These Words We Use
“Not being violent enough could cost me my body.
Being too violent could cost me my body.
We could not get out.”
~ Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
2pm, Saturday, May 30th
As I sit down to write this, a peaceful protest is happening in Downtown Cleveland. Chants of “Black Lives Matter!” echo from the live feed on social media. The crowd looks massive and calm but resolute.
They chant for George Floyd.
They chant for Ahmaud Abrey.
They chant for Breonna Taylor.
They chant for so many names, so many lives.
My social media is overwhelmed with posts about riots and protests and actions happening all across the country in response to this slew of tragedies — this continued march of the straight up murder of black people by police officers. People are discussing their feelings about these injustices, they are showing up by sharing out. Many of the white people I know who are often quiet on their social media have been especially vocal these past few days and weeks. I, too, have shared some posts on my social media, as a means of showing alliance and support, but I am struck, continually, with the realization that these efforts feel like they could blow away with the next gentle breeze. How is reposting this article or showing up to this rally or even making a donation I can afford helping? How will it prevent the next George Floyd, Ahmaud Abrey, or Breonna Taylor from becoming a name I learn alongside the phrase Rest in Power? Like so many things in this particular moment in our history, I feel overwhelmed by trying to decipher what will be productive and cause-advancing. Yes, I can tell you that my white privilege keeps me safe — but wouldn’t it be more effective it it could keep others safe, too? How do we, as a society, unravel hundreds of years of racism and end this war between our humanities?
Don’t expect this piece to answer that question.
During my first semester at Case Western Reserve University, I was assigned the Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between the World and Me. It’s a very, very startling and uncomfortable book to read as a “woke” (side note, I hate that word, but its efficiency is undeniable) white Liberal. Turning each page was like finding a tree fallen across the road I was set to traverse — I had no idea the obstacles that already obstructed my view of the way the world works.
The book — really a long essay — is written as a letter to the author’s son in response to the death of Prince Jones, an unarmed black man who was shot six times in the back by police in 2000. He’d been followed because the cops wrongly suspected him of being a wanted drug dealer. Coates had befriend Jones while the two men studied at Howard University together and when Jones was murdered, it made Coates want to prepare his son for the real world by explaining how the perception of black and the perception of white made all of the difference in these united states.
And while I am someone who feels educated on the guiding principles of racism — how it’s obviously bad and unfair and a rigged system of injustice and an evil that is perpetrated by racists — what Coates’ letter to his son does so swiftly and elegantly and brutally is explain how the whole system is a lie. There is no white. There is no black. Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. Our country, at its founding, determined who the People were — right there in the Constitution, it lists a slave — a black person — as worth only three-fifths of a human. It’s baked into the foundation, this conceptualization of Who Is A Person. Who gets the protection of the law — and who does not. And even beyond that — Coates challenges the construct of “whiteness.” Those who believe they are white is a common phrase throughout the book.
Look at a “white” person’s skin: it is not white.
Look at a “black” person’s skin: it is not black.
Yet, this dichotomy exists. This pervasive social construct that we’ve all blindly accepted and attributed more meaning to than almost anything else. Whiteness is goodness, purity, and favored by God. Blackness is bad, dirty, and likened to evil.
Imagine being born under such an auspicious label.
You don’t have to, though. You just live it.
It likely comes as no great to surprise to any of you that I find words and language to be the height of importance and significance. In my work as a Feminist, I engage people in conversations about what words are used to describe the same action or circumstance for men as women — to see how those words can be powerful and strident for men (look at that stud) and belittling and disempowering for women (look at that slut). And the same is true of racial disparities and inequities. We learn to use language that supports patriarchal norms that are in place to elevate white men and keep everyone else in their place. I was listening to a podcast this morning where some historical experts pointed to the Declaration of Independence and called it a document to rebel against British slavery — that the colonists in America were not going to be beholden to the King or the British Empire. They were going to break free and be on their own.
But as I have already mentioned, part of that foray into freedom meant finding someone to “do the dirty work,” to be the labor, to elevate the forefathers so that there was a class of people beneath them. For a long time in our country’s history the idea of blackness was also attributed to the Irish and the Italians and other immigrants who weren’t born here. Before the African slaves were freed — before they were legally permitted to be counted as an entire person — these other ethnic groups were considered to be socially irrelevant, unworthy bottom feeders. It was only after the Emancipation Proclamation terminated legal slavery in the United States that the definition of “who” was white or black started to shift.
Those who believed they were white was always a fluid concept.
From where we sit now in 2020, it seems impossible (to me — I’ll just go ahead and speak for me) to break the social construct of blackness and whiteness. That this country — this world — is so deeply traumatized by colonization and social upheaval and the fear that there aren’t enough resources for everyone so we, as a community, will choose who is favored and who is not — that we can’t get out from under this fabrication, this distortion of facts, this cruel injustice. That I can sit here and feel outraged by what is happening in my country but also remain annoyed that my new Facebook profile picture (which I think is so cute) only got like ten likes when I see other people post new profile pictures (way less cute than mine) and get 50 likes within seconds. Inherently, we are all selfish, selfish people with a capacity that is less flexible than we think. In many ways, we have to be emotionally sectioned off — our human brains can’t process the full weight of any of this.
My human brain can’t process the full weight of any of this, at least.
Meanwhile, my social media feed debates if the riots that erupted in Minneapolis last night are productive or not. Should we approach with civility or not. Colin Kaepernick tried to kneel in a peaceful protest that sparked one of the most partisan debates of the last five years and in the end, all he got was a trip to the unemployment line and treatment as if he were the Third Rail of humanity. The dude just wanted to play football and use his level of success as a platform for good. Instead, he became vilified, he became canonized, he was misunderstood, and he was shoved aside.
Peaceful didn’t work.
Maybe riots will.
My suspicion is that neither solution will generate change. At least not in and of themselves. This is the part where I remind you all to register to vote if you aren’t already — and to pay attention to the leaders you’re electing into office. These are the people who can actually roll up their sleeves and change laws and policies, who can represent your social wants and desires, and who knock the dominoes of systemic change. Will taking a knee during the National Anthem do any of those things? No. Will looting and setting fire to our cities do any of those things? No. But electing the right people will.
Please pay attention to elected officials and see what sorts of bills they are presenting and co-signing on and what sort of legislature they are passing. Ultimately, our political representatives are the key — or at least one of the keys. Maybe it took someone kneeling during the National Anthem or someone throwing a brick through a window to inspire or motivate an ideal candidate to run for office, but for systemic change to happen, it will begin through the legal and political machine we all inherently despise. Of course we do — we say it doesn’t help us, we say our vote and our voice doesn’t matter — but that’s only because we don’t hold our representatives accountable.
Coates writes to his son, “The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they’ll receive pensions.”
That is on us.
I don’t have any answers or suggestions and I’ll be damned if I suggest that we all just think and pray about the victims of systemic racism. Voting is one answer, but it is a slow and tedious process to enact new laws and policies — it’s a slow and tedious process to get the best people for the job, too. In the meantime — while we wait and wait and wait for something to feel better than it does now — all I can offer is my hope that we, as a country, will want to be better, will want to seek nonviolent solutions, will want this country not to be reliant on the constructs of black versus white, but, instead, find a way to use new language and break away from old toxicity.
Black Lives Matter — Believe Women — these are movements that are necessary in this country because it’s not already assumed that black lives matter or that we should believe women. We have to create a .org and make it a hashtag and scream it from the midst of a throng of people because what seems so obvious in its simplicity simply isn’t how our patriarchal lens allows us to view things as a society.
Again, that is on us.
Protest how you want to. Say the words that express your feelings with as much clarity as you can muster. This is not a time for silence, certainly. Our actions are active language, too, so I understand those who want to kneel quietly — I understand those who want to set fires, too. But once all of that is done, what’s next? Where do you want to see this go? How can the change you hope for be enacted? Where does that conversation begin?
Nothing can change as long as we cling to the construct of white and the construct of black. Nothing can change if we remain divided so viciously, so compliantly. Somehow, some way, there must be a center from which to spring a new vocabulary, a new agreement.
Until that day, I say the name George Floyd. I say the name Ahmaud Abrey. I say the name Breonna Taylor.
I say the name Prince Jones.
These are the words to say in a time like this.
From the I Spy in 2020 blog project.
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