While Black: Thoughts on the Assumption of Wrongness

Why do Black people keep dying?

When I think about the Black Death, these days I don’t think about the medieval plague. Instead, it’s the widespread killing of Black people in America. Some people might find it hard to figure out why a non-American even cares about this. But Black people in a post-slavery or post-colonial context have all suffered the enduring effects of racial discrimination.

In the Caribbean, many of us have Black relatives who are or have become American, or who are attending school there. Simply put, we’re scared for them.

The danger of existing while Black in the US has been proved time and time again. Each time, there’s an ever longer list of the most recent incidents, but there have been many, many more over the decades.

In so many cases, to be Black is to be in the wrong, before you do anything or open your mouth. #AmaudArbery And your word about your own probity isn’t enough to save you from being stopped, arrested, or killed.

Sure, racism exists everywhere. I’ve had some experiences in the UK that would make your hair curl. I’ve experienced discrimination in the Caribbean. But I never felt like any of those incidents would result in my death. That’s not the case for Black people in the US. That’s why parents have to have “the talk” with their children about what to do if you’re stopped, about why your hands must be in sight, about how you need to ask permission for every move lest it be misconstrued. The trigger-happy minority have ruined things for everyone.

It’s why Black mothers of sons (and their dads, too) have their hearts in their mouths as those boys grow up and go out in the world, because they know there’s no guarantee they will be safe in the US. As we’ve seen, even being in your own home minding your business won’t keep you alive. But mothers of daughters are afraid, too — your sex doesn’t protect you. #SandraBland

A good friend of mine said “I am not sending my beautiful Black child to the US to be shot!” That child will be going to school in Canada or the UK, where his skin color isn’t a death sentence.

Will it ever change? Who knows? Because the thing is, the concept — and it is only a concept — of whiteness depends on making blackness something “other”. Back in the days of slavery and colonialism, in order for racist white people to sleep at night, they created and perpetuated a fiction that Black people are still living with — and dying from — today. As Orientalism author Edward Said says:

“Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.”

That’s how people justify colonialism, and neo-colonialism (it’s not about the oil or other resources at all, clearly.)

Underlying all of this is the uncomfortable fact that the white establishment needed Black people, yet still didn’t want to value us. When slavery ended by force in the US, ex-slaveholding states turned right around and criminalized minor infractions to create an imprisoned workforce, slavery by another name. Watch Netflix’s 13th — it’s pretty instructive.

But even the people who were quote unquote on our side saw us as less than, in a different way. Some liberals are only liberal when Black people need help, but still don’t see us as equals. I’ve had personal experience of this from a former colleague.

The truth is that Black people are tired of this. Tired of doing everything “the right way” only to learn that it’s still wrong. Tired of being castigated when we take a different route to making our voices heard (I guess those who don’t like it when we kneel aren’t going to like it when we stand and demand justice). And, most of all, tired of dying needlessly. Didn’t enough of us do that during enslavement while white slave owners built personal and national wealth? Enough already!

So what’s next? It’s clear that Black people can’t fix racism alone — it’s been proved time and again that whatever we say about it hardly counts. So, it’s up to white people to play their part. First of all, acknowledge the system, described eloquently by Scott Wood:

“…racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.”

Second, don’t sit in silence bemoaning the system. Do something. Here’s what my podcast co-host Lisa Hurley says:

“As my math teachers would say: “Show your working.” It is not enough to think or say that you’re not a racist. Demonstrate active anti-racism. Silence and inaction = complicity. Get uncomfortable. Stay uncomfortable. Make an effort. Educate yourself. Take action. Show solidarity in public. Get out of our DMs and onto your feeds. Your silence is deafening. Your need to be co-signed as “one of the good ones” is burdensome. We are not here to hold space for you at this time. If you are feeling triggered and defensive reading this, then you are who it is meant for. #dothework”

If you do the work, then maybe one day existing while Black will be the norm and not a crime.

© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2020

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