Calling all white people, part 5: Misusing MLK

Calling All White People, Part 5

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Misusing MLK…Every Day
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

By God, we sure do like to invoke the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (a.k.a. MLK) a lot, don’t we? And by “we” I don’t mean the collective “we” of humanity—I mean we white people. And by “invoke,” I mean mostly posting MLK quotes online.

So often when a liberal (or moderate) white person wants to appear sensitive, progressive and enlightened, out comes an MLK quote. When someone is feeling a bit uncomfortable with Black activism and wants to “correct” Black people on the scope or level of their behavior (be they outright protests or even mild rebukes toward whitefolk), out comes an MLK quote.

Hell, when outright racists or ignorant trolls want to act the fools, out come the MLK quotes. Better yet, out come MLK quotes along with statements like “If Martin Luther King were alive today, I think he’d be supporting/defending Jeff Sessions and criticizing John Lewis.” (the former being Trump’s attorney general nominee who has a history of racism; the latter being a Black U.S. representative who got beaten up and arrested many times protesting and standing up for what’s right during the Civil Rights-era…if you think MLK would be pro-Jeff Sessions you need some history and/or immediate medical assistance).

But as so often happens, I digress. I’m writing this post on MLK Day; I know BGIM won’t be posting this until sometime after MLK Day, but still, context matters. (BGIM decided this post should run on MLK Day) 

This post was inspired by a humorous fake quote meme I saw on social media with a picture of MLK and this inset with the photo:

“White people, stop quoting me.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.

The problem isn’t that MLK isn’t eminently quotable. He is. But all too often, and mostly by white people, his quotes are misused over and over.

We love to share the feel-good ones but ignore the more pointed ones like this:

I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White citizens’ “Councilor” or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direst action” who paternistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

That’s from MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” by the way. We white people should do a lot more reading and sharing of that and a lot less of the “I have a dream” speech.

Point is, we need to stop trotting out MLK for the most part, my fellow whitefolk. Sure, there will be times it’s meaningful, particularly when we need to put someone in their place because they’re misusing MLK and need a quote more representative of MLK’s overall and long-term views. Because so many of us who are white don’t know crap about MLK. We see him as this peaceful, soft-spoken man who wanted peace above all else.

But in truth, while he preached non-violent protest, he didn’t preach peace. He preached fundamental change. Upsetting the apple cart. Rewriting society. He wanted not just an end to racism but to reshape capitalism itself because of the way it mistreats the average worker—among other radical social views he held that would uproot most of what we’ve grown accustomed to in this country.

So, think twice before you go quoting MLK or saying you know how he would feel or act regarding some situation or issue when you have only the barest, thinnest knowledge of what he stood for. And I say this as someone who himself has a pretty low-level, basic knowledge of MLK’s  life and times. But the thing is, knowing that about myself, I also don’t go around invoking him. That said, while I may not be an expert, I am eminently qualified to tell y’all that most of you who share my “pale persuasion” skin tone know less than me and really should tread lightly around summoning MLK into any conversation, whether online or off.

And despite my lack of deep knowledge, at least I can say, unlike most white people, that I’ve read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and now, I’d really suggest most of you do, too. Right now. Peace
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Calling all white people, part 3: Stepping on toes

Calling All White People, Part 3

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Step In and Step On Some Toes
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

White people, by and large, really want Black people to fix the problem of racism. Even the ones who support anti-racism efforts or only realize in some vague way that there are still racial injustices that they can’t quite pinpoint often put the onus on Black people to educate people about racism, to organize things, to somehow be the racial repairmen. There is a feeling that if enough Black people do enough of something, with only a little help from white people, they can overturn the entire problem of racism in the United States.

Even though white supremacy and anti-Black racism was created by white people, who are a majority. Even though white people are mostly the ones who benefit from and prop up every institution, business, and process that fuels systemic racism and institutional bias. Even though most people (even when they recognize something called white privilege exists) who are white don’t really want to share and don’t want to give up any of the benefits of whiteness being utterly centered as the norm in U.S. culture and government.

Somehow, roughly 13% of the population, holding very little of the wealth and almost none of the political or social power, is supposed to do all the heavy lifting.

We white people who “hate racism” but who descend from those who created the problem by elevating whiteness, we who continue to perpetuate white supremacy actively or passively, want to just to just be spectators to the fixing of the problem. That fixing to be carried out by those who are among the most burdened and adversely affected by racism in this country.

It’s like asking the abused wife and children to fix the violent patriarch of the household and make him a better person.

No, the responsibility to make things fair (or as close as possible) and to eradicate racial biases from our institutions and societal systems (as much as is possible) rests with us white people.

Now, I know what you’re thinking already: “I can’t fix a problem that big!” (And yet you expected Black people to? Shame, shame, shame). Well, the journey of a thousand miles begins, as they say, with a single step.

So step up. Step in. Step on some toes.

Whose toes?

Your friends. Your family members. The guy at the bus stop who just told you a racist joke. Your kid’s racially insensitive teacher. The ignorant neighbor. Those people. Those other white people who may not be as aware of you are that racism is still a problem. Or who deep down know it is but don’t really care because it doesn’t impact them. Or who like white supremacy and need to be reminded they have many white opponents to that notion.

It is up to you as a white person at the holiday dinners or social gatherings to be willing to call out other white people who do racist things or make racially insensitive remarks.

It is up to you as a white person to learn about systemic racism and institutional bias and how it came to be and why it still gets perpetuated. There are too many resources and Google is too good at searching for you to be demanding that Black people tell you all this. Many of them have already written about it anyway. And once you’ve educated yourself, it’s up to you to teach other white people and to correct people when they hold on to incorrect views about race and about Black people (and to counter those who perpetuate the lies).

The problem won’t get fixed overnight. But every day you shy away from challenging racist actions directly or fail to call out a person who’s just done something racist is one more day you’ve added to the problem. One more day’s worth of shoring up a damaged system and reinforcing that wall that stands between marginalized people and justice/equity.

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Calling all white people, part 1: Ally or accomplice

Calling All White People, Part 1

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Are You an Ally or an Accomplice?
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

When it comes to any disenfranchised/marginalized group, be it Black or Latinx people or LGBTQA people or Muslim and/or Arab people or whomever else (a.k.a The enemies of that voracious predatory and invasive species known as the Great White Straight Mansplainer I’m-not-Bigot), you’ll find a fair number of people calling themselves allies.

And, this being the Black Girl in Maine (BGIM) blog, we shall focus on allies of Black people for the purposes of the rest of this little rant.

The problem is that with too many of these allies (really, any percentage is too much, but I figure somewhere north of 25% of them), their support stops pretty much at retweeting or sharing posts about social injustices. They don’t show up to rallies or protests, they don’t chastise their bigoted relatives and friends, they don’t put themselves at risk to protect marginalized groups/individuals and they don’t pony up any money to support Black people or Black-led organizations who are either (a) involved in educational and activism efforts and need financial support or (b) are qualified/talented Black people they could hire, buy from, contract with, etc. in day-to-day business.

Even more disappointing than the mass of people who don’t show up (literally, or metaphorically with some financial support) are the ones who want to show off how progressive and open-minded they are primarily for the head-pats and compliments and other “ally cookies” from Black people. They perform ally-ship.

It’s no wonder that, with so many friends like these, lots of Black people do a bit of the “side-eye” when someone calls themselves an “ally.” And for that reason, BGIM and many others sometimes drop the term “accomplice” instead. They don’t want allies who might run at the first sign of trouble or who might disappear after select battles are won. They want accomplices who will go with them into the breach and be with them to the bitter end.

Now, I’m going to be honest that the term “accomplice” threw me off for a bit at first when I first hear it. I understood the reasons for it, but a little part of me squirmed. A part of me balked.

One reason for this is knowing how often Black people get portrayed as criminals or troublemakers. Protest and you become a rioter. Be trapped in a disaster zone and looking for food and you become a looter. Do just about any daily activity from walking down a sidewalk to getting your ID to playing in a park and be labeled a threatening figure that needs to be shot.

Knowing how Black people are so roundly vilified and often criminalized just for being brown-skinned, the word accomplice just sounded to me like one more way that white supremacy types and rank-and-file bigots could say, “See, they call their allies accomplices. What are they up to, America?”

But really, I think the main reason it struck me in an uncomfortable way was that I’m white. I’m steeped in being white and not being a target for police attention because of the way I look. I’m steeped in being able to get jobs and loans and respect for doing almost nothing other than looking pale. I’m happy to get along in life and generally have no troubles and almost never have to think about my the myriad tiny privileges (and big ones) I get for being a white guy.

And so a part of me didn’t want to be called an accomplice. It felt like a criminal term. It felt like a mark. Something that would get me noticed by people who might wish me harm.

And I realized that was idiotic. And cowardly. Dishonorable.

It doesn’t matter that my reluctance to embrace the term lasted only briefly. The fact I balked at all was a sign I needed to think more about what I’m doing…or whether I’m really even doing anything of worth in anti-racism and social justice efforts. As BGIM might say, “I needed to check myself.”

It’s something we white people need to do daily to make sure we’re not doing the very same things, even if only on a more subtle level, as the outright racists do.

Being an accomplice is good.

Acting or speaking out against the status quo in the United States, which is centered around whiteness as the norm, is a form of resistance. It is rebellion against an unjust system. As such, these actions will be seen as treachery by many white people. As crimes against their race.

So, being a crime in many people’s minds, those of us who say we stand with Black people and who maintain that Black lives matter should be proud to be accomplices. We should be willing to put ourselves on the line too and put ourselves between Black people and their oppressors and aggressors.

There’s nothing wrong with being an ally, either, if you really are. If you really provide support that matters and are actually walking the walk and not simply talking. But let me urge you all to aspire to something that, while more risky, is also more honorable and useful. Being an accomplice.


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.