so greatly because they insisted on separating whiteness from American identity.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 115

Beloved, your white innocence is a burden to you, a burden to the nation, a burden to our progress. It is time to let it go, to let it die in place of the black bodies it wills into nonbeing. In its place should rise a curiosity, but even more, a genuine desire to know and understand just what it means to be black in America.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 123

It was because there was one thing that Superman did that my father couldn’t do, and while I didn’t know it, I sensed it even then, when I still believed in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy: my father wasn’t faster than a speeding bullet, or more powerful than a noose. In that moment I inherited black intuition, a sense about the world that outpaced my knowledge of it. It was black intuition that, in retrospect, was inevitable because all black people get it at one time or another. It is passed down from generation to generation in the cellular memory of our vulnerable black bodies. I got my innocence snatched from me, with one word, more abruptly and years earlier than white children lose theirs. And for all that my own story is specific, it is the opposite of unique.

[the n word] condenses the history of hate and the culture of violence against black folk. When white folk say the word they bridge the gap between themselves and the hateful history it reflects. It links verbal and physical violence. The term is also a form of moral violence. It has to do with the intentions of white folk when they hurl that word in our presence.

[the n word] says lynching, castration, rape, rioting, intellectual inferiority, Jim Crow, second-class citizenship, bad schools, poor neighborhoods, police brutality, racial terror, mass incarceration, and more.

[the n word] has no rival. There is no rough or refined equivalence between the term and the many derisive references to white folk. Those terms don’t evoke singularly gruesome action. [the n word] is unique because the menace it implies is portable; it shows up wherever a white tongue is willing to suggest intimidation and destruction. There are no examples of black folk killing white people en masse; terrorizing them with racial violence; shouting “cracker” as they lynch them from trees and then selling postcards to document their colossal crimes. Black folk have not enjoyed the protection of the state to carry out such misdeeds.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 131-133

Black folk committed 36 percent of violent crime in 2015, while white folk committed 42 percent of violent crimes in the same year. White folk consistently lead all other groups in aggravated assault, larceny, illegal weapons possession, arson, and vandalism. And white folk are far more likely to target the vulnerable too. White folk lead the way in forcible rape. You’re also more likely to kill children, the elderly, significant others, family members, and even yourselves. White folk commit a majority of gang-related murders too. A majority of the homicide victims in this country are white. White folk are six times as likely to be murdered by a white person as they are to be taken out by a black “thug.” The white-on-white mayhem is profound, yet no one speaks of it in racial terms.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 149

Sometimes my father beat us something awful. It was ritual and tradition, of course, in so many of our communities. He got beat, and, therefore, he beat. It had long since passed into rite and folklore, long since been an artifact of the agonizing anthropology of complicated black domestic habits. It had now become part of the art of punishment and control–in part to keep us from being slaughtered in the white world. The logic is as simple as it is brutal: I will beat my kids so white folk won’t kill them.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 158

Beloved, one thing is clear: until we confront the terror that black folk have faced in this country from the time we first breathed American air, we will continue to die at the hands of cops whose whiteness is far more important in explaining their behavior than the dangerous circumstances they face and the impossible choices they confront.

We do not hate you, white America. We hate that you terrorize us and then lie about it and then make us feel crazy for having to explain to you how crazy it makes us feel. We cannot hate you, not really, not most of us; that is our gift to you. We cannot halt you; that is our curse.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 193

Beloved, you must also educate yourselves about black life and culture. Racial literacy is as necessary as it is undervalued.

What should you read? I always start with James Baldwin, the most ruthlessly honest analyst of white innocence yet to pick up a pen.

Beloved, you should read books about slavery that prove it was far more varied and complicated than once believed… Slavery was ensconced in politics, intertwined with the economy… The Civil war was, centrally, the infernal contest of white regions over black flesh and its future in America…

Beloved, take in as much as you can about the modern civil rights movement… Grapple with the black freedom struggle, too, especially the impact of black nationalism’s most influential leader, Malcolm X…

Beloved, you should read as much as you can about race and black identity in the media too.

[titles and descriptions fill five pages listing authors Ira Berlin, Stephanie Camp, Thavolia Glymph, Edward P. Jones, Charles Johnson, Toni Morrison, Steven Hahn, Manisha Sinha, Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert, Edward E. Baptist, Vincent Brown, Drew Gilpin Faust, James McPherson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Eric Foner, Isabel Wilkerson, Aldon Morris, Henry Hampton, Steve Fayer, Taylor Branch, David Garrow, Diane McWhorter, Gilbert King, Barbara Ransby, Kay Mills, Clayborne Carson, Manning Marable, Peniel Joseph, Joshua Bloom, Waldo Martin Jr., Robin Kelley, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Michele Wallace, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s, Andrea Ritchie, Patricia Hill Collins, Ralph Ellison, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Maya Angelou, Barack Obama, Jamilah Lemieux, Ta-Nehisi Coates, William Jelani Cobb, Jamelle Bouie, Eve Ewing, Clint Smith, Wesley Lowery, Damon Young, Vann Newkirk, Michael Denzel Smith, Bakari Kitwana, Rembert Browne, Wesley Morris, Nicole Hannah-Jones, Keisha Blain, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Mark Anthony Neal, Marc Lamont Hill, James Braxton Peterson, Salamishah Tillet, Stacey Patton, Kiese Laymon, Melissa Harris-Perry, Treva Lindsey, Obery Hendricks, Jr., Farrah Griffin, Brittney Cooper, Stacy Floyd-Thomas, Elizabeth Hinton, Alondra Nelson, Thadious Davis, Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Keri Day, Eboni Marshall Turman, Lawrence Bobo, Lead Wright Rigueur, Marcylinena Morgan, Nell Painter, and thousands more.]

Beloved, must not only read about black life, but you must school your white brothers and sisters, your cousins and uncles, your loved ones and friends, and all who will listen to you, about the white elephant in the room–white privilege. Share with them what you learn about us, but share as well what you learn about yourself, about how whiteness works. You see, my friends, there is only so much I can say to white folk, only so much they can hear from me or anyone who isn’t white. They may not be as defensive with you, so you must be an ambassador of truth to your own tribes.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 199-203

Beloved, all of what I have said should lead you to empathy. It sounds simple, but its benefits are profound. Whiteness must shed its posture of competence, its will to omniscience, its belief in its goodness and purity, and then walk a mile in the boots of blackness.

Michael Eric Dyson, TEARS WE CANNOT STOP, pg. 211

Please read Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop and then pass your book along to a friend ready to empathize and learn about the black experience and how their ignoring of their own white privilege is sucking the air out of America.

Book responses are coming to an end as I prepare for law school beginning soon, but thank you for reading along with me as I too attempt to school myself about black life and culture and raise my own racial literacy.

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