DEAR WHITE FOLKS: You Don’t Know How Easy You Have It
by David J. Leonard
Dear White folks:
Between the racist comments, the constant use of the race denial card (this country’s most frequently used “race card”) and the absurd claims of White victimhood, you have really grated my last nerve.
Sure, we got teary during The Blind Side and Antoine Fisher; we maybe even gave money to KONY2012 and after Hurricane Katrina; we maybe even donned a hoodie to protest the murder of Trayvon Martin. I don’t even doubt there are individuals out there who are genuinely concerned about racism and injustice; I don’t doubt that there are many Whites that marched with Dr. King and whose “best friends” might be Black. None of this matters if African Americans continue to die at the hands of guns held by security guards and police officers all without justice
I have heard that “we are all Trayvon Martin” over the last few weeks, yet we are not Trayvon Martin – and we never could be. White America is never suspicious. White America can walk to the store without fear of being hunted down. White America can count on justice and a nation grieving at the loss of White life. We aren’t Trayvon Martin, we are George Zimmerman: presumed innocent until proven innocent.
I want you to close your eyes for a second, and imagine that your son or daughter, sister or brother, granddaughter or grandson, ventured to the corner store for some Skittles and tea but never returned? Can you imagine if Peter or Jan were gunned down right around the corner from your house and the police didn’t notify you right away? Can you imagine if little Sydney or Bobby sat in the morgue for days as you searched to find out what happened them? Can you even imagine the police letting the perpetrator go or the news media remaining silent? Can you even fathom learning about background and drug tests on your child? Can you imagine the news media demonizing your child, blaming your child for his own death?
Can you imagine the outcry if seven White youths had been gunned down by police and security guards in a matter of months? Can you imagine the extensive political interest, the media stories that would saturate the airwaves? Can you imagine Fox News or any number of newspapers reporting about a school suspension for one of the victims or doctoring pictures in an attempt to make these victims less sympathetic? Can you imagine a person holding up a sign calling these victims “thugs” and “hoodlums.”Just think about the media frenzy, the concern from politicians, and the national horror every time a school shooting happens in Suburbia or every time a White woman goes missing…can you imagine if women routinely went missing from your community and the news and police department simply couldn’t be bothered?
No, you can’t. And you don’t have to.
Yet, from Florida to Los Angeles, from Atlanta to Wisconsin, from Chicago to Ohio, Black families are burying the innocent and the future. Doesn’t that make you sad; doesn’t that make your angry? Our silence is telling. We can barely say their names much less acknowledge the epidemic in our midst: Stephon Watts. Trayvon Martin. Ramarley Graham. Wendell Allen. Dante Price. Bo Morrison. Rekia Boyd. Kendrec McDade.
All have lost their lives; and we don’t even say their names. All have died under similarly disturbing circumstances. All should have prompted national outrage and action; or at the least for us to say their names.
I don’t care if you cried during The Help and if the ‘feel good’ movie of the year featuring chicken-frying maids and affluent White women made you feel all post-racial tingly on the inside. Did you cry at the report of yet another lost Black life? If so, what have those tears done – have they led you to join a rally, to demand justice? I don’t care if you voted for President Obama; have you demanded dramatic changes to our criminal (in)justice system? It is time for us to check ourselves, to listen and demand a better America starting with ourselves. It is time to stop denying racism and defending White privilege, distracting and deflecting with “what ifs” and excuses. It is time to demand justice for the Trayvons and the Rekias, not because it could have been one of our sons and daughters–it couldn’t–but because it is simply the right thing to do.
Yet, meaning of this year transcends these numbers. We have seen ample intrusions of blatant racism into the public square. I recently wrote about this, arguing:
In Two-Faced Racism, Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin explore the ways in which racial performances are carried in both the frontstage (integrated and multiracial public spaces) and the backstage (those private/semi-private all-white spaces where race talk and racist ideas reveal themselves in profound ways). Their research found that the backstage offers whites a place to “perform, practice, learn, reinforce, and maintain racist views of and inclinations toward people of color. These views and inclinations play a central role in generating and maintaining the overt and covert racial discrimination that is still commonplace in major institutions of this society” (27-28).
Increasingly, however, the frontstage is replacing the backstage whereupon whites are publicly performing, learning, reinforcing and maintaining their racist views toward people of color. Evident in college students donning blackface and then putting pictures online, evident in Gene Marks, Newt Ginrich, Donald Trump and their reactionary pals lamenting the laziness of black youth, evident in the usage of the N-word, evident in white-only movie screenings and white-only swimming pools, the lines between the frontstage and the backstage are blurring before our eyes. In other words, the frontstage is now the backstage, leaving me to wonder what sorts of ideologies, stereotypes and racial talk is transpiring in backstage. Or maybe, in a “post-racial America,” widespread racism has returned (did it ever leave?) to the frontstage thereby illustrating the importance of challenging and resisting in each and every location.
Not surprisingly, Rush Limbaugh (calling President Obama a “oreo cookie” and Michelle Obama as “uppity”), Ann Coulter (“our blacks are better than theirs”), Pat Buchannan (“Blacks bought a lot of propaganda of the liberal plantation”), amongst others, all illustrate the ways in which racist language and ideologies define the nature of political discourse during 2011. Beyond the ample instances of racism, it is important to see beyond the starling ease that racism operates within the public square to look at the ways race plays out within the deployed narratives and ideologies. Take Pat Buchannan, who reminisced for Jim Crow during 2011: “Back then, black and white lived apart, went to different schools and churches, played on different playgrounds, and went to different restaurants, bars, theaters, and soda fountains. But we shared a country and a culture. We were one nation. We were Americans.” In language and the vision for America, race defined the past year (and the years before).
The last year has also seen quite a bit of recycling. From the Moynihan Report and culture of poverty, to bootstraps ideology and efforts to blame the poor, 2011 has seen a comeback (not that these racist narratives ever went away) of these troubling ideas. Two of the most illustrative examples were Newt Gingrich and Gene Marks. Gingrich, who has made a career of race baiting (calling President Obama a “food stamp president” and one defined by a “‘Kenyan, anti-colonial worldview’”), recently offered policy prescriptions to deal with black unemployment: teach black youth the value of work. He stated:
Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working. And have nobody around them who works. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash’-unless it’s illegal. What if you paid them part time in the afternoon, to sit at the clerical office and greet people when they came in? What if you paid them to work as the assistant librarian. What if they were the assistant janitor, and carried a mop?
Deploying longstanding stereotypes about black laziness and criminality, all while crafting economic policy based on bootstrapism, Ginrich shows how 2011 has been so much about sampling and redeploying the racist ideologies of yesteryear. Gene Marks, whose article prompted widespread condemnation because of its paternalistic tone and acceptance of widespread stereotypes, is equally reflective of this trend.
I am not a poor black kid. I am a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background. So life was easier for me. But that doesn’t mean that the prospects are impossible for those kids from the inner city. It doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for them. I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. Still. In 2011. Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia.
The prosecution and sentencing of, and the struggle for justice for, Kelly Williams-Bolar is emblematic of many issues surrounding race in 2011. From the criminalization of people of color and the demonization of women of color, to educational inequalities and the generation of kids behind left behind, her case teaches us much about the continued struggle for civil rights in 2nd decade of the twenty-first century. Jamilah King described the case in the following way:
Just in case you haven’t seen this story blow up on your social network this week: Kelley Williams-Bolar is headed to an Ohio jail. The mother of two was sentenced this week to 10 days in jail, three years of probation, and 80 hours of community service. Her crime? Sending her two daughters to an out-of-district school. . . .It’s an infuriating case, especially for anyone who’s even remotely familiar with educational inequity in this country. America still hasn’t made good on its half-century promise to desegregate its public schools, and academic achievement can almost always be measured by zip code.
The demonization of women of color extended into the realm of popular culture as well.
2011 was also the year of The Help, a film that recycled the hegemonic Hollywood trope of “white love” (h/t Elon James White) and racial redemption all while sanitizing the black freedom struggle. Yet, it was also a year defined by the many powerful responses to this film; these effort resisted and challenged the film’s (mis)representation of black women’s work, segregation, social justice, and countless other issues. From the Association of Black Woman Historians’ powerful statement to the many articles from black scholars – Dutchess Harris, Rebecca Wanzo, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Martha Southgate, Mark Anthony Neal, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Honorée Fanonne Jeffers – many voices have challenged the narrative and representations offered by The Help, refusing to accept the cultural politics of the mainstream. Yet, 2011 has also seen the release of Pariah, a film that explores the experience of a young black lesbian struggling for acceptance within her family and society at large. Whereas The Help represents blackness as accessory, as the help, Pariah reminds audiences of the power and beauty of black identity, highlighting heterogeneity, diversity, and humanity.
2011 has seen ample moments of resistance, a refusal to accept and tolerate racism, sexism, and homophobia. It has been a year of “speaking truth to power” and refusing the dominant narrative. Following the airing of ABC’s 20/20 special entitled “Children of the Plains,” a group of Native American students from South Dakota produced their own video that refused the images and messages offered in the show: “I know what you probably think of us…we saw the special too. Maybe you saw a picture, or read an article. But we want you to know, we’re more than that…we have so much more than poverty.” Then there were the students from Ohio University, who launched the “We are a culture not a costume” campaign to protest the racist stereotypes and racist images so prominent during Halloween. Youth in California and Alabama fought vigorously to change the tide against anti-immigrant racism. Hotel workers in New York protested Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the victimization of Nafissatou Diallo. And so much more.
Twenty years ago filmmaker Julie Dash celebrated the release of her groundbreaking film Daughters of the Dust. The film, set off the South Carolina coast, chronicles the lives of a black family, led by family matriarch Nana Peazant, at the turn of the 20th Century. Shot by cinematographer Arthur Jafa the film offers a brilliant portrait of black life, between and betwixt the modernity that would radically transform it. The film also offers one of the most complex and sophisticated views of the lives of black women in the era. It is a measure of how forward thinking Dash’s Daughters of the Dust was and how backward Hollywood remains 20 years later, that a film like The Help could be lauded as an intimate and authentic depiction of the lives of the Black women who worked as domestics. The tragedy is that far fewer people have seen, let alone, heard of Daughters of the Dust.
As I watched The Help — with my soon 13-year-old daughter sitting next to me — I couldn’t help but think about the daughters of Daughters of the Dust and the daughters of The Help. In Daughters of the Dust, there wasn’t a question as to whether these young women were facing progress, but rather whether that progress would be enveloped with the hard-earned integrity that helped their family survive the middle passage and enslavement. With The Help, I was left witnessing Minny Jackson (in a brilliant, Oscar deserving performance by Octavia Spencer) bequeathing to her barely teenage daughter, a life of servitude and labor exploitation. In one of the film’s more insidious moments, The Help passes off Minny’s daughter’s future as the product of the demands of Minny’s abusive (and invisible) husband and not the very visible system of Jim Crow that limited opportunities for such women and girls for more than a century.
Both my grandmother and my mother-in-law were domestics at one time or another during their lifetimes. My grandmother, now deceased, worked as a domestic for a time in the late 1960s for former New York Mets manager Davey Johnson, then a second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles. My mother-in-law worked as a domestic until her husband could acquire the kind of job that would allow her to stay at home and raise their children, the youngest of which is my wife. I imagine that both my grandmother and mother-in-law would readily admit that their experiences as domestics were far different than those experienced by black women in the deep south in places like Jackson, MS, where The Help is set.