An Open Letter to ‘Dear White America’:
On Ignorance and White Privilege
David J. Leonard
I have been meaning to write this letter for a while, but just didn’t know to say it. I know how hard conversations about race can be, and how invariably these conversation lead to claims about the “race card” or it being “just a joke.” But after watching yet another disheartening video of mockery and disrespect, I have to make it plain.
There is no acceptable reason to ever don blackface. It’s not a joke, it ain’t funny, and it’s not some creative license that adds to the value of your artistic endeavors. Blackface has a long tradition that is part and parcel with white supremacy. It is part of a history of humiliation and dehumanization, of denied citizenship, and those efforts to rationalize, excuse, and justify state violence. From lynchings to mass incarceration, white supremacy has utilized dehumanization as part of its moral and legal justification for violence. Spare me your reference to “White Chicks,” the Chappelle Show. Spare me your dismissive arguments about intent and not being racially motivated, Blackface is part of the violent history of white supremacy. If you don’t know, now you know, and if you still don’t know, go here or here.
While we are on the subject, there is no place for racist costumes that dehumanize and demean, that mock and ridicule, that stereotype and otherwise reenact a larger history of racism. We should have listened to students at Ohio University when they reminded us this past year with the We’re a Culture Not a Costume Campaign. Were you not listening or just don’t care? The costumes have to go along with those racist themed parties. You, I am talking about “ghetto parties, “cowboy and Indian parties,” “pimp and ho parties,” “South of Border parties or any number gatherings that see humor in mocking and demeaning others. If dressing up “as janitors, female gangsters and pregnant women” for Cinco de Mayo is in your plans, or a Martin Luther King celebration that includes a “gangsta party,” or Black History Month that’s celebrated with the most disturbing stereotypes, it’s time to reevaluate. Just say no!
Can you also please stop with the so-called impressions of Black people? The racist caricatures, the imitations of Flav Flav are not cool; just stop saying “kicking ballistics, boy.” The sideways hats or saggin pants are not evidence that you know black people. Lets wipe the slate clean of “colored people”, “jungle fever”, “super-awesome afro,” and “my best friends are black.”
As long as we are having this conversation, can we stop with the pathetic, clichéd, and misinformed arguments about how whites are now the discriminated minority? BET is not a sign of black privilege nor is black history. No, you can’t have, nor do you need to have, White Entertainment TV (you have Fox and its network of friends) or white history month (that is every month in case you missed it). Let’s get real, white privilege is real and has material consequences so stop denying and let’s start dealing with the inequality.
While we are talking about Black History Month, let’s get some things straight: (1) Black History Month is February. It isn’t funny; if you didn’t know, now you do know, so stop feigning ignorance. (2) Black history has nothing to do with fried chicken and grape juice, 40s or pancakes. (3) It is not appropriate to celebrate Black History Month with Kool Aid sales or hair care products or collard greens. (3) And if you don’t know more about black history than Martin Luther King (and “I Have a Dream”), and think Malcolm X is the leader of the Black Panther Party, you should first ask for your money back from whatever educational institution you have gone through. Second, spend February, March, and the rest of the year reading about Ella Baker and Ida B. Wells, Amzie Moore and Nathaniel Bacon and so many other people, experiences, creative endeavors.
To imagine blackness through popular culture icons, through celebrities is not only disrespectful to the beauty, rich history, and dynamic diversity of black life, but it is a missed opportunity to learn and grow.
Tim Wise (who recently wrote Dear White America) notes that talking about privilege is like asking a fish about water. Yet, white privilege surrounds us. It is evident in the ease of donning blackface, with the comfort of mocking black people and other communities of color, and with the professed ignorance about black history and culture. It isn’t that we don’t know, it is the pride in not knowing that embodies an attitude of disrespect and devaluing. White privilege is the acceptance of racist jokes and in the perpetuation of false ideas about race.
White privilege doesn’t have to enable blackface, dehumanizing impressions and commercialization of the Other. It can be resistance, refusal to be silent, and an unwillingness to sit idly by amid a culture of disrespect and violence. So, next time you hear a racist joke or think about donning blackface, or have friends who are planning some SMH event, do something! Next time you see discrimination or read about inequalities within our health care system, housing, employment or prisons, just say no! None of it is funny and it ain’t a joke.
Just so you don’t leave all mad shouting he is “calling me a racist.” I ain’t playing that game. This isn’t a “what you are” conversation but better “what you did” conversation. So, if what I am writing about here doesn’t connect with you, because you have never said or supported a racist joke, because you haven’t accepted a stereotype, because you haven’t dressed up or been at a party with racist costumes, I guess I am not writing to you.
Seriously, I am tired of that conversation and am hoping it is time for the “what can we do conversation” and “maybe we should start listening conversation” because the conversations we are having are getting tiresome, but not as much as the daily reminders that we are closer to Newt’s moon colony than to a post-racial America