Your new Black friend explains racism

As a white person discussing race, sometimes you are confronted with a Black person who does not want to explain to you why something is racist. The reason you need this explanation is because you probably don’t have any Black friends. Not definitely, but probably. It’s just how numbers work. It’s also how segregation works, but sometimes it’s also because of you. You may have said something stupid and didn’t know any better because you don’t have any Black friends…

It’s a vicious circle and, really, you need a Black friend. So just for this blog post, even though we’ve never met, I am going to be your Black friend.

There.

We’re friends.

Now that we’re friends, I think it’s time for some tough love.

A lot of times it just isn’t worth trying to explain racism to you. For me, there are three reasons.

1: You don’t trust us with our own experiences. Every person of color I have ever met has at least 574 bazillion stories that are all the same: We tell a white person about a racist experience only to have that white person respond with something like, “Are you sure it happened like that?” as though we are incapable of understanding our own experiences.

Remember that time your friend/parent/significant other/coworker/complete stranger was mad at you and no one else could tell? Of course you do. You know that experience very well, but when it comes to race, you’re not willing to allow another person that knowledge of experience. I think it’s important to ask yourself why that is. If your answer is #notallwhitepeople then this list probably isn’t long enough for you.

Oftentimes, if we get to the point where you acknowledge our experiences, the very next thing you say is, “I’m sure they didn’t mean it like that.” Not only is this still saying we don’t understand our experiences, it also means…

2: You think intent is more important than it is. Look, intent is useful in that it’s a predictor of future behavior, but it’s not a particularly good one. A much better predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

There are some dudes in the KKK who don’t hate Black people. Really. It’s just that they live in a rural place with nothing much to do and their cousin is a member and setting things on fire is fun. Their intent may be nothing more than to hang out with the boys on the weekend, but I’ll tell you what. If those boys show up at 3 a.m. burning a cross on my lawn, and you think it’s a good idea to investigate their individual intents, well, again, you’re going to need a longer list than this one.

I told you this was going to be tough love.

That makes this whole thing so difficult because…

3: So much is about your feelings! Just this week I watched two white guys talk about how much it sucks to be assumed a villain just because you’re a white guy. Yes. That actually happened. Right in front of me.

Look, having your feelings hurt does suck, no matter who you are. I’m not going to deny that, but as a Black person, I wish we could get to a place where anything was about my feelings. That would be incredible. I would genuinely love that. Unfortunately, while hurt feelings may be the result of being stereotyped as a white man, as a Black man, being stereotyped, all too often, means I die.

A white guy in a suit is a business man. A Black guy in a suit is a gangster. A white guy with a gun is a patriot. A Black guy with a gun is a gangster. A white guy who loves marijuana is a stoner. A Black guy who loves marijuana… you get the idea.

The point is it’s difficult for me to hear your complaints from inside this coffin.

Still friends?

Good.

Then I’ll tell you the secret to holding onto this friendship as well as forging others:

If your friends say they’re suffering, trust them and ask what you can do to help.

Just like you would with any friend.


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The N-word

The word “nigger” is as American as apple pie and its original purpose was simple: to define an under-caste of sub-humans who were deemed inferior to whites. But over the years, it has morphed to take on different meanings and uses. Many argue that it is a word that can be reclaimed by the people it was meant to hurt but many others say it should be cast out of our vocabulary like the demon they see it to be.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, social and economic order in United States was dependent on a strict racial hierarchy. Black slaves and their free labor laid the bedrock for the country’s economy. This meant slaves had to be kept in their place to maintain profits. Beatings, whippings, shackles, and even murder were among go-to methods. But for casual everyday use, the sharp sting of the word “nigger” ensured Black slaves knew exactly where their place was in the racial hierarchy. For white people, the N-word had no other purpose than to degrade and humiliate Black folks to assert their economic and social dominance.

Today, the descendants of those white people still use the word as a weapon of hate and a way to express self-appointed superiority. It has also evolved to be used in everyday conversation to indicate something is undesirable or inadequate. Phrases like nigger-lover, nigger-lipped, and nigger-rigged are said with a certain air about them that suggests a deep cultural antipathy towards Black people.

For many people, the N-word rightly elicits sharp pangs behind each of its syllables and harkens back to a dreadful history. But for a lot of Black folks, a simple softening of the “-er” at the end turns the word into an expression of camaraderie and a badge of struggle.

The lightening of the word entered popular culture primarily through public figures like Richard Pryor. It peppered his routines, oftentimes used every few seconds. And Pryor used it with intent much like many white people did (and continue to do). But his calculation was different. He wanted to de-weaponize the word and snatch the whip from the slave master’s hand.

“Nigger. And so this one night I decided to make it my own. Nigger. I decided to take the sting out of it. Nigger. As if saying it over and over again would numb me and everybody else to its wretchedness. Nigger. Said it over and over like a preacher singing hallelujah.” -Richard Pryor, Pryor Convictions: and Other Life Sentences, 1997

Pryor is credited for coining phrases like “nigga, please” which is readily used among Black people today. Other Black comedians carried on his tradition like Eddie Murphy who had jokes with names such as “Niggaz of the ‘70s”. On the HBO hit television series Def Comedy Jam, “nigga” was used like a punctuation mark. In the late ‘90s Russell Simmons said, “Twenty years ago, ‘nigger’ was self-defeating. When we say ‘nigger’ now it’s very positive.” This effort to take back of the word has permeated all facets of African-American culture.

Today, hip-hop and rap music are by far the most influential forces when it comes to the integration of “nigga” into the lexicon of Black Americans. It has laced tracks in both genres for much of the last 30 years. Any rap or hip-hip giant that you can think of has had the phrase in any number of their songs and song titles including pieces from Grandmaster Flash, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G, Busta Rhymes, 50 Cent, and a Tribe Called Quest.

The introduction of this renewed way to speak the N-word has gradually given the word an increased casualness over the years and for many, it’s no different than calling someone “bruh” or “dude.” But does this new benign usage represent reclamation?

Many people would say yes. Take for instance Nia Ashari Harris, a Black NYU student and writer for Affinity. In an article entitled “How Black People Are Reclaiming The N-Word and Embracing Their Heritage,” she argued that being able to use the N-word is like belonging to an exclusive club, asserting that you’re only granted access to the word if you are Black. She talked about how our Black ancestors were revered as kings and queens and that reclaiming the word felt like an assertion of her greatness a Black woman. She said that the redefinition of “nigga” has allowed people to define their Blackness in broader terms.

“Through the word ‘nigga’ and redefining it for ourselves, I feel like we have been able to redefine what it means to be black. Expanding the scope of blackness is everything to me, as it denounces the idea that there is “one type” of ‘nigga’. Blackness is Barack Obama, but blackness is also the Migos. Blackness is whatever a n*gga wants it to be, and that’s lit.” Nia Ashari Harris, How Black People Are Reclaiming The N-Word and Embracing Their Heritage, 2017

But even the man credited with starting this movement to reclaim the word had a change of heart.

After taking a trip to Kenya, Richard Pryor had a poignant realization. His trip was spent in an environment where everyone was Black: in advertisements, in government, on TV, on the street, etc. And he asked himself as he looked out of his hotel window, “Do you see any niggas?” and he responded to himself by saying, “No, and you know why? Because there aren’t any.” Since that point, Pryor rarely uttered the word and didn’t like when other Black people said it to him. He said it was a word that described “our [Black people’s] own wretchedness.” And just like Nia Ashari Harris, he went on to talk about how he came from kings and queens and how that was part of his decision to abandon the word.

Another perspective that both Pryor and Harris shared is the idea that Black people can choose for themselves how they want to use the word, an idea that says there is no one shoe fits all an, in many ways, that is a very humanizing realization. With such a long history, with so many definitions, it’s hard to harness this word without fairly detailed context. If there is anything absolutely certain about the N-word, it’s that white people cannot use it under any circumstance.


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The soul of the nation

The events that took place in Charlottesville and the days after laid bare the soul of the United States. No matter how hard this nation tries, we cannot rid ourselves of the seemingly everlasting scourge of white supremacy. Early movements for civil rights sought to change our institutions in favor of more equitable policies and that tradition continues today through the efforts of those who advocate for criminal justice reform, for example. But even though it’s been proven possible to effect change in institutions, the notion of white supremacy persists in the attitudes of many white people—whether they are stanch white nationalists or oblivious liberals.

Recently, the president of the United States compared the two sides who clashed at the Charlottesville rally, making a moral equivalence between white supremacists and anti-racists. And even though his assessment rightly offended many people, in some ways it is representative of national tradition. Our country has a rich history of contemplating the humanity of Black people as matter of acceptable public discourse.

In 1787 after a contentious debate, it was decided that that Black slaves were three-fifths a person. Seventy-four years later, the nation entered civil war over the humanity of slaves. The following decades were defined by battles against the KKK, a fight for voting rights, and tensions associated with a segregated South. Today, the nation grapples with the morality of mass incarceration and the extrajudicial killings of Black people. The worthiness of Black lives has always been up for debate in the United States. What is unique about the modern era is the ever-present idea that we are a post-racial society.

There is a perception that George Wallace was the last segregationist to exist, that Martin Luther King Jr. healed all the nation’s racist attitudes, and that Lyndon Johnson rid our institutions of racism and discrimination. Many believe that these acts of social sorcery ushered in an era in which our racist past was no longer relevant.

A brief exercise in critical thought exposes how absurd these assumptions are. But nevertheless, such perceptions serve as a point of departure for many debates surrounding race in America today.

Most Americans are familiar with the images of the Birmingham Campaign in 1963 when non-violent Black protesters were blasted with fire hoses and attacked by German shepherds. Similarly, images of the sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter continue to be emblematic of the Civil Rights Movement. But somehow, despite these historic scenes, people believe that they were just an isolated moments in time.

But where are those people now who dowsed Anne Moody in condiments at the lunch counter or the cops who released attack dogs on Black men, women, and children? Were those people, and their community of like minds, suddenly washed over with feelings of compassion and equality with a swipe Lyndon Johnson pen? The events that took place in Charlottesville prove that is unlikely.

It cannot be underestimated the amount of people who carry the torch of hate and bigotry into the 21st century. Many people look at Donald Trump and say that he is the creator of these attitudes. But that is an error in thinking. Donald Trump is just a purveyor of hate looking to capitalize on an already abundant resource. He now serves as an umbrella under which cowards can hide from the rains of reality.

Even though these white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists tend to align with the political right, white liberals and moderates, too, have some ownership to take when it comes to dismantling racist notions in their own backyards. Simply announcing one’s allegiance to a certain political affiliation or ideology doesn’t automatically make them immune to being part of the problem. Of course liberals do not thrust their hands out into a Nazi salute; oftentimes, though, they meet communities of color with only lip service, apathy, and silence. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

“First, 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 Citizen’s Counciler 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 direct action;” who paternalistically feels 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.”

Just as feelings of hate and ignorance have been inherited by people on the right, apathetic and blasé attitudes have been handed-down to the white liberals and moderates who stand to the left of them. Colorblind-ism is likely the most pervasive viewpoint that liberals hold which serves to invalidate and undermine Black folks and their experiences. (For more information on the problem with saying you don’t see race, see here.)

Racism is a system and depends on many different moving parts. Right wing extremism may represent the pistons that drive the engine, but ineffectual and shallow support from liberals serves as lubrication. It all works together.

Even though we have a long history of deliberating whether Black people are deserving of respect and humanity, it does not mean that we need to further that tradition. Though our nation has gone through even harsher social and political unrest, the level of regression we are facing now is unparalleled. Emboldened white supremacists who now feel safe to slither out of the shadows have been legitimized by the so-called Leader of the Free World.

In these uncertain times, it is important for people who are committed to justice to review what Karl Popper called the Paradox of Tolerance. The philosopher theorized in 1945 that societies could be tolerant to a fault. Liberalism says that tolerance is an unbreakable virtue but Popper said this was a misstep in thinking. He said that there is one thing that we should not be tolerant of and that is intolerance itself.

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.   In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

Even though the theory is an exercise in reading comprehension, the concept is quite simple: be tolerant to all people but reject those who hold intolerant ideologies such as white supremacy.

So many people talk about what they would have done if they were there during the Civil Rights Movement. Well, that opportunity has presented itself again and this era will be defined by who stands up for justice and humanity.


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.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.