Truth to Power: The Art of the Clap Back

President Barack Obama holds Chief of Staff time in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 28, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

One of my guilty pleasures is a good clap back. There is something immensely satisfying about seeing a tactical, hostile response to an insult. Clap backs work thusly:

  • Person A says or does something out of line. This is the inciting incident.
  • Person B righteously “claps back” with a response, usually insulting, designed to end the interaction and allow Person A to recognize the error of their ways. This is the clap back.
  • Balance returns to the force and the people rejoice.

There are many types of clap back: holiday clap backs, pop culture clap backs, musical clap backs, and presidential clap backs to name a few. Clap backs are delicious nuggets of karmic justice that I can’t resist.

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The clap back is also a necessary tool for any oppressed person trying to dismantle the master’s house.

As I’ve written before, manners, etiquette and decorum are constructed: rituals we have developed to chisel some semblance order out of chaos. Those rituals also perpetuate the imbalances of our system. Oftentimes, the clap back is a rejection of those rituals. Frequently, the perpetrator of the inciting incident is in a position of privilege (presumed, assumed or otherwise) and the clap back rejects that power imbalance. The inciter feels protected enough by who they are to call out something they feel “needs” to be called out without repercussion. The clap back says “I do not recognize your authority and I will behave as I see fit.”

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The clap back is the pinnacle of interpersonal checks and balances.

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Early in December, writer-actor Dominique Morrisseau explained a moment she clapped back at a fellow theater patron:

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The woman, possibly in her early 60s, looked at [Dominique]. We’ll call her Jane. I said: “I don’t have any cash, so I can’t really take those off your hands.”She handed me the tickets: “Well, just take them, ” she said. Then, as she walked away, she added, “Just don’t pop your gum, because I hate that.”

I wasn’t chewing any gum at the time….

In the middle of the play’s opening, as my friend and I laughed and enjoyed ourselves, Jane leaned in toward me and whispered, “Can you stop and keep it down?”

A moment.

First the gum-popping comment, and now this. Two things went through my head. The first was instant rage. The second was audacity. And that audacity caused me to respond to Jane in a whisper: “I will laugh whenever I think things are funny, so get used to it. You’re not going to tell me how I should respond to art.” Jane tried to chastise me further, but I simply put my hand up and said, “No more.”

In telling us this story, Morrisseau exposes behavior deemed less-than-ideal by the powers-that-be in service of themes greater than theater etiquette and tone policing. However, she eloquently describes the reason the clap back is necessary:

I am aware that no matter what provokes us, there is an unjust rule that says we — the person of color, the younger generation — are always wrong. We are taught that the provocation doesn’t matter, that we are supposed to accept abuses and harassment as a social norm, and that a rebuttal is somehow more socially disturbing than the initial offense.

The oppressed is always assumed to be the incorrect individual in these interactions. Contrary to the first rule of the Internet, I advise you to read the comments on that article. Read the overwhelming majority of people who see nothing wrong with “Jane’s” behavior and everything wrong Morrisseau’s. “Jane” was approached as an equal. She then offered Morrisseau the tickets and promptly reminded Morrisseau that Jane did not view Morrisseau as her equal. Jane felt protected by her power in that situation and Morrisseau righteously informed Jane that her power would not be recognized here.

Audre Lorde / Source
Audre Lorde / Source

The essence of the clap back is speaking truth to power and the consequences for not doing so are dire.

Convicted police officer Daniel Holtzclaw is what happens when the oppressed feel that they have no means to respond. The women he victimized felt powerless, unrecognized, and unheard. Furthermore, he relied on everyone (other cops, the justice system, society-at-large, and the victims themselves) recognizing his authority. That is what happens in the absence of the clap back. That is what happens when “decorum” is recognized before humanity.

When you can’t speak truth to power men break their own spines. Women die mysteriously in jail. Tamir Ralphie doesn’t get his BB gun for Christmas. Mother is less courageous than we thought.

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I’ll admit I love a petty Twitter feud as much as the next person. Clap backs can be a hilarious break from banal civility. But I also recognize what is at stake when someone chooses to clap back and say “I will not behave how you want me to and you will recognize me anyway.” It is crucial and one of the last, best tools we have.

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