All things being unequal

Lately, I can’t get over this thing that happens when people of color have something to say to white folks about our experiences in the world, offering a perspective that is rarely heard and scarcely heeded. There is almost always an inexplicably dire need on the listening party’s end to offer what they see as an “alternative perspective” to our own. Often this alternative is presented as a service of goodwill, or a moral duty to balance things out, even the scales, keep everything fair—in the same way networks interview paid surrogates to defend Trump’s neo-fascism and prevent their news station from looking too biased or one-sided.

The outcomes in these interviews, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a complete derailing of the conversation and a series of ad hominem smoke screens erected to prevent scrutiny of the current administration’s destructive policy choices. We can’t have a conversation about the lack of aid to Puerto Rico, for instance, because “Hillary is a liar, lock her up,” blah, blah, blah. In other words, a fabricated attempt of fairness enables a lack of justice and accountability, which ends up not being very fair at all.

Along a slightly different vein, but with similar results, the pretense of “fairness” in conversations about race prevents us from making progress in this fight for true justice. In a society based on inequality, one in which the scales have always been dramatically tipped in favor of whiteness (with history books telling the story of white men, from a white man’s perspective; justice systems established and upheld by powerful white men; institutions of learning and social mobility controlled by the interest of wealthy white men), giving an equal platform to unequally valued perspectives doesn’t create balance. It sustains the disparity in the scales.

At first glance, the impulse to say, “BUT,” when a person of color brings something brand new to the intellectual table seems more than reasonable. Often what we have to say, “Color blindness enforces systematic oppression,” or “Hate speech isn’t free speech,” or “Your intentions aren’t as important as your impact,” or “Anti-blackness is global,” challenges what others have assumed to be reality for so long. They are left shaken, and not necessarily in a bad way. It can be an invigorating breath of fresh air to be challenged in one’s assumptions, even if the impulse is to push back, struggling to regain firm footing. And it would seem the best way to ensure mutual intellectual growth and accountability would be to continually push back against one another as we struggle to reach a higher, more balanced, less biased perspective together, allowing the fresh air to blow down cobwebs of entrenchment in both directions, equally. This would be fair, all things being equal.

But the truth is, all things are deeply unequal in our society, and many are waking up to this established reality. In fact, POC aren’t saying anything new these days at all. These concepts which seem so revolutionary have been shared over and over, in so many ways, by Coates, Hooks, Baldwin, Lorde, Simone, MLK, Malcolm X, and countless others. The new part is the listening that some folks are doing, and the thoughts only sound radical in our current context of white supremacy, because they have been silenced and dismissed, while ideas and voices which serve to maintain a status quo concentration of power for the privileged have been amplified and revered.

This phenomenon of canonizing unthreatening ideas and ignoring those which call for a new standard of balance has not only made the perspectives of POC appear perpetually new, however. It has made the “traditional” perspective a baseline for us all. Fairness is not a matter of breaking through each other’s bubbles of cultural norms or parallel realities in order to gift one another with fresh perspective. The norm of white supremacy has been imposed on every bubble to be found. There is nothing fresh about it, anywhere. A perspective affirming and protecting whiteness is so ingrained in us all that nobody needs your “BUT” in order to consider counterarguments to our calls for reparations or criminal justice reforms. We’ve heard them all so many times they are playing over and over in our minds, fighting against our own thoughts before they even have a chance to reach our lips. The alternative to underrepresented perspectives on race relations is the mainstream, overplayed excuses for white supremacy most of us could quote in our sleep, and fairness is turning the volume on that message all the way down for a change.

Considering how deeply unequal all things remain, would it not be just for white folks to simply listen, considering underrepresented voices, forsaking the urge to push us back to the margins? How about amplifying our voices for a change? How about taking that urge to push back and using it to challenge those supporting systems of inequity? How about balancing the scales for once?

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Photo by Tachina Lee from Unsplash