“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” – Zora Neale Hurston
I haven’t been able to get that Zora Neale Hurston quote off of my mind in this New Year―2014 asked some major questions that I’m hoping 2015 will answer. Mike Brown’s killing hurled us into a social dialogue on race and racism unlike one I’ve seen in my lifetime. Sure, we’d seen these questions being asked on a national level around other similar tragedies―Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, tragically too many other names to mention―but as the news headlines moved on to other things, the voicing of those questions, on a broad, national level, went from bold queries to whispers to indecipherable murmurs to a hush; complete silence, until the next race-based tragedy occurred.
But, that’s not so this time around. Mike Brown’s killing set a Movement into motion that has been dedicated to amplifying those questions, specifically and most especially in spaces where those questions cause the most discomfort, where those questions were birthed, where those questions thrive, but are greatly neglected―white spaces. The Movement is active, alive, kicking, and fighting, loudly, proudly, and unapologetically demanding answers to those terrible questions―it seems it will not rest, we will not rest, until those questions are answered. Those questions revolve around the killings of Darrien Hunt, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice, Tanesha Anderson, John Crawford, Kajieme Powell, Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Michelle Cusseaux, Yvette Smith, Antonio Martin. Those questions are based in white supremacy, the brutality and militarization of American police, systemic racism in America, and related violence, injustices and inequalities.
Those questions are tragic. Those questions are real. Those questions are unfairly felt by, and asked of, millions of black and brown Americans who did not ask to be in this sick, unjust “interrogation.” Nonetheless, there are those individuals who ignorantly, if not cruelly, question the actuality of those questions.
As the questions were magnified in 2014, I noticed the (white) denial that these questions hold validity, that these questions are real, that these questions even exist at all. This, of course, is nothing new―we’ve seen this same response from White America time and time again. Yet, in the past, as the questions being asked on a national level moved from bold queries to whispers to indecipherable murmurs to a hush, White America was again allowed to sit in their comfortable, complicit silence. That national silence obviously did not nullify the questions being asked, it merely attempted to muffle and ignore them. That silence―not afforded to everyone―is enabled by privilege, as others outside of that privilege can’t so easily ignore or escape the haunting, echoing reality of those questions. This time, however, much to the frustration of many (mostly white) individuals, the Movement is ensuring that the echoes of injustice are heard by all.
This has led to much controversy and outrage.
You can observe White America’s attempts to cover their ears to these questions in the constant attempted derailment of conversations of systemic racism and white privilege, in the attempted justification of the killing of black bodies through demonization and dehumanization, in the arrogance of the belief that injustices unknown to, and not experienced by, them are nonexistent. You can observe White America’s attempts to step around these questions with, “What about black on black crime,” or, “We have a black president,” or, “I have a black (friend, spouse, adopted child, employee, etc),” or, “You’re racist for talking about racism.” And still, anytime I write about systemic racism in America, white supremacy, and or white privilege, it never fails that a white person―usually a man―will emerge from a dark corner of the Internet with retorts attempting to debunk what I am saying, only to satirically prove the point I was making.
White supremacy, white privilege, white denial, white rage, white tears, all white everything.
Please, do not for one second think that I am excluding myself from these thoughts. As a heterosexual, white, American, man, I realize that I live in some of the most prime property of intersectional privilege in this imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal America. I say that not to boast, but to point out my awareness of my own privilege, and my fight to work out my own way of existence in this world in relation to that privilege. Some pockets of the Christian church speak about “working out your salvation,” that salvation is not something that just happens to someone at one single point in time. But salvation is, rather, a lifetime commitment of labor; I see acknowledging privilege in the same way. Acknowledging privilege isn’t a once-off event—it’s daily work, intentional effort to be self-aware, mindful attempts to not take part in the perpetuation of dominator values. It’s work. But without this initial and continual work, it’s impossible to fully understand these important questions being asked, much less to fathom and imagine the much needed answers to those questions.
When it comes to racial progress in America, it seems we are at a strange type of stalemate. I would say this is mostly hinged on that fact that many white people do not, or cannot, see or understand their role in this struggle. Those white people who do not understand the questions being asked don’t understand them because they have never had to. In his book Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence Of Racism, Derrick Bell breaks down this entire American situation in a short excerpt, even before the preface or table of contents,
“Black people are the magical faces at the bottom of society’s well. Even the poorest whites, those who must live their lives only a few levels above, gain their self-esteem by gazing down on us. Surely, they must know that their deliverance depends on letting down their ropes. Only by working together is escape possible. Over time, many reach out, but most simply watch, mesmerized into maintaining their unspoken commitment to keeping us where we are, at whatever cost to them or us.”
This is not to be confused with ideas of white saviors—alternatively, the reality that there can be no true social progress without white consciousness. Too many white people see racism as a “black problem,” if they even admit it’s a problem at all. This is simultaneously tragic and ironic considering white supremacist ideology and practice was, very obviously, founded by white people. However, most unfortunately, white supremacist indoctrination knows no bounds, and is not limited to the minds of only white people. Once set into motion, white supremacy—as an institutionalized system of domination—can be maintained and perpetuated by people of all races, both on institutionalized and individually internalized levels. With that said, systemic racism and white supremacy in America is a white problem—one that unfortunately and adversely impacts the lives of black Americans.
Anti-white supremacy is not anti-white people. The fight is against the systems we are all caught up in, a fight against dehumanization.
But many white people cannot see themselves in the “answers” because the don’t see themselves in the questions.
Chinua Achebe said, “Privilege, you see, is one of the great adversaries of the imagination; it spreads a thick layer of adipose tissue over our sensitivity.” The unfortunate truth is, many white Americans cannot—or are not willing to—put in the work of “answering” the questions because they don’t understand the questions. Privilege has protected them, and their loved ones, from being inconvenienced by those questions. They live lives unquestioned, untouched by the injustices that lurk outside their bubble of privilege. Protected by privilege, the privileged hear others speaking of injustices unknown to them and conclude that those injustices must not exist. Those who cannot find themselves in the questions will struggle—or refuse—to put themselves in the work of finding answers, in being answers.
Naturally, the perspective of people benefiting from institutionalized systems of domination in America is myopic—obstructed by privilege. Instead of ventures to hear the questions clearly, they will fling irrelevant “answers” at the questions that they do not understand, that cause them discomfort, that question their very place of privilege. It is most often easier to believe lies that whisper sweet nothings into our ears than it is to listen to a truth that disrupts our peace. Those benefiting from privilege—and various intersections of it—have never tasted the bitter injustices wrought by the dominant cultures. As James Baldwin pointed out in his letter to his nephew, “They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”
Privilege protects. Privilege blinds. Privilege allows people to not have to question realities outside of their own. Alas, you don’t know until you know, and most privileged people don’t know because they have never been forced to know. And ignorance is bliss, as they say. But this cannot be an excuse. At this point, if people don’t know, it’s because they don’t want to know. And privilege is what grants them the option of not knowing. That stubborn refusal to acknowledge privilege, and or the realities of others outside of one’s privilege, is violence. Those who choose to remain ignorant to the vile injustices and inequalities of institutionalized systems of domination in America are complicit in that violence. Those who choose to continue to remain silent are complicit in their silence―complicit in the killings of…
Amadou Diallo and
Trayvon Martin and
Jordan Davis and
Yvette Smith and
Michelle Cusseaux and
Mike Brown and
Eric Garner and
Akai Gurley and
Kajieme Powell and
John Crawford and
Tanesha Anderson and
Tamir Rice and
Ezell Ford and
Darrien Hunt and
Antonio Martin and
every other name of black and brown bodies slain in America’s past and
every other name-turned-hashtag that we will be forced to know.
Let this national conversation cut away the thick layer of adipose tissue that Chinua Achebe speaks about. Let us continue to amplify the questions, and if we don’t understand them, put in the important work that brings understanding. Let those tragic questions of 2014 educate, enlighten, engage, and guide us to appropriate action in 2015. Let us continue to seek and fight for the answers. Let us have the courage to be the answers.
“This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” – Paulo Freire