Alexis Weston | Staff Writer
About a week ago I was watching Netflix and I noticed a new documentary called Accidental Courtesy. When I read the description I thought it had to be a joke. But, it was real. Accidental Courtesy follows a man named Daryl Davis, a successful black musician whose pastime was befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan and similar hate groups in the hopes of guiding them away from white supremacy and towards a more egalitarian school of thought. Davis’s mission is fueled by one central question: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”
In an era of pro-black activism that advocates unapologetic blackness and looks towards Malcolm X (pre-revelation) as an icon, this approach comes off as a betrayal to many black millennial. How could Davis break bread with someone that has dedicated their life to the extermination of black people? How could Davis enjoy a friendship with someone who has dedicated themselves to hatred? And how could he keep the robes and memorabilia given to him by those that left the Klan because of him?
Kwame Rose, an activist who rose to prominence after an encounter with Geraldo Rivera during the protests for Freddie Gray, told Davis, “You’re uneducated about the reality of most of the people who look like you. Stop wasting your time going to people’s houses that don’t love you, a house where they want to throw you under the basement. White supremacists can’t change.” He left the conversation abruptly shortly after making this statement.
In all honesty, I’m not 100% sure how I feel about Daryl Davis and his efforts. A part of me wants to appreciate the goodness and the optimism of it all. However, to some degree, he’s been relatively successful. He stated in his documentary that, after the Imperial Wizard of Maryland left the KKK because of his friendship with Davis, the chapter fell apart and there is no longer a thriving chapter there. While some people have tried to revive it and members from other areas have gone to the state attempting to reestablish the Klan’s presence there, none of these attempts have been very successful.
So, to some extent, his methods are effective. However, according to PBS’s RACE-The Power of an Illusion Ask the Experts: What the Experts Say, this isn’t the key to eradicating systemic racism. John Cheng, one of PBS’s experts and a Commonwealth Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University who has studied race and ethnic relations, the key is self-education so that one can understand, “the ways that race and racism work and to see things in terms of social relations rather than discrete individual acts.”
Because racism is an epidemic caused by institutionalized practices, I cannot completely agree with Davis’s attempts to solve this problem. Racism, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t something that can be ended on an individual level. It’s not something that exists on a case-by-case basis. It’s alive and well because of a system and an institution that benefits from it. Does that mean that individuals can’t help bring an end to it? Of course not. It just means that the individuals that doe dedicate themselves to eradicating racism need to think about it on a scale much larger than an individual one.
I don’t think that Daryl Davis is a sellout or an Uncle Tom or a disgrace to black people in the United States. I think that he’s a man with a mission. Do I completely agree with it? Not necessarily. But, I do think that he is helping to alleviate racism on a social level. And that is something that I can appreciate.