Recently I was invited to a citywide activist meeting. This event was made up of several different faith groups and organizations across San Francisco that are committed to similar goals to address the housing discrimination, the recent deportations, and of course the big R: racism in the city. The moderator of the meeting had asked everyone there, “How are you doing in these times?” By these times, she meant being an American under the Trump Administration. Person after person stood up and expressed how worried they were about 45’s effect on the United States. When it was my turn to answer, I plainly said, “Just another day on the plantation.” The room, which was 75% white, was silent. It was almost as if they were in disbelief that someone can say something so cavalier in these “pressing” times. After I was done, I sat back down and continued to listen to others.
Thinking back on that moment and everyone’s reaction to it, I realized two things: white people don’t know how Black folks feel about everyday life and Black people are not honest when it comes to conversations and interactions about race with white people. While the former can be debated, it’s the latter about which I am most concerned.
When Black other people of color talk with white people about race, there are a couple of things that take place: We will try and get our point across without sounding like the angry (insert your race here) person, and white people will try and deflect as much blame and responsibility as possible. This is what I call the race dance. Everyone has done it at one point in their life, and it does not get anything done. Instead of calling out racism/white supremacy for what it is (a system that discriminates, disenfranchises, and terrorizes non-white people on a daily basis, while maintaining a hierarchy that has whites at the top), we talk about “white privilege” and other innocuous terms like “white fragility”, and “implicit bias.” Instead of describing our pain as accurately as possible, we do the tango around the subject to not hurt white people’s feelings. Why? Because secretly we want to be accepted.
White validation is a real thing. Black people have been conditioned to subconsciously seek the approval of white people. Throughout our time in America, people of African descent have been taught or rather “conditioned”, as Dr. Carter G Woodson would say in his classic book “The Miseducation of The Negro” to believe “everything white is right” and to model ourselves after white people. Woodson wrote, “When you control a man’s thinking you don’t have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his proper place and stay in it.” This theory can explain why many Black people are hesitant to express their honest opinions and views about racism around white people. I have been involved in multiple discussions where Black people will consciously downplay blatant examples of racism: racial slurs, police explicitly targeting Black people, and inadequate service when dining out. They will call it “Ignorance”, “We don’t know if they were doing that to me because I am Black”, or “Everybody can be racist, even Black folks.” This is because we don’t want to be looked at as the “angry Black person” and offend and alienate whites. Again, we are doing “The Dance.” I have seen Black folks go so far as to defend white people when they are in discussions with other Black people about race. You may hear, “Come on now, he/she is not racist. That is not right. I have known this person for years and they never said anything racist.” Dr. Joy DeGruy, author of “Post Traumatic Slave Disorder, “ once said in a lecture, “When talking about race among Black and white people, you can count on one Black person to defend white people.” This is all in pursuit to be the “non-confrontational negro.” I have witnessed this myself from friends in person and online.
One of the best examples of how Black people nullify themselves when talking about race around white people is Barack Obama. The former President was an amazing race dancer; gliding and spinning around addressing the discrimination we face on a daily basis. When asked about the rash of police terrorism that claimed the lives of many unarmed Black men towards the end of his second term, Obama said, “Both police and the community must work together to understand each other”, not indicting the plain as day racist activities of the police. When the questioned about the Trayvon Martin verdict that allowed George Zimmerman to walk free of killing an unarmed Black youth, Obama, instead of calling out the travesty of justice, said, “We are a nation of laws. The jury has spoken.” The most recent example of African American’s downplaying racism is The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson. Earlier this month while speaking to department employees, Carson referred to slaves as, “Immigrants who came here at the bottom of slave ships.” Now, everyone knows this to be false. Immigrants are people who voluntarily come to a new land for opportunities, while bringing their customs and keeping their culture intact. The slaves that were brought here from Africa were forcibly taken from their own lands, sometimes bought and sometimes kidnapped to work for nothing while brutalized and their culture stripped from them. Why Carson felt the need to “water down” what slavery is another testament to how Black people consciously try to not be the “confrontational negro.”
While writing about our desire to not be seen as the angry Black person when talking about race, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my friend Cass over drinks. I have always admired her outspokenness when it comes to addressing race as Black woman. While talking about our shared struggle as two Black folks in a room that was 95% white, I commented, “You go hard when it comes to racism white supremacy. Do you ever feel like you scare some people off?” And by people I meant “white people.” Cass smiled and shook her head. “Look, I am a Black woman in America. I’m a be silenced anyway, so I am going to say what I am going to say.” I flashed a smile and said to myself, “She is a warrior.
In our history of talking about the experience of being an African American, at no time has our treatment been improved or the terror inflicted on us lessened by sanitizing our lives. I believe that Black people need to not be concerned with making white people comfortable when talking about race. The race conversation SHOULD make white people uncomfortable. If we are honest about our history and condition today, then these talks should have people squirming in their seats. Being the “non-confrontational negro” has never helped us out. Whiteness does not need to be comforted or defended. When I look back on my heroes who told the absolute truth in the rawest way possible – Malcolm X, Ida b Wells-Barnett, Frantz Fanon – they did not tow the line. These figures understood that no matter what they said or how they said it, whites were going to look at them as “angry Black folks.” This is our lot in life. When the oppressed talk about their oppression, the oppressor will label them troublemakers. I can say that while it has taken me a while to break out of the confines of “wanting to be the acceptable Black person,” I am fully out of that jail. Talking about race does not have to be nasty, disrespectful, peppered with profane language, or loud. It just has to be honest and truthful.
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