In a somewhat anti-climactic return to blogging after a bit of an unplanned hiatus (explain in below) I present to you a link to another piece about cultural appropriation and Miley Cyrus on Medium. I hope you enjoy and can forgive the long break in posting. I will be back soon with more typical material here on the blog.
I had about a month off between turning in my MLitt dissertation at the end of September and officially starting my doctoral program. So I took some time away from the computer and stacks of books that had consumed my every waking moment for the previous three months. I read fiction. I went outside. I played my flatmate’s Xbox. I even had a visit from Norway. When I returned to my dying laptop (which I should probably do something about), I was greeted with some curious news: early October had been the scene of a renaissance of encomia and apologia for pop starlet Miley Cyrus. I’ve gone on the record with my thoughts on Ms Cyrus and I wasn’t particularly interested in revisiting the issue, so I took to twitter with a quick comment and got to work on my literature review. But it nagged at me. It bothered me that so many voices were so happy to defend racism and decry those who criticise it. It scratched at the inside of skull that Miley Cyrus should be insulated from criticism. And it sticks in my craw that even I as write this I know that nothing about it is going to change.
There were many lines of argument employed by Miley Cyrus’ defenders but they all came down to one thing: derailment. Derailment is the tactic of avoiding engaging with the arguments and experiences of the oppressed by changing the subject to make the discussion about the privileged. When I talk about being harassed by police or followed by store associates and you cite crime statistics you don’t understand at me, that’s derailment. When women describe being cat-called and followed in the streets and you ‘explain’ peer-pressure to appear masculine, that’s derailment. When black writers describe the perpetuation of negative stereotypes about black bodies by Miley Cyrus’ cultural appropriation and white newspaper columnists talk about the context that makes that OK, that’s derailment.
We hear a lot, it seems, about our ‘common humanity,’ our shared, fundamental belonging to the single human family that makes us all more alike than different. This is a peculiar notion and one that interests me for three very different reasons: (1) that it seems to be one of the last bastions of essentialism; (2) that, historically, it reflects millenia of speculative wrestling with the reality of human difference; and (3) that is it seemingly most frequently deployed by persons in a position of privilege to silence the voices of the oppressed. I want to talk about all three, in that order. Throughout, I’m going to discuss it in terms of the same test issue: race. I’ve selected race not because it’s earned me traffic in the past but because it’s adequately contentious that no one should be able to nod along with everything I have to say; it applies, more or less self-evidently, to both of the more material issues I wish to address; and because it’s an area where I am both interested and, I like to think, qualified.
That Special Something
So what do I mean when say that ‘common humanity’ is one of the last bastions of essentialism? Well, as a form of discourse, the common humanity argument assumes that all persons, regardless of gender, sex, class, race, etc., are equally and fully members of a single community of ‘humans’ and/or partake in some essential reality which qualifies us as ‘humans’ and from which other sorts of beings or things are excluded. The implication is that this fundamental humanness overrides sub-group membership in some relevant ontological or moral way but that is neither here nor there for the moment.
Essentialism, as defined by Quine and applied in this discussion, is “the doctrine that some of the attributes of a thing (quite independently of the language in which the thing is referred to, if at all) may be essential to the thing, and others accidental.” ‘Accidental’ is a broad category. An ‘accident’ is any feature of a thing which is not essential to it, which does not identity, qualify, or constitute it as an example of a type. So an accident can be characteristic without being essential (for instance, the colour brown is characteristic of wood but not all woods are brown). Those who espouse the common humanity argument think that features such as race, gender, and sexuality are accidental to humanity.
Now, essentialism has long since ceased to be a mainstream way of seeing the world. Granted, there are plenty of ways to be an essentialist. But, whether the Platonic Forms, the Thomistic Universals, or the Kantian Ding-an-Sich, they all long since lost the day to nominalism, in its various forms (in brief: everything is just names). We no longer think in terms of ‘tableness’ or the ideal form of table which all actual tables merely approximate. Except, it seems, when we’re talking about ourselves. No matter how firmly we accept evolutionary theory and post-Wittgensteinian ordinary language philosophy, we can’t get past the idea that we’re something special, that there really is some innate, identifiable humanness to us. So we still assert that we can have human rights because of our human dignity. We still talk about ‘animals’ as if we weren’t just another sort. We still think we’re special (nota benae: I am aware that this is often because of religious convictions, including but not limited to Christian ones, but I still think it’s wrong, you know, philosophically). So we get all sorts of regressive essentialisms, though gender essentialism (which erases trans* and non-gender binary persons) is probably the most prominently hated by liberals. Yet liberals have their own trendy essentialism too.
The essentialism of ‘common humanity’ erases the differences within the type. It’s in the nature of essentialism to subordinate the accident to the essence, the instantiation (the individual example) to the ideal. Think of that what you will but it becomes especially problematic when we’re talking about people. Why? Because the ideal of human, the thing you need to be if you want to be an unqualified human being, is a straight, white, cisgendered man.
Late on the Scene
As an intellectual historian, what interests me about the ‘common humanity’ argument is how it reflects centuries or millenia (depending on how you work your narrative) or wrestling with the reality of human difference. The narrative I tend to focus on takes us back only about 400 years, to the literature that grew up, particularly in Portugal and Castile, debating the humanity of the ‘Indians,’ indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, and whether it was right to enslave them. The mainstream accepted the humanity of the Indians fairly uncontroversially (Juan de Sepúlveda, most famed as the interlocutor of Bartolomé de las Casas in the Valladolid Controversy, was the only major thinker to seriously question it), so debate roiled around the latter question, in particular over the Aristotelian category of ‘natural slavery.’
Natural slavery, in short, is the idea that some people are just naturally not able to govern themselves in their own best interest (that is, direct themselves toward the human telos) and thus ought to be subject to those who can do so for them. The concept is from Aristotle and he didn’t racialise it as such, though in practise he seemed fairly content to accept that Greeks were generally able to govern themselves, unlike, say, others. Advocates of enslaving potential slaves, Juan de Sepúlveda notably among them, deployed this argument, usually arguing from the ‘Indians’ ‘savagery.’ Opponents, unwilling to argue against Aristotle (perish the thought), usually preferred to argue that the ‘Indians’ simply did not meet the criteria for natural slavery. Francisco de Vitoria, importantly, argued that no such humans exist, though the category was theoretically valid. Vitoria won the debate but lost the day, as the end of Castilian enslavement of America’s indigenous populations resulted in the import of African slaves.
Note benae: Not every thinkers who accepted slavery accepted the argument from natural slavery. Luis de Molina, for instance, posited only voluntary slavery and accepted that ‘Indians’ and ‘Aethiopians’ (black West Africans) could be justly enslaved if they sold or traded themselves into slavery (in exchange for, say, not being shot by a Portuguese slaver).
Only centuries ago, Juan de Sepúlveda, believing that the ‘Indians’ could and should be enslaved, erased their humanity, either by questioning it outright or by suggesting that their nature was so inferior to that of Europeans that they should be enslaved for their own good. Since then our discourse about human difference has come a good ways. Today we don’t accept natural slavery, that some people must be governed by their betters for their own good (though it was a mainstream position less than two centuries ago). Instead we (well, we social liberals) take the issue to the opposite extreme: we refuse to accept any morally or ontologically relevant differences between humans. Where once race brought humanity in question, now race is not an admissible question. It amazes me how quickly this utter reversal in perspectives came about. The period in which this reversal took place is well outside my area of expertise (coming, as it does, after the 17th century) but my sense of it is that it stems from an experience of shame at the knowledge of one’s own history, and an explicit rejection of the points of view that one assumes led to it. In that much, at least, it’s well-meaning.
The Devil’s Greatest Victory
Jem Bloomfield not so long ago took on the common humanity objection so often raised to identity politics. ‘Identity politics’ is something of a dirty word these days, especially when prefixed with ’90s’ and I think that’s closely related to the regnant post-racial, post-gender, post-whatever ideology of contemporary political discourse: in this modern age (usually they point out what year it is, presumably to highlight the unbridgeable moral chasm between the world of today and that of whenever they figure racism or homophobia or misogyny was last relevant, say, the dark ages of 1964), we have evolved beyond these categories. We have this on the authority of the straight, white, cisgendered men who feel no prejudice in their own hearts. These are people to whom ideas like ‘privilege’ and ‘structural inequality’ are academic when they’re not meaningless, because they’re not lived. The world looks fair to them, so they don’t understand why you insist that it’s not. That’s not to say this dynamic is only between the ideal and the divergent of the type, of course. No, it’s heard often as not from those who should know better.
As previously noted, the common humanity argument posits and/or assumes that ‘humanity’ overrides sub-group membership in some morally and/or ontologically relevant way. Because, says this line of discourse, you and I are both human, our different genders, sexual orientations, races, or whathaveyou, are irrelevant. This was a common argument in the comments to my open letter on the Trayvon Martin case. Many commenters (on the blog and on other platforms) insisted, variably, that I was ‘the real racist,’ that my letter was ‘fanning the flames of racial hatred or division,’ or that I was obscuring some ‘more fundamental’ issue. At the root of most of these comments (there were any number of other popular lines of objection) was the assertion that by talking about race and understanding my own experiences in light of race, I was creating artificial divisions within humanity.
But what these defenders of common humanity don’t (whether it’s can’t or won’t, I can’t really say) recognise is that my experience is being human is not the same as theirs. What’s more, when they demand that I recognise our common humanity, they want the defining elements to come from theirs. Because when they say ‘human,’ they don’t mean me. No, they mean themselves. At least, they mean the parts of their own experience of being human that fits the type. If being human means not talking about being black then, clearly, to be black is not to be properly human. Here you might protest that these same would argue that we shouldn’t talk specifically about being white, either. But of course, we don’t need to, do we? When we’re talking about humans we have to specify if we don’t mean white ones. That’s how the argument of common humanity erases, how it serves privilege and systemic inequality: it demands that in the interest of human unity we never discuss the realities of the majority of humans.
When those many commenters argued that I was ‘ignoring our common humanity’ or ‘getting caught up’ in identity politics, they were asserting the primacy of their own humanity and political priorities over mine. I am a human. A black human. Being a black human involves a lot of peculiar realities. Many of them reflect structural racism and systemic inequality. The same is true of many experiences of being human. When I talk about how I am human, I must talk about blackness, because blackness is part of my experience of being human. When you say that I should ignore it, that ‘common humanity’ doesn’t involve talking about structural racism, the fear of black males bodies, or people of colour wearing protective clothing, you are denying my humanity. You are saying that the live I have lived is not part of the experience of being human.
The experience of being human is not a uniform or monolithic. But ‘common humanity’ demands that it be. So it seeks to silence discussions of experiences that don’t reflect the ideal of the human type. It serves the interests of the privileged by invalidating the experiences of others, refusing to hear them because they are speaking in light of their own particularity, which ‘common humanity’ refuses to acknowledge as valid. It says that you can comfortably avoid engaging with the experience of the other because they’re not looking at it right. It robs the already marginalised of moral authority over their own experiences by accusing them of divisiveness or racism when they won’t sublimate their own humanity to the ‘common humanity.’ It does all this invisibly, claiming the moral high ground and comfortably reinforcing the status quo.
“We’re all human,” it says. “Not black or white. Just human. Like me.”
Nota benae: I’ve simplified my racial identity here in the interest of brevity. It takes nothing away from my point to describe myself, less than fully accurately, as black. It would hurt my readability a bit to describe myself as ‘a mulatto who considers himself a member of the black community’ six or seven times. If you prefer, you’re welcome to think of me as black in the political sense.
After the success of my writings on race I am experimenting with cultural critique as a genre. At the same time I’m experimenting with an essay style and a less academic, more argumentative voice. Though I’ll likely continue to publish material along those lines here (including my up-coming post on Common Humanity), I’m toying with other publication platforms for my less academic writing. I’ve published a piece on twerking and cultural appropriation (discussing Miley Cyrus, of course, but also video blogger Hank Green) on the ‘blogging’ platform Medium. An excerpt (and link) is below.
By now, I think, we’ve all taken in the pictures, read the commentary, and made up our minds on an opinion. Miley Cyrus, wearing a skin-coloured bikini thing, grinding her behind against an uncomfortably older man with her tongue stuck out and her face screwed up like she’s trying to unbutton his pants with her coccyx. It’s called ‘twerking.’ It’s a style of dance derived from Afro-Caribbean culture. It’s part of what’s called ‘ratchet,’ a low-prestige, ‘edgy’ culture associated with low-income blacks. You might call it ‘the new ghetto.’
We all know why she did it. She wants to shed her Disney image, to ‘grow up’ beyond Hannah Montana and saccharine tunes about cute boys and girl power. So she accesorises with blackness. She associates herself with black male artists from genres associated with urban black culture. She performs with black female backup dancers. She posts pictures of herself on Instagram where she displays her body to highlight (or create the illusion of) physical traits that are characteristically black. She performs blackness to build herself a cache of danger and transgression. She’s not a Disney girl any more, just look at how black she is.
With all my research on the history of rights theory I’ve also been doing thinking about rights theory itself. I’ve commented a couple of times that today we understand human rights to operate in a moral ontology usually called the ‘correlativity thesis.’ The correlativity thesis holds that rights correlate to duties. Another to say it is that every right of one person corresponds to a duty of another or others. To use the language of Thomas Mautner, rights claims are thus reducible to and rephrasable as duty claims. Therefore the rights claim ‘Socrates has a right to free speech’ is equivalent to the duty claim ‘No one may interfere with Socrates’ speech.’ This, to borrow an idea from J.B. Schneewind, means that rights exist only within a community where they are recognised. Another way to say this might be: you have no human rights.
Rights language has a long and complex history (which is a big part of my research) but there only a few points that are really key to understanding my point. Until the writings of Jeremy Bentham and the rise of his brand of utilitarianism, rights were based on natural law. God, in this theory, has endowed humanity with certain categories of inviolable powers, categories of action which we can undertake. In many of these natural law theories, the line between moral natural necessity and moral law is less than perfectly clear. The latest flowering of these theories was in the German and Scottish Enlightenments, where natural law theories, inherited primarily from the Dutch humanist Hugo Grotius, who leaned heavily upon the scholastic thinkers of 16th and 17th century Portugal, Castile, and Aragon. The Scottish and German thinkers took these ideas in very different directions but they shared an emphasis on basing their ideas in humanity’s nature. The Scottish school also gave birth to one of the moral philosophies which would eventually unseat natural law: utilitarianism. Scottish Christian utilitarianism, which was a component of a larger system of natural legal thought, did not survive, but it did form part of the conceptual and linguistic background of the Benthamite utilitarianism which would bequeath to the modern Euro-Atlantic world its understandings of rights. Parallel to the post-Grotian natural law tradition was the social contract tradition, which appropriate Grotius’ language of rights in a unique way: it conceived of humans as monads who sacrifice certain natural powers (called iure, or ‘rights’) for the security and opportunity provided by society in what is called the ‘social contract.’
It is from Grotius, his German interpreter Pufendorf, and the Scottish natural legalists that we have inherited our language of rights. It is from Bentham and his utilitarian tradition that we inherited our moral ontology of rights, our beliefs about how rights actually operate in the world. It is from the social contract school that we have inherited our understanding of how the social order that rights exist within, works (or at least should work).
The biggest problem with this is that the rights language we use is taken from a fundamental moral perspective which we no longer popularly hold: moral realism. We no longer accept that there is some objective moral order exterior to us which we discern. We moderns of the the Euro-Atlantic are, almost to a man (woman, non-gender binary person, etc.), either utilitarians (usually of the hedonist, eudaimonistic, or preference variety) or a sort of emotivistic Kantians. We make our moral for ourselves. The problem is that we also enshrined them in law and we did it in terms that are flatly at odds with our current reality. While a full textual breakdown of, say, the UN Declaration on Human Rights isn’t what I’m doing here, sufficed to say that ‘rights’ as the UNDHR is more in line with the natural law theories of the Scottish Enlightenment and the social contract theories of Locke and Rousseau than the community-based civil rights model of the correlativity thesis. In short, we use the language of human rights but we don’t believe in them.
We still think we do, though, because it still sounds like we do. That’s because the language of our social imaginary, our fundamental conception of how our society works, suits that language but is at odds with our beliefs. We think of ourselves as signatories to the social contract, as sovereign entities who have sacrificed our natural freedoms for the benefits of living in society. We think we have made a trade: I give you all my rights and you all give me safety, security, and opportunity. But we’re lying to ourselves. We aren’t monads. We don’t enter as free agents into the human community; without the human community, we are not. The human self is not a free one, it is an embedded one.
The only right outside the human community is the Hobbesian right: the right of the strong, of the war of all against all. But that’s not what we mean by the word. When we say ‘rights’ we mean to get at something ethical, not just some reflection of might. But those ethical standards we enshrine as rights have no ground outside the communities in which they are recognised. Can anyone posit for me the ontological basis of the right to life, the right to property, or the right to bodily integrity? No, rights exist only within our communities. All rights, in other words, are civil rights.
But don’t despair. You don’t need rights outside of community because outside of community, there is no you. There is no monadic self who gained their rights upon signing onto the social contract. The self is born and lives and dies embedded in a complex web of social structures and relationships. Outside of them we are not. And we have no need of rights when are not.
So what, you ask, is the basis of these civil rights? That’s one for another day, I think.
By now, you’ve probably seen it. Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States, speaking publically and candidly about the experience of racial profiling. If you haven’t seen it, you’ve read the transcript, or whatever excerpts make the best copy. You’ve probably seen and heard, if not participated in, the discussions. Was it inappropriate for a sitting president to comment on the verdict? Does he risk stirring up racial tension and civil unrest? Most of those questions I cannot answer. Some, particularly those that raise the spectre of black unrest, I will not dignify with a response. But I will share some comments on what I think it means for Barack Obama to have taken that podium and said those words.
First, I think Reni Eddo-Lodge’s words bear rembering: Barack Obama has not articulated the ‘black experience.’ He is only one of us. He shares in that experience the same I and the same as Eddo-Lodge herself, though in different aspects and different degrees. He has spoken to that experience, much as I have, shared with others what being black has been for him and what he knows it can be for many. But he does not speak for us all.
I can see the comments already, because I have seen them before. “Obama isn’t black!” “Why is Obama black but George Zimmerman isn’t Hispanic!?” I cannot define these men’s racial identities. That is their right alone. I will not deny George Zimmerman his Hispanic identity for his white father; I will not deny Barack Obama his black identity for his white mother. Neither can deny me my mulatto identity nor my membership in the black community. My previous entries on the Travyon Martin case have been moot on the question of Zimmerman’s self-identity, despite the repeated accusations in comments that I was, for reasons as varied as the accuser, misrepresenting or obscuring Zimmerman’s race or racial identity and I do not wish to speak to it here. His race is his own.
Like Trayvon Martin, Barack Obama is more than a man. A man, surely, but also a symbol. A symbol of what blacks can achieve in spite of racism, in spite of inequality, in spite of violence and fear. A symbol held high to show that our fates can be of our own making, that we can overcome all the world works to hold us back. A symbol that we should dare to strive. It means a great deal to my community that he has said the words he has said, that he has stood up and spoken bluntly about the realities of racial profiling, of being feared, of being othered. To do so risked his credibility to many, for we all risk our credibility in the eyes of the whites around us when we speak about racism. It risked political blowback, as his political opponents can accuse him of politicking and inciting racial division. Perhaps most of all, it risked the anger, dismissal, and blame that follow most public statements of the kind and which weigh so heavily on the soul. But risk he did, to bear witness to the experience of systemic racism.
It is no small thing to attest publically to the realities of racism. You will be slurred: racist, race-baiter, political opportunist. You will be accused: stirring up racial tension, dividing communities, perpetuating racism. For daring to step out of line, for refusing to quietly accept the injustice and maltreatment, you will be punished. A thousand hands will volunteer to put you back in your place, to remind you who is in charge. You will need to be stronger than you ever imagined. You will need to remind yourself a thousand times that you cause is worth their abuse. You will need to know deep within that you have been wronged and that you deserve justice. When you are poor and disenfranchised, they will blame you. They will tell you to make something of yourself. They will say that blacks are the authors of your fate. They will turn away. When you are educated and successful, they will scorn you. They will take credit for your success, call you a charity case, a product of affirmative action. They will say that you stand on their shoulders. They will deem you ungrateful. When you speak of race, they will cry ‘racist.’
So whatever the shortcomings of Obama’s words, whatever realities he failed to address, whatever nuance he did not make clear, I thank him. I thank him for standing up as one of us and speaking out. I thank him for bearing witness to the struggles and the pains of so many. I thank him for using the power of his office to carry his words to ears that would never otherwise have heard. I have been vacillating to no end over the question of Obama’s ‘responsibility’ to speak out as he has. Could any of us justly demand that he do as he has done? Is the anger from within some segments of the community, who feel that a teenaged boy should not have had to die for American’s first black president to talk about racism, justified? I don’t know. I cannot bring myself to demand that anyone be an activist, that every member of an oppressed community, even one I call my own, must stand and shout. But still I cannot but feel that the weight of his office places upon his shoulders an uncommon burden.
Barack Obama has spoken truth from power, a welcome turn on a tired phrase. He said with candour and directness what we all know: that we could all be Trayvon Martin. We could all be deemed suspicious by a self-appointed community watchman with a gun and killed in ‘self-defence.’ And if we did, we would be vilified and our killer vindicated. Because we are other. Because we are a threat. Because it is prudent to keep watch for us in your communities. It wise to follow us down the street. It only makes sense to lock you car door as we pass. It’s just being careful to hold your purse a little closer while you’re alone with us in the elevator. You can’t be too careful, not when there are blacks about.
Could Barack Obama, thirty-five years ago, have been Trayvon Martin? Yes, and tomorrow, were it not for the weight of his office, he could be Howard Morgan. Everywhere he goes he will be a black male body. That will always make him a threat.
The response to my letter about the Trayvon Martin case has been nothing less than overwhelming. Tens of thousands of views. Hundreds of comments. Shares I could not count. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to know that my message is thought worth reading, sharing, and commenting upon. So many of those comments were expressions of allyship, of solidarity, and of love. Many others engaged critically with my words in productive and meaningful ways. To those comments, and the uncounted tweets and emails, I can only say ‘thank you.’
Others were not so heartening. Many were filled with hate, fear, or contempt. Most saddening, many were knee-jerk reactions of denial, accusation, and blame. Though I fear that those ears and eyes may be closed, I feel I must try again. It is to those authors that this post script is addressed.
Am I a racist? The suggestion, or outright accusation, has been frequent. In addressing myself to ‘whites,’ have I revealed myself prejudiced against them? I addressed my letter to whites because in the many reflections and comments I saw from white pundits and bloggers on this verdict, there seemed always the same incomprehension. Even those who shared our sadness and our outrage seemed not quite to understand where, for us, they came from. So I decided to reach out to them whose incomprehension hurts me greatly and themselves not at all. I tried to add light where I saw only heat, to engender dialogue in the hopes that even though this verdict would not of itself bring recognition of the experiences of the black community, it might yet bring forth opportunities for understanding. Some, it seems, heard only accusations. Some, it seems, could not get past my choice to address them, directly, and speak about how the system that serves them hurts me. Some, it seems, could not bear even to read of the realities of their own privilege.
Is it race-baiting to speak out about the experience of racism? Am I stirring up racial tensions? Fomenting racial unrest? So many voices cried that Zimmerman is not white (he is of mixed white and Peruvian ancestry, I don’t know whether his mother is of indigenous American, European, or mixed ancestry), that I am not black (I am mulatto and never claimed otherwise; it does not exclude me from being seen as black or seeing myself as a member of the black community), or that race does not matter. They called me a political opportunist and a race-baiter and a bigot and a hundred things besides. They told me that I am the problem because I have made this about race. Is it really race-baiting to speak from my experience, as a member of the black community, of systemic racism? Is it truly political opportunism to reach outside of my community and try to share some understanding about that experience?
Two questions have oppressed my mind. The first is why just talking about racism make me a racist? The second why the victims of racism are not allowed to set the terms in talking about it?
I know that anti-white racism is very real, and I will not apologise for it. Every prejudice and every bias is destructive, blinding us to one another’s humanity. But I will not concede that the racism faced by whites is a problem on any order close to that faced by blacks. More than that, I will not allow the comparison of individual experiences of personal racism to derail this conversation because the real different is one of kind, not one of degree. Sometimes you face personal racism from blacks. All of the time we face structural inequality based on race.
That is my retort to those who called my words hypocritical, who saw mock rage over an imagined slight and wilful blindness to the responsibilities of blacks for our own misfortune. To those who look at blacks and see criminality, violence, and threat. Who look at statistics of disproportionate levels of violent crime among black men and they see their own racism vindicated. Who cite rates of ‘black on black’ violence as though they proved that violence is in our blood, as though it made my sadness at institutional racism rank hypocrisy, as if I were not allowed to write about the death of one without blaming myself for all the others. I ask who among them has ever shed a tear for these victims of poverty and systemic violence. I hold out little hope for a single ‘I.’
“Where is your outrage?” they cry. “Where is yours?” I reply.
The letter of the law
My words to you were not about the law. I spoke from the heart, about hearts, and, I hoped, to hearts. What I wanted most to say in my letter was that this case meant more to my community than the verdict of one court. This story wasn’t about the laws of Florida, about one man and one jury and one judge. This was a story we all know, though the characters were new. Once, not so very long ago, the role of Trayvon Martin was filled by a certain Emmett Till. Even now it is playing out again, though this time a one Howard Morgan is the principle character. To us this was the story of lifetimes of accumulated injustices, played out in a thousand different places at a thousand different times and with a thousand different names but always the same.
And on every replaying we are reminded by a world that would seem gleeful were it not so cold that our lives matter less. Our killers are always justified, our actions always suspect, our calls for justice always unjust. We are reminded that we are not your equals. We are reminded that this is what you mean by ‘justice.’
Writing history in braille
The story of racism is not history. Wishing will not make it so. So many voices cried that I see racism only because I look for it, that whites have ‘moved on’ and so should I. They are wrong. If whites have moved on it is because they have looked away and chosen not see, have chosen to let the blindfold of privilege hide the suffering of those without the privilege of wearing it. Such whites are blinded by their own hands. Thankfully, many have peeked out from under the fabric of privilege, have chosen to see the face of the world and not the fuzzy outlines that pierce the fabric and look like equality, like black entitlement, like ‘reverse racism.’ But what is to be done of the blind?
Perhaps we shall have to write our story in braille and call it history. Perhaps then they will see.