Privilege: A Life Unquestioned…

February 20, 2015

“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.

photo credit: www.philly.com

photo credit: http://www.philly.com

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


Still Searching for Ubuntu…

August 1, 2014

Life is strange. There is a lot going on in the world right now. It seems as though the world is on fire.

gaza

And as we watch it burn, we take sides, place blame, partake in shouting matches, create hashtags, sign petitions, become angrier and angrier with one another, pushing each other further and further away. And the world continues to burn as we fan the flames with our hot breath and, instead of extinguishing it, we throw fuel on the fire. It would do us good to take a step back―a huge step back―and attempt to take an objective look at “us,” who we are, what we’ve become. But it can be extremely difficult to look at us as a whole―whether objectively or not―because it has become so convenient to remove ourselves from the whole that is “us,” that is humanity. We have given up the “us” for the sake of individualism, capitalism, self-preservation, nationality, imperialism, religion, class, gender, sexuality, political agendas, and/or race, to name a mere few.

I frequently find myself at the intersection of not wanting to further polarize the opposing polarities―widening the gap between them by voicing insight from one side or the other―and merely wanting everyone to realize and acknowledge the truth in the reality in which we all live. Unfortunately, “truth” is often relative, as people create and adopt their own “truths” to justify and rationalize the circumstances of their own existences. With this, “truth” becomes a subjective matter of perspective and opinion on what happened, or is happening, rather than an objective, factual account of the events. Then, these “truths” are further perpetuated through media outlets that share the ideals behind them―facts get warped and are taken out of context, opinions get shared and passed along as the irrevocable truth.

And the world continues to burn.

We have broken history up into fragments―polishing the pieces that serve our interests, casting out those that do not, and molding and reshaping some to fit our individual narratives or the narratives of our folk. In doing so, we have tried to separate ourselves from each other―separating ourselves from our joint history, denying, suppressing, and rejecting the history of others in our narratives of solitary histories. And, more often than not, it is true that the  “history” that is most widely accepted is written by the victors, and those accounts of “history” commonly live to serve the agenda of preserving the institutionalized structures of dominance and the dominant culture(s) at large. Simultaneously, the experiences and voices of the oppressed are negated and hushed, and those individuals are subjugated, subdued, and disenfranchised over-and-above the oppression they have already experienced―we dehumanize certain individuals, and add insult to injury by playing the victim when they ask for their human experience to be validated.

If you speak out against racism, you are called a racist.

If you speak out against injustice, you are being unfair.

If you speak out against the atrocities committed by a certain group, you are automatically anti-that-group or pro-another-group.

If you ask us to consider how history has impacted the present, you are living in the past.

I get it, though. We are about 7.046 billion people presently living on earth, and rapidly growing―it is impossible to find a middle ground on everything, if anything. And that’s not even taking into account the billions upon billions of people who came before us, who established many of the realities we now know and accept. All of the people who exist―as did all of the people who have ever existed, as will all of the people who ever will―each have our own entry-point and perspective on the lives we live and the world around us, many of those being starkly oppositional. Our relationship status is forever, “It’s complicated.”

Nonetheless, how beautiful is it when we strive to find commonality, seeking out the humanity in one another, rather than disallowing it? How wonderful is it when we enter a place where diversity is genuinely celebrated, and not used to discriminate? How incredible is it when we are able to cherish each other’s unique cultures, traditions and practices, rather than fearing them?

I am not delusional enough to believe that we will achieve any type of utopia on earth, where everyone lives in perfect unity and harmony. However, I do not think it is irrational to hope for the best we can be, collectively and together―also acknowledging that it is often the deepest of love we have for one group of people, mixed with fear and untruths, that fuels the deepest and ugliest hatred for another group. We convince ourselves it is necessary to hate, fight, and destroy “the other” in order to protect and guard those we hold most dear. We begin to believe that if we, and those we hold most dear, are to survive, we must obliterate “the other.”

This hate is so toxic and destructive, but love is somewhere there at its inception, however misguided it might be. Imagine if we were able to extend that love beyond ourselves, beyond our small circles. Imagine if we were able to move from the viewpoint of “them versus us,” and merely to “us.” Already, I hear retorts of, “But they started it,” and, “What if we decide to love them, put our guards down, and they destroy us,” and, “They are not my responsibility,” and, “But they are a different (fill in the blank),” and “But we are right, and they are wrong!”

And the world continues to burn.

Alas, everyone will not agree on everything all the time, if anything ever. But I wish we would be more open to understanding the history, reality, and perspective of others―most specifically and especially those who we have positioned ourselves against, those who we see as “the other,” those who we have determined are our enemies. None of us live in isolation―from each other or from our shared histories. If we deny the humanity within others, we are denying the humanity within ourselves. When we recognize that we are not islands, that we are all caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, we realize that “their history” is our history.  We have created each other, whether for the good or bad, and are all caught up in each other’s destinies. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about in his Letter From Birmingham Jail. This is Ubuntu―I am what I am because of who we all are.

And as the world continues to burn around us, I find myself continuously searching for this awareness―I’m still searching for Ubuntu.