By S. (February 15, 2018)
I’m looking forward to the new Black Panther movie too, but first, let’s have a little talk about race.
Since being kidnapped from Africa, black people have been marginalized. Marginalized means we have been placed at the margins, we are never centered. Our rights, our voices, our experiences, our lives, our needs, our everything, are at the margins of American society (a society shared between black people and white people, and many other marginalized races and ethnicities). Historically black people went to black schools, had black doctors, and lived in black neighborhoods. Things are slowly changing and we are in some ways less marginalized physically but we are still marginalized socially. In mainstream movies we are in supporting roles but we are not the central characters, we are the marginal characters (i.e. the sassy black girlfriend, the wise old man who gives advice, the scary thug who threatens the main character). Things are changing, Moonlight won best film, Hidden Figures was a surprise hit, and we have Black Panther coming soon.
But the marginalization is embedded in every aspect of society, even our interpersonal relationships. In our friendships with non-black people, we often find our blackness marginalized. This is where things get sad, and this is what I want to talk about. In order to make my non-white friends comfortable, I am often the one who is marginalizing my blackness. Sometimes I am asked to do this, and sometimes I do it of my own volition. What I am saying is that I have to police my behavior around white people. Everyone should police their behavior around each other though (we call it having manners), but there is an aspect of myself, my life, and my experiences that is born out of my blackness, that has to be especially carefully managed around my white friends. I have to think carefully about how I say things, some topics I just don’t speak up on, and some of my great joys in life you don’t get to be a part of.
We look for common ground with our white friends. But for so long our culture, religion, society, and norms have been centered around whiteness, that our common ground with you is going to be white. We can’t ask you to understand and relate to our black experiences and black selves, because the lack of centering means you have an incomplete understanding, at best, of what it means to be black. So we, your black friends, come to you using our cultural understandings of whiteness. Now this is the easy setting, imagine what it is like when I have to find common ground with someone who is not as enlightened about race as you are.
First, I’d like to give a non-racial example of finding common ground between friends. I hate Twin Peaks. My friends B. and J. love Twin Peaks. They tell me that they love Twin Peaks because they want to share something they love with someone they love. Now, I like knowing that they love Twin Peaks because it means I have a little bit more information about who they are. Maybe I’ll send them both Valentine’s Days cards featuring the Log Lady. Knowing that a Twin Peaks card would put a smile on their faces makes smile too. But neither B. nor J. will spend much time talking to me about Twin Peaks, because they know I don’t like it. To an extent, they are policing their behavior around me. (Even though I called this example non-racial, it is racial simply because Twin Peaks is a TV show with few, if any, black characters that is written, directed, and produced by white people).
What about mainstream black people like Michael Jackson, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Snoop Dog, Mr. T, Li’l Wayne, et al.? In order for them to become mainstream (i.e. escape the margins) they had to think long and hard about their blackness—how to represent it and what to omit. Even if black figures and leaders are deciding to show our warts (i.e. gangsta rap) to the mainstream, it is still done with thought and consideration.
I’m talking about how we connect with each other. We are all looking for common ground. Our disagreements can be used to help us better pinpoint our commonalities. Though too often we use our disagreements as excuses not to get closer. When black people look for common ground, most of that common ground is centered around whiteness. What we share in common with you is based on tastes, norms, and ideas that are most likely centered around white perspectives, what do white people like, and what corporations controlled mainly by white people think will sell. Basically, when white and black people come together in friendship, chances are very good that the black person has done a lot more work, and has much more knowledge of white culture than the white person has of black culture.
Watching Black Panther does not make you a good ally. I’m not looking for allies; I want friends who get me. I want to be my authentic self around you. I want friends who get that that my experiences may not only differ from yours, but might seem scary and threatening to you because they are so far from our white-centered mainstream. You don’t have to agree with me, and you don’t have to like a lot of what I’m saying, but you should be open and willing to listen. And when it comes to creating the common ground between us, you should be willing and respectful enough to exclude elements that I may find racially insensitive, even if you don’t understand why. Yes, this is a secret pink pussy hat post.
Movements are built from relationships. If we want our movements to be strong, we need to strengthen our connections and relationships. Most of us are marginalized in many ways. And even though they are not marginalized, sometimes the needs of cishet white men are ignored (e.g. the damage caused by toxic masculinity, or the drastic decline in life expectancy of white men without college degrees). We strengthen our connections by listening, being present, and by not being resistant to each other’s perspectives. How can we create common ground? How can I push past my resistance and my limited perspectives to understand what my women friends are saying, what my trans friends are saying, what my friends with physically challenges are saying, or even what my cishet white male friends are saying? How can we use the experiences of our friends to change our behaviors for the better? This is my challenge, but it is your challenge. If we succeed we change the world. If we fail we crumble away in squabbling, yelling factions.