A few days ago I read a (white) friend's blog post about racism in America, particularly about everything happening in Ferguson, and in that blog post he quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. I thought it was a great quote, very apropos, so I re-posted it here on my blog. After all, the quote was about rioting--about a time when black people were rioting and white people were condemning them for it--and since that's happening now too, it seemed unusually appropriate for contemporary America. The quote also gave context to why black people might be rioting, and since so many white people I talk to seem to have practically zero understanding of the context for why hundreds of thousands, and millions, of black Americans might be outraged enough to protest, scream, even start fires...well, it just seemed that it might be good to try, as a white American, to speak to my white comrades about the history of racism in America.... I don't want to be silent. I don't want to just let what's happening happen. I don't want to be complacent. That's why I posted that quote.
Then last night I went on Twitter, which I've started doing a little bit more, and I read the Twitter feed of a friend of mine who is from Trinidad (I'm actually unclear about whether he identifies as African American; he's lived in America his whole adult life but grew up elsewhere...in any event, he's certainly black and is outspoken about race in America). On his Twitter feed, he'd re-posted this:
"Dear fellow white people: STOP INVOKING MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. STOP IT. You are exactly the white moderate he disdained."
I followed another link Roger posted, that took me to Gradiant Lair, a website devoted to "Black women + art, media, social media, socio-politics & culture." Trudy (@thetrudz) writes extensively on Gradiant Lair about white people quoting MLK to respond to Michael Brown's death, Darren Wilson's freedom, and the protests and riots. One of the many things she says is:
"Don't even try to critique how Black ppl respond to CENTURIES of State violence, by using MLK who was killed for same reason. Go away."
She also writes:
"Notice Whites won't say 'Shirley Chisholm said' or 'Bayard Rustin said' or 'Miss Major said.' MLK chosen = meme + cishet patriarchy."
I didn't know what "cishet" meant so I looked it up on urban dictionary. This was the entry: "An abbreviation of cisgendered or cissexual heterosexual: a person that identifies as the sex they were born as, and are attracted to people of the sex opposite of theirs, who are usually also cisgendered or cissexual. Mostly used in social justice circles to describe people commenting on LGBT+ matters when they probably shouldn't be."
I also don't know who Shirley Chisholm or Bayard Rustin or Miss Major are. And I can see how my not-knowing those people is part of the problem. I'm quoting someone who wrote decades ago, someone white people like to quote because he was peaceful, or at least his ideology and legacy has been whitewashed to be now considered peaceful--aka, not ultimately a threat to the entrenchment of white power. I'm quoting him because actually I'm profoundly uninformed about contemporary black authors or thinkers or people but I want to do something about Ferguson. So I turn to MLK because I have some vague idea of who he was. And because it's easy to turn to him.
Here's my point. I posted that quote by MLK in good faith. I did it because I am trying to be a good person. And then I read the writings of some contemporary black people and I discovered that at least these particular black people consider it ignorant (at best) to do that. To be a white person invoking MLK, in response to Ferguson. When I read that, I had a choice. I could become defensive and say, "Hey, I did this in good faith. I'm one of the good ones! It's not fair to come down hard on me. I didn't know." Or I could admit that I'm so far out of my depth, so far out of my league, that I actually have no idea what the hell I'm talking about when it comes to race in America.
But here's the thing! I so often get the impression that I know what I'm talking about because I'm so much more informed than almost every white person I know. Just understanding that racism exists in America makes me more informed than dozens of family members and friends. Just seeking out the occasional newspaper article about violence against black people, or listening to the occasional Dead Prez song (is it called a song?), makes me exponentially more informed than almost every white person I know. Just having studied a little Foucault and Derrida in college, and a little feminism (almost definitely all white feminists), and a little epistemology, makes me think I know something about power and privilege. So that then can give me the impression that I actually am very informed and insightful. Which I am not.
I'm a privileged white person. I'm a white person which automatically makes me privileged, and on top of that I grew up economically advantaged, educationally advantaged, etc. I never have to think about race if I don't want to. America is made for me. I talk and smile and move in exactly the way that makes store owners and gas station attendants and waiters and pilots and stewardesses and salesmen open their doors and ask me how they can help. I never, ever get pulled over when I'm driving because of anything about my personhood. The only reason I get pulled over is because I'm speeding, and since I don't speed, I don't get pulled over. If I went to court, I have no doubt I'd be given the benefit of the doubt. If I sit down in a bar, I can pretty much be guaranteed someone will want to buy me a drink. I'm never viewed with suspicion, ever, anywhere I go in America. Maybe I'd be viewed with suspicion in certain places, but it is extremely easy for me to never go to those places or even think about those places.
As soon as I read that it's not cool to go quoting MLK in response to Ferguson, I wanted to take down my post quoting him. But, a dear friend of mine has recently strongly encouraged me to be more transparent about my own journey, when it comes to race/gender/class. To write specifically about where I'm getting my info, what my stream of thought is, why I think what I think. Rather than just go around criticizing white people for being ignorant (even more ignorant than I am, and I am pretty fucking ignorant).
The other thing that is true is that I do understand something about being on the receiving end of power and privilege because I am a woman who has suffered a lot from patriarchy. This doesn't mean that I therefore automatically understand what it's like to be black in America. One form of oppression isn't the same as another. But it does mean that because my life would have been so very much better if the men around me had taken personally the suffering of myself and other women and had actively resisted it (taking it upon themselves to educate themselves and fight for change, rather than passively allowing sexism to persist and maybe--at the very best--becoming a little bit feminist if sexism was brought to their attention), I therefore want to take personally the suffering of others who have been disempowered, violated, systemically abused and imprisoned and murdered. And I want to work to actively resist those things, to fight for change. But I've got a long, long ways to go. And I need to get up to speed now. (Just like men need to get up to speed now. We women don't have time to wait around and get raped and harassed and beat up and killed while men take their sweet time reading feminist lit.)
I suppose it might be easy to be self-congratulatory for even writing this post. I'm coming to think that self-congratulatoryness is a form of defensiveness. I do feel defensive because I'm white and incredibly privileged and although I've lived in America for a long time I've done almost nothing to fight racism. I'm scared of what that might mean about me. I know there's something suspicious going on with the self-congratulatory urge because I don't feel that urge when it comes to sexism/feminism. I just feel fucking angry. And desperately grieved. Which is the appropriate response to mass harm and injustice.