If you have ever engaged in a conversation with another person, only to realize halfway through said conversation that you are not having the same conversation…well you know a little of what it is like to discuss racism in America in 2016. It has become increasingly clear to me that one of the reasons that we have not evolved nearly as far as many believe that we have when it comes to racism in this nation is because rarely are we having the same conversation when it comes to this subject. The other piece is that the average White American lives in a racialized silo and rarely has little in the way of meaningful or “below the surface” conversations and interactions with people of different races.
As a popular meme that has been making its way through Facebook mentions: If the Black people in your life aren’t talking to you about the uncomfortable moments that are a part of daily life for most Black people, you don’t actually have Black friends. You just happen to know some Black people. There is a world of difference between making casual chitchat with Black people you know and actually having Black friends and family members who openly talk about what they face as a part of their everyday life. Like a new acquaintance of mine in Maine, who has been pulled over and hassled by cops so often in one of the towns here that her kids now freak out whenever they see cops. Being pulled over by the cops might be an occasional inconvenience for white folks but for Black folks, it is more than a mere inconvenience; it is that moment when you wonder if you will even make it to your next destination and if you will become the next trending hashtag on social media. Yet few of us will have these conversations with people we don’t feel safe and comfortable with; however, we will gladly shoot the shit about sports or weather. But whatever you do, don’t ever mistake casual chit-chat for a deeper connection. Even I, as someone who writes about race, rarely shares the truly uncomfortable moments with anyone who is not a family member or friend…and my actual friends are very few in number.
This past week, Michelle Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention and during her speech she spoke a bit to the history of the United States: “ That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”
As you can imagine, the line about waking up in a house built by slaves was not well received by those who would rather live in denial about America’s past when it comes to people of a darker hue. Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly went so far as to say that the slaves were “well fed and had decent lodging provided by the government.” Many others across social media chimed in to add that the slaves were paid for their work.
Paid? Slave being paid? Ummm…
Do we even know what it means to be a slave? To keep it simple, I will use the Wikipedia definition of slavery.
Slavery is a legal or economic system in which principles of property law are applied to humans allowing them to be classified as property, to be owned, bought and sold accordingly, and they cannot withdraw unilaterally from the arrangement. While a person is enslaved, the owner is entitled to the productivity of the slave’s labor, without any remuneration. The rights and protection of the slave may be regulated by laws and customs in a particular time and place, and a person may become a slave from the time of their capture, purchase or birth.
Slaves were not paid. Their owners were paid for the use of those slaves’ time and sweat and blood. And if the slaves’ accommodations while working on the White House were better than what they had on the plantations or wherever they were shipped from, they still had no freedom and no say.
Slavery is and was ugly business and I am of the personal belief that the only way one can possess another human (just as they would possess an inanimate object) is to dehumanize the person that is being owned. After all, if you were to see your own humanity in the eyes of a person that you owned, it would be pretty hard to keep the owning human gig going. In creating America, we essentially created a caste system that put people with Black and Brown skin at the absolute bottom and we are all still living with the residual effects of that caste system.
America has never had a reckoning when it comes to our unpleasant racial past. Instead, we operate like the petulant child who is asked to clean their room. Take all the stuff, throw it in the closet and hope like hell no one opens that closet door. If you have ever engaged in the toss-it-in-the-closet style of cleaning, you know what happens over time. Eventually that door has to be opened and when it does, you are confronted with a mess of epic proportions that requires nothing less than your full time and attention. That is where America is when it comes to our racial issues. Since 2008 and the election of President Obama, the closet door has started loosening and now with Donald Trump as the official Republican candidate for president, our racial mess is slowly falling out the closet and the door cannot be forced shut again.
Back to the issue of slaves building the White House.
Let me reiterate: Yes, slaves assisted in building the White House and despite any confusion on the part of people without a basic grasp of word definition or history, slaves were not financially compensated for their work. The slave owners were compensated for allowing their slaves to work on the White House. Yes, the slaves were fed and housed but if one thinks that the slaves were lounging in even two-star accommodations during their off-time, much less three or four, I would say that you haven’t thought very deeply or critically about racism or oppression.
Yet the inability of millions to truly think and to actually listen when people of color speak about their lived realities…and their inability to even pretend to do so honestly and completely in most cases without at some point deflecting the topic or deflating the value of the words those people of color speak…means that we are never going to move the needle on race on an interpersonal level. In recent weeks, I have heard from more than a few white people who have accused me of race-baiting, among other things. After brushing my own very human feelings off, it is abundantly clear that despite being intentional and clear in all my work, my words are simply not being heard nor are the words of the many Black and Brown people who are standing up and demanding full inclusion into the human family. Change requires a dismantling of the oppressive structures that keep us locked into a system that favors one group, but never can we forget that individual people are the heart of those structures. Hence we need you to listen to us.
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