One thing that will get a black person in a huff is when white folks try to dictate how we should suffer with our racial oppression. I’m not just talking about those of us who self-identify as freedom fighters; I’m talking about those who quietly resist the yoke of racial capitalism in their daily lives. The resentment is real.
Concurrent with the “#1 in Civil Rights” exhibit, there’s a special section of books by local authors or about local struggles in the Missouri History Museum gift shop. I picked up a book titled “That’s The Way It Was” by Vida Goldman Prince. It’s stories of struggle, survival and self-respect in 20th Century Black St. Louis as told through interviews with ordinary people enduing both institutional racism and individual acts of racial contempt.
One common thread was the ever-present anger, sometimes just below the surface, when mistreated by white folks or the system of white supremacy and feeling powerless to react in the way you really wanted to.
Segregation was the law, then it became unwritten law, now it’s becoming law again. Knowing your place in segregated St. Louis was imperative but it didn’t mean that black people had to be happy about it. Trying to be dignified while dealing with daily injustices every day of your life is an incredible feat. That was the way it was then and that’s the way it is now.
Protests abound because injustice abounds. In the U.S. when people of African descent rise up to resist the never-ending onslaught of racist attitudes, practices and laws, the last thing we want to hear is a critique by those of European descent as to how we should protest our own oppression.
When white police murder an unarmed black person, too often the white retort is “If only s/he had complied with the police command…” In response to the Black Lives Matter demand, it gets changed to All Lives Matter – totally dismissing the reality of who the victim is. There’s no racial profiling, only criminal black people. And the alternative universe goes on and on.
Then came Colin Kaepernick, beloved quarterback in the National Football League. Last year, Kaepernick incited white rage when he refused to stand for the national anthem to protest police-involved shootings of African Americans. Taking a knee has since spread across the sports world beyond the NFL. The fury of white America has been uncontrollable.
Black players were chastised – even attacked – by sports fans and even those who never had an interest in sports. The nerve to not show respect for the American anthem and the flag! Jerseys were burned and threats were made. Your president didn’t miss the opportunity to be distracted from his presidential duties to call for the firing of any NFL player who didn’t stand for the national anthem.
Telling black people we can’t exercise our freedom of speech only validates the notion that we have no rights. As long as we can entertain white people on the stage or on the field, that’s fine. But the moment we react to acts of racial violence or exploitation and throw up a fist, defend a stand or take a knee, we have crossed the invisible line. Kaepernick’s career is probably over but he is now a member of the prestigious club of those who fell from white grace when they stood on principle. The membership includes greats like Paul Robeson, Eartha Kitt, John Carlos, and Tommy Smith.
I have never heard anyone dictate how Jewish people should respond to the Holocaust like how blacks get told to leave that slavery stuff in the past. Jewish people get accolades for running down every Nazi they can find no matter how long it takes and for creating museums to honor their resilient history of struggle. To criticize Jewish response to their racial violence would be complicit with their genocide.
The sacrifices and casualties in this U.S. democracy are top-heavy on our side. I urge white people to check their privilege when they feel the need to tell us how loud we can scream in our pain, where we can protest, when we should be angry, etc. Doing so implies that we have no right to defend our voices, our lives or our futures.
Instead, I would encourage them to listen deeply to understand the many ways racism manifests itself in this country and the toll it has taken on all of humanity. The righteous empathy you discover may have you taking a knee or chanting “Black lives matter!”