Transcript: Winkfield Twyman Jr. and Jennifer Richmond
My conversation with the authors of Letters in Black and White: A New Correspondence on Race in America
In 2019, a white woman in Austin, Texas signed up for a diversity training seminar, in the hopes of better understanding growing polarization in America. But that workshop, in her view, was itself divisive. She went on to publish an essay about it, ending with a call for others to reach out to her with their own experiences — and soon got a letter from a Black man across the country that resulted in a years-long conversation on race.
Jennifer Richmond is a China scholar and international relations specialist. Winkfield Twyman Jr. is a writer and former law professor. Their new book is Letters in Black and White: A New Correspondence on Race in America.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the episode for free here.
TH: Wink, Jen, welcome to Lean Out.
JR: Thanks, Tara. It's nice to meet you.
WT: Thank you for having us.
TH: So great to have you both on the program. As you know, I heard about your book from the filmmaker Eli Steele, and I think I started reading it the same day. Wink, at a recent event with Eric Smith from Free Black Thought, you said that you immediately recognized Jen as a kindred spirit. That's how I felt about both of you, reading your letters. So, it's so nice to have you on. I want to start today with the essay, Jen, that sparked this project and this friendship and this new way of talking and thinking about race. Jen, tell us about the workshop in Austin that inspired your 2019 essay, “Diversity Drop-Out.”
JR: I had started to write about, and worry about, issues around polarization in America. Let me back up and let you know that I started life professionally as a China scholar, and still identify as such. And it was that knowledge of what authoritarianism looked like, and trends I saw in the United States — trends that were coming through in our polarization — that really had me concerned. So I started to research these various trends, and as I did so, I came to realize that race was one of the big polarizing wedge issues. As I said, I'm a China scholar. My specialty is not race. It's not even necessarily American history, although I'd like to think that I'm knowledgeable about American history. So I thought to myself, “Well, there's obviously something I've missed.” I wanted to get up on the conversation, and so I signed up voluntarily. It was not forced. The City of Austin had a diversity training program, a two-day, full day program. I went in with this genuine search for knowledge, for wanting to hear voices that weren't my own. And a completely open heart. This is, mind you, before 2020. This is before George Floyd. So this is before the whole DEI industry really exploded. And there wasn't a lot of talk about — I mean, it was starting to come out, but a lot of the negative ramifications from DEI hadn't really started to erupt. So I went in there, again, with an open heart. And I was so sorely disappointed.
There was absolutely no opportunity for me to talk to people who looked differently or had different life experiences from me. We were spoken to. And really, the subject was not diversity — as I know it, at least. It was about whiteness. There's so many stories about what happened within this training, but I'll just start with one. We had to take a privilege test and we got a privilege score at the end of this test. After we got our privilege score, we literally had to hold up our scores on our chest. Now remember, I'm a China scholar. This is the kind of stuff that happened in the Cultural Revolution, where you literally had placards around your neck, identifying you as “traitor,” “running dog of capitalism.” We were told to be very quiet and to line up with our scores. To me, this was just … I love diversity. I love America. That's why I got involved with polarization. I wanted to know more, because I felt that we had such great foundational values. Do we mess up? All the time, every day. But our foundational values, I really believed in. Particularly coming from someone who studied other countries and other government values and mores. So, I was just so disappointed, because this, to me, was segregating. And that is what led me to write “Diversity Drop-Out.” Hence, the relationship with Wink started.
TH: Wink, you two were strangers when you read Jen's essay. And you have said that it made you feel less alone. I want to read a passage from that first letter to her: “Whenever I come across a highly-touted conversation about race in the media, it always seems to be a conversation among the same handful of people echoing the same boilerplate script, written for a public audience. All the while, these individuals act as though they are speaking for whatever race they happen to belong to, and corrupt the English language for their own specific agenda.” You go on to write, “Let's not forget, there is no one Black experience. There are over 40 million Black Americans. That means there are over 40 million different perspectives, life stories, and personalities.” When you read Jen's essay, why did you feel alone in that view at that particular time?
WT: I have always known that no one is an avatar for a racial group, for their race. We're all individuals. We bring our unique perspectives, life stories, and experiences. And so, when I read her essay, I felt that I was reading the thoughts of a kindred spirit. Someone who also felt disaffection, alienation from the discourse in the public square about race. I certainly did. A short while before I read Jen's essay, I had this disturbing conversation, or encounter, with a family member. This family member declared, “Blackness is oppression. Nothing else matters.” I was transported back to Yorktown in 1781 when the American patriots played, “The world turned upside down.” Or, maybe the British did. But the point is that that statement was so counter to all of my memories and childhood aspirations and family blessings. So I felt disaffected from that statement. I was primed to receive into my heart, and into my soul, discomfort and disaffection from someone else who felt the same way as I did. So, yeah, I immediately saw that Jen was someone who saw and prized the individual. Who recognized that there was something going on here, in terms of the framing of language, and manipulation of people, that was ultimately counterproductive and destructive. I've always been anti-dogma, and when I read Jen's account, that struck me as the epitome of imposition of dogma. Dogma, bad. Individual, good. [Laughs]
TH: I want to get to dogma in a moment, because some of the paragraphs in your letters about dogma were a complete relief to read. I feel very much the same way as you do. But first, Wink and Jen, speaking of individuals, you both have very unique life experiences that you brought to this correspondence. Jen, as you've said, you're a China scholar and you've spent a lot of time living overseas. And Wink, you came of age in Virginia as part of what you call the New South. Could you both talk about how these experiences influenced your views on race?
WT: Well, in my case — and my son reminded me of this two weeks ago when we were in Hawaii — I really do, in a sense, span an age. I'm a part of what I consider the a nomad generation. I was literally born in the capital of the confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, in a segregated, all-Black hospital. When I came home from the hospital, I lived on Twyman Road, where everyone was a Twyman. So, my entire social world was Black, from birth until, let's say, third grade — the age of eight. But what is ironic is, I had no sense of race. Because if everyone is [the same] race, you don't think about that. You think about things that are more important, like one's character. I remember distinctly attending a segregated all-Black school in first and second grade, and never once did someone mention Blackness or [the fact] that we were of a certain race.
It was only with public school desegregation, that one was hit full-force with the legacy of Jim Crow segregation. But the point is: I recognized that what was most important about a person was their own personality traits, their aspirations, their ambitions. And so, together, I and my classmates, throughout the 1970s, created a New South. We actually ended centuries of social isolation.
So, for example, my father who graduated from high school in 1950s, could never call a white Virginian “classmate.” On the other hand, I was usually the only Black kid in my class. I was very ambitious, and very bright. And I learned to engage the outside world with comfort and security, ambition, and self-confidence. My classmates, in return, learned to see me as Wink, not as some caricature or stereotype or avatar for my race. And that was a beautiful thing.
That was a beautiful thing, particularly in a county that literally was the site of Civil War battles, that literally abutted the capital of the confederacy. We changed hearts and minds, on a day-to-day basis, in the classroom. So that's why I refer to it as the New South. Because by the time 1980 came, people were completely different in my county, my Southern county, on how we understood race. And so, it pains my soul to see regression. To see us going back in a sense — in the year 2020 of all things! It's crazy to me that we're embracing things like all-Black residential spaces, all-Black safe spaces, all-Black graduation ceremonies. It seems like the things I learned in my formative years — the importance of seeing the person and engaging the larger world — have been turned on their head. And so, when I heard that expression from a relative — “Blackness is oppression, nothing else matters” — I was, as I mentioned earlier, primed to receive wisdom from my kindred spirit, Jennifer.
JR: And clearly my experience is a lot different than Wink. But two things in particular for me. I grew up in a military family. My father — I write about this in the book — my father's best friend growing up was one of the first Black test pilots in the Air Force. I saw a lot of diversity growing up within the Air Force. And then my father took a position in what's now called Myanmar. At the time it was called Burma. I went to an international school. I hung out with Burmese and Filipinos and Malaysians. I loved it. I loved learning about their cultures. We would go to Japanese tea ceremonies and wear an Obi. Or we would go and hang out with Filipinos and eat the eggs that have the … I don't know what it's called. They'll know; they'll laugh at me now.
But to me, that was living. That was life — knowing these experiences. What was so cool to me was, as an American, these international environments that I lived in were a microcosm, I thought at least, of America. I mean, we are the one country that is literally made up of every part of the world. And if you live in these countries like China or Burma, they're very homogenous. Outside of our international cliques, where we were was very heterogeneous. And so I just valued that so much. I valued those stories. And again, when I came back and saw that we were segregating and not embracing that, that's where I asked myself, “Did I miss something? What changed?” Maybe it was that my experience was so abnormal, that I came at it from a perspective that wasn't your average, but I always found diversity as truly the foundational beauty of America. When I came back and saw how diversity was being manipulated in ways that I didn't understand, that is what really drove my curiosity.
TH: Throughout your correspondence, there's this constant effort to complicate the narrative, over and over again: “Be more specific, be more about the individual, be more about unique experiences. How do we talk about this in a way that is getting past these overarching stereotypes?” One of the ways that you do that is through language. Wink, early on in the letters, you made a point of letting Jen know that you wanted to move beyond slogans. You didn't, for instance, want to hear about “white privilege.” A lot of your passages, as I've said, about dogma and language, really hit home for me. When I used to work in the newsroom, in 2020, during that racial reckoning, one of the things I argued about in the newsroom is I didn't think we should use phrases like “white fragility,” or “lived experience” on-air. Because they're dogmatic and highly political, but also because they've been stripped of meaning by constant overuse. Talk about the stance you take towards such language.
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