Martin Luther King has a lot to answer for. He spoke so beautifully, so precisely, so powerfully, that many black writers try to emulate him. The problem is that a) most people aren’t nearly as eloquent as he was, and b) thanks to his efforts, the struggle he was describing sixty years ago isn’t the same struggle we face today.
Today’s commenter, who we’ll call Eli, didn’t let any of that stop her though.
In my article “The Rise Of The Racism Industry”, I argue that fetishising the suffering of black people has become big business. In 2021, it’s rare to find a story about a black man that isn’t related to slavery or crime or death at the hands of a white police officer.
I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t talk about these things of course. I’m arguing that we shouldn’t allow the worst of black people’s experiences to be mistaken for “the black experience”. Martin Luther King spoke about our struggles in the hopes that we wouldn’t have to. In the hopes that we could live in a world where we saw ourselves as more than victims of oppression. But as Eli shows, some people aren’t ready to give up on those beautiful sermons:
“To be clear, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t talk about racism. Of course not. I’m saying that racism shouldn’t be all we talk about.”
Yeah….. I’m sorry this doesn’t work for me. Until justice reaches American shores, no peace. You may not feel personally compelled to see the sovereignty of humanity shine before the eyes of collective human consciousness. But to tell people to stop climbing up a hill and focus on other pursuits. When failing to get to the top of the mountain will eventually result in death is delusional. I understand the need to turn away from the horrific reality of being a person of color in this society. But we are internally strong enough to handle it and scale the mountain at the same time. If white people want to put every obstacle in our way imaginable we will continue to rise. We cannot be stopped. Justice will be meted out with Mercy.
“I understand the need to turn away from the horrific reality of being a person of color in this society.”
If there’s a sentence that captures the problem with our discourse today, it’s this. “Authenticity” has become melodrama. I mean seriously, what “horrific reality” are we talking about here? The horrific reality of having the free time to casually debate racial issues on the internet? The horrific reality of being able to spend $5 a month on a subscription to Medium? The horrific reality of being well educated and intelligent enough to use hyperbole so effectively?
There are people, black and white, who can’t do these things. Yet I doubt they would describe their lives as a “horrific reality”. I asked for clarification:
“But to tell people to stop climbing up a hill and focus on other pursuits. When failing to get to the top of the mountain will eventually result in death is delusional”
😁You were really feeling yourself here weren’t you. Very poetic. Genuinely. But what are you actually talking about? Instead of using dramatic language, speak to me plainly. And more importantly, where have I argued that anybody should stop climbing that proverbial mountain?
It's so sad that so many people want to lean as far into this caricature of black suffering as possible. Did you climb any mountains today? Did you struggle today? When you look at somebody with skin the colour of mine, do you see a victim or somebody who is oppressed or somebody whose life is nothing but racial suffering? Or do you see a man first?
Of course, I've experienced racism, but I am far more than that. And I want that to be seen. I demand it. Don't you think that part of ending racism is demanding to be seen as human beings? Don't you think that seeing us depicted in stories where black people are portrayed as more than slaves or criminals or oppressed victims will help to change the way we're perceived by those who "other" us? As well as helping black children to believe that they can succed?
Don't you see that the reason why a movie like Black Panther (to give a tragically rare example) was so important is because it (mostly) depicted black people as powerful and free and most importantly, far more than the colour of our skin? Oppression porn is not blackness. This exultant struggle to the mountaintop is not blackness. The goal, for any sane person, is for the notion of blackness to be eclipsed by our humantiy. The struggle isn't the point, our freedom from it is.
“Instead of using dramatic language, speak to me plainly”
Speaking plainly, I know a lot of black people who work to spin narratives for white people’s comfort. I use to be one.
Why would you ever have to fight to be seen as more than a victim?
Why would you ever have to fight to be seen in all of your humanity and complexity?
Just another rock on the same mountain.
Scream at white people until you are blue in the face from lack of oxygen and fall to your death for all I care.
“ I’m human ! I’m more than a victim ! See my humanity! See my complexity!”
I’ll keep climbing and you can stay behind on your complexity hill.
White Supremacy will be scaled and leveled.
Then you won’t have to fight to be seen as anything.
I’m very suspicious of anyone who ever so slightly eases in the direction of people returning to complacency.
I mean don’t you think other black people know that they are more than a victim or a racialized narrative?
You think we all forgot or didn’t know we are complex human beings?
No, it was never us who didn’t know.
Eli managed three sentences before returning to her mountaintop. But what I find most fascinating is that she sees telling the truth about life as a black person as “working to spin narratives for white people’s comfort”.
This is completely backwards.
The white people that we need to worry about? The narratives that comfort them are stories that portray black people as something “other”. The stories that portray us as criminals and gangsters and “thugs”. The stories that hark back to a time when we called white people “Massuh” and they called us “boy” (black women were rarely referred to at all).
What makes this type of white person uncomfortable is the reminder that black people are every bit as worthwhile and civilised and human as they are. The reminder that we can be lawyers and doctors and presidents as well as rappers and athletes and valets.
It’s not just racist white people who need to know this, it’s the generations of black children who are being taught that they can’t get ahead.
“No, it was never us who didn’t know.”
How could you possibly think that I don't know this? There's a human being on the other side of this screen you know? You don't have to keep sermonising about mountains or acting like I don't understand the experiences of my own life.
Yes, black people realise that they're human. We realised when we were slaves, we realised when we were "separate but equal", we realised when the prosperity we built was burned to the ground in Tulsa.
White supremacy thrives in all of the subtle ways in which white people *don't* realise that we are human. James Baldwin was saying this 52 years ago!
(The whole interview is fantastic but I linked straight to the relevant part here.)
I'm not trying to ease white people toward complacency, I'm trying to argue against this latest attempt to cast black people as something "other". To glamorise our struggle itself, instead of the end of it. This is simply a new, subtler form of complacency. And this time, some black people are complicit.
Today, black people ARE suffering. We ARE anger. We ARE protesting and looting. We ARE struggle. We ARE borrowed sermons about mountaintops. Films, books, articles, news, everything affirms this. As I said in the article, there's even a notion that our stories "aren't black enough to be real" if they don't portray this and only this aspect of who we are so that white people can gush and “performatively listen” and feel like the good guys for pitying us poor black folk.
But we don't struggle because we're Black, we struggle because we're humans who have been unjustly treated.
There's a sense that the spotlight should always be on our suffering. No. The spotlight should be on our humanity. The richness of it. The diversity of it. The ordinariness of it. I don't want my oppression fetishised and my bravery in dealing with it applauded. I don't want white people to "own up to their whiteness" when that's basically code for, "do absolutely nothing while feeling like the hero of the story". I want my oppression (and let’s face it, the oppression of two people debating on Medium is extremely minor), and more importantly the oppression of everybody who looks like me, ended.
p.s. I can't go blue in the face. It's a feature, not a bug.
I’m not sure if Eli ran out of metaphors about mountaintops or was dragged back to her “horrific reality” by some pressing need, but I didn’t hear from her again. I wish her luck on her climb.