As an adult, I thought I understood racial injustice. In actuality, I thought class was under everything. I thought that solving class oppression would implicitly improve the lives of Black and Brown Americans who were disproportionately over-represented in those oppressed classes. I had heard about Intersectionality but it was usually in a Feminist context. I had heard of “Systemic Racism” and had seen the statistics, but it just didn’t click. By this point I was very well-read on topics of classist oppression, the follies of Capitalism, and felt very comfortable discussing topics of Gender and Feminism. I understood the idea of “privilege”, I saw “Dear White People” and had listened to Black speakers that came to campus. But I still didn’t understand my complicity in systemic racial oppression of Black and Brown Americans. I had been listening to all varieties of hip-hop for nearly 2 decades at this point and could appreciate and value the the contents of a song like “Get By” (Talib Kweli) or “America” (Sammus). I had a vague understanding of cultural appropriation, but didn’t realize how White people using AAVE was also appropriation.
In 2014, I met an amazing woman named Monique, a lovely Afro-Rican woman a few years my junior. We shared many interests and had a lot of fun hanging out together. But the timing wasn’t right and she vanished, only to resurface 4 years later. We began dating almost immediately.
Monique is a very feisty individual. She is an Aries and will not let you forget it. She speaks her mind. She has very little patience or tolerance for, well, a lot of things. Systemic Racism (and particularly my ignorance therein), was a frequent topic of conversation because for her this wasn’t just an academic topic like class struggle, this was a very existential struggle she faced, herself. As a mother of Brown children, the murders of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown hit far too close to home. Freddie Gray. Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Eric Harris. Walter Scott. Eric Garner. These people look like she did. She did not feel safe just existing. I saw these things happening and knew it was wrong, but it did not land on my the same way it did for her.
When the Ferguson uprising happened in 2014, I was squarely on the side of the protesters. I knew this was injustice. I had directly participated in the Occupy Wallstreet protests a couple years prior and this made it much easier to quickly empathize with the side of the protesters. I was very vocal in my defense against those that would bring up “but they’re damaging property!” and “why can’t they do this non-violently?” I was following many Black personalities who spoke about their experiences, and I was learning the language and concepts, but I was still very nascent on the nuance.
In the early months of 2019, someone backed into my car and destroyed the taillight. We didn’t discover this until we went to the grocery store the next day and at that point I thought it had happened in the parking lot.
My thought process, one of someone who’s people had not been regularly brutalized and killed by the organization that had its roots in the Slave Patrol, was to call the police and file a report so I could get them to review the security camera footage. The gap in my logic here was that I thought since we weren’t doing anything wrong that there wouldn’t be any issues. Monique was not okay with any of this and was very distressed. I was ignorant of the way that it doesn’t matter if we were doing nothing wrong, encounters between the police and Black Americans can be fatal.
What I learned from this experience was to avoid intentionally bringing a Black person and a Police Officer together, if possible. If it’s unavoidable, understand that the situation can be very stressful and anxiety-inducing and I should check in with them and make sure they’re OK.
We visited some of my family in NYC. Members of my family said some very ignorant things that would definitely fall under Kendi’s definition of racist. That is to say, they weren’t dropping the N-word, but they were expressing views that upheld the status quo of racist policies. I said nothing. This was my family, right? I didn’t want to cause a fuss. That would be uncomfortable. I put my own comfort and the comfort of my white family members above the discomfort and safety of my Black partner, whom I loved.
What I learned from this experience was that, especially for my partner, this kind of talk can be existentially-invalidating. It’s important that I advocate and confront in this situation, even at the expense of social propriety.
I finally read “So you want to talk about race” (Ijeoma Oluo) and my views regarding the intersectionality of class and race were corrected. In short: a Black American isn’t being murdered on the street by the Police because he is poor, and giving him more money isn’t going to change that. Whether you have $10 or $10,000, the color of your skin is immutable.
Cultural Appropriation made more sense: it’s taking a creation of another culture out of the context of the culture that produced it — using AAVE for comedic value, like an impression; enjoying Hip-Hop but being critical of “Welfare Queens”; doing TikTok dances that were created by a young Black girl and then not crediting her for it.
Ibram X. Kendi says, right at the beginning of How to be an Anti-Racist:
A racist is someone who is supporting a racist policy by their actions or inactions or expressing a racist idea. An antiracist is someone who is supporting an antiracist policy by their actions or expressing an antiracist idea. “Racist” and “antiracist” are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other.How to be an Anti-Racist, p.23
Not that my preference here matters, but I like this definition.
For all the injustice I could see happening, and for as much as I knew that it was deeply wrong, I was still complicit. I still didn’t understand that for there ever to be justice, some things needed to be changed and undone. I didn’t understand that my inaction implicitly gave power to the existing structures that were oppressing these marginalized groups. It wasn’t enough to change myself and be a better person; there needed to be more transformative action.
How does one person change something this massive? What can one person even do, other than try to not make it worse?
This brings us to today.
The way things are right now is not okay. In the past four years we’ve seen some pretty overt and obvious racism come out of the woodwork. The way things are right now is not sustainable and they need to be changed.
As my uncle, parents, and some peers might attest, I’ve been a lot more confrontational about these things. Particularly the issue of Police and Prison abolition (via defunding). Our current policing model does not work. My position on civil unrest following the murder of an innocent American has remained unchanged — it’s a symptom, the fever, not the virus behind it. If you don’t like the property destruction, work towards finding a way to get our police to stop murdering innocent Americans.
I still don’t completely grasp what I, a single person, can do to make this better, but via Monique I’ve connected with some local activist groups and they are have some amazing ideas for how to transform our local community. Acting locally is still a challenge but feels more doable. I am content to take my cues from them and find ways to help my community be better.
I do not want to tolerate this shit anymore and you shouldn’t either. It’s been 29 years since Rodney King was brutally beaten by LAPD Highway Cops. Nothing really changed; if anything it’s either gotten worse or it’s the same and the advent of portable video recorders (smart phones) has made it more apparent. Probably the latter, to be honest. The list of innocent Black Americans that are being murdered, often in plain daylight, continues to grow and there is no action.
My goal here is to minimize the times I’m wearing the “racist” peelable name tag and maximize the times I’m wearing the “antiracist” peelable name tag. I think I can do this by holding myself and my peers accountable, confronting them as needed; by joining demonstrations in solidarity; by finding causes and opportunities to support that oppose racist policies, particularly locally; by listening to and amplifying the voices of marginalized groups.
In a panelist discussion with some local activist groups, there was discussion about what Abolition means, and the definition seems similar. It’s not a line in the sand that you can cross, or a specific point you reach. It’s a process, and a goal to strive towards. Similar to how Kendi describes “antiracist” as not something you are, but an ideal to pursue.