Well, this has just been one of the worst celebrations of Black History Month on record. Granted the meager PSAs on television on Harriet Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, et al, weren’t necessarily anything to write home about in the realm of the richer history of the black experience, but come on, blackface?
Why is it that every time someone is caught saying or doing racist things, there is the familiar refrain of outrage, calls for resignation, heartfelt (or not) words of remorse, and then a call for a real dialogue on race?
In this past month, we’ve seen people from the state of Virginia, from the governorship on down, have to answer for bad choices more than 30 years ago, when they were younger, yet still old enough to know better. But some of the more heinous acts are much more recent.
This month, in honor and celebration of Black History Month, a Virginia Elementary School decided third- through fifth-graders could play a runaway slaves game after learning about the Underground Railroad, in which some kids (guess which ones) moved through obstacle courses to avoid being captured by slave catchers (again, guess which ones). The school ended up sending out a letter expressing regret and remorse, with bias training for teachers set to come.
The blackface histories of Gov. Ralph (Moonwalk) Northam, and Attorney General Mark (I did it too) Herring, are only two of the stories from this month. Not to be outdone, second-graders in an Atlanta charter school performed a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem for Black History Month holding, you guessed it, blackface masks. When the video went viral, as these things tend to do, more apologies followed.
And we still weren’t done. Ugly sweaters by Gucci and even uglier shoes by Katy Perry were also unveiled in the shortest month of the year.
Here’s the thing. I’m not one to call for more dialogue with people from communities of color. That dialogue hasn’t been working, because only one side talks, while the other gets defensive, engages in whataboutism, feels guilty and wounded, or expects to be forgiven and soothed, without having to actually change the status quo.
Think of it this way: There are two toddlers in the sandbox. One snatches the other one’s toy and throws sand in his face. Would you really expect the injured toddler to comfort the aggressive one, after the aggressor is scolded for his actions? Would you tell the injured kid with reddening eyes that maybe he should have shared the toy, or not brought it, and assigned equal culpability?
Yet people of color in the country are constantly being asked to forgive, comfort and console the wounded, hurt, and guilty feelings of their oppressors, who still want to reap the rewards from the systemic racist policies (redlining neighborhoods, favorable bank loans, first in line for jobs, promotions and benefits).
So, before we start that national “dialogue,” I have one suggestion. First, talk among yourselves. Because when we’re in the room, the room, and the conversation changes. Whites know what is said and done in all-white spaces, and I’m aware that the tenor and language changes in those safe spaces (I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes, when they forgot I was there — talk about being a fly on the wall).
It’s time to have these conversations in the spaces where your friend, or family member, or colleague, or acquaintance uses the n-word, or tells a nasty joke, or whispers, “those people,” but you don’t want to confront them, because (a) they were just joking, (b) they were drunk, (c) there was no point, because that’s who they are, (d) they’re not really racist, but that’s the way they were raised, (e) well, I didn’t want to make a scene, or (f) all of the above.
Meanwhile my orbital muscles have gotten quite strong from rolling my eyes, when my friends run to tell me these stories, while excusing their own complicity, but waiting for me to grant them absolution.
Sorry, I can’t be bothered comforting your guilty feelings for not speaking up and speaking out. You have a black (or Latinx, or Asian or LGBT) friend, so that should count for something, especially when you talk about how bad this person is, how you don’t think like that, and aren’t you a great ally?
Uh, no. These conversations that take place in all-white spaces will only change when they are challenged in all-white spaces. For one thing, start calling out the BS of not knowing blackface, or klan costumes, or nooses, are offensive. Notice that those costumes, and those frat parties of pimps and hoes (with blackface, natch), are only in all-white settings. Don’t believe me? Walk up with your I-didn’t-know-this-was-offensive face covered in shoe polish in a black setting and see if you don’t get your feelings hurt — or your butt beat.
These things happen in safe, white spaces, or worse, in spaces where the power (small children and teachers) is unequal.
When a racist (or racial or racialist) event happens, politicians like to run to the nearest black church to state their outrage and support. You won’t see them again until the next outrage, or election cycle.
So here’s a thought.
How about you run to the nearest white church instead? Black people, and other communities of color, live with the burden of systemic racism every day. We don’t need your assurance that you know it’s wrong too. We need you to do something, work to make it right for everyone.
Instead of asking those who are oppressed to comfort, guide, and absolve their oppressors, go right to the source. Look in the mirror, and then talk, really talk, among yourselves.