Yesterday, President Obama did something unprecedented. He completely personalized an issue that he didn’t have to. Until yesterday, He was treading the road of Washington D.C. professional, political navigator…insider. But yesterday he made a surprise statement about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. For at least a portion of those 18 minutes, he was no longer the President of the United States, but the president of black men in America. A risky stance when it’s open season on black men. But this was an important step and a step that only he could take. Black men have never had a president say “I am unapologetically one of you.” Conservative pundits are critical of him for identifying, for reminding us that 35 years ago it could have been him who was shot by a local vigilante; for reminding us that he has had people lock car doors when he walks by, women clutch their purses when they see him…just as I and millions of black men have had happen to them as well. But where were the criticisms when George W. Bush put in place tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (largely white men) or when he made any number of statements about ‘conservative’ values (abortion, gay rights, affirmative action) that only spoke to a specific demographic of white Christians again, largely men? Yesterday, black men in America finally had their moment. Deal with it.
Yesterday, there was also a wonderful program on KQED, Forum with Dave Iverson, Assessing Racial Equality and Justice in 2013 America. His guests, Angela Glover Blackwell (PolicyLink), Eva Paterson (Equal Justice Society), and Peniel Joseph (Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, Tufts University) brought about a rich conversation that highlighted both the passion and the data behind how we actually see race today in America. The conversation between the panelists was extremely well balanced and full of great moments, including one where Angela Glover Blackwell said in response to a listener who said they were tired of the conversation about race, “I’m tired of having to come back to the same issues again, and again…but until I see progress, I’m not going to stop.” You can listen to the conversation and view the comments here.
I’m using the word perspective today and pointing out these news items because I think it is crucial in this conversation, and as we start conversations about race that we maintain perspective. That we realize that our personal perspective is always skewed in the direction of our personal experience. If you have never been called a nigger in the street, you can’t understand what that feels like or what that does to your personal sense of safety. That is the only word in the American English language that carries with it an immediate association with specifically white oppression, violence and privilege. It is a word that no matter how much one may thing that blacks have ‘reclaimed’ it, will never be able to be anything other than a word of pure “otherization.” It creates a barrier with its history. In my comments on the KQED program, I reminded people who were complaining about the focus on “black/white” in the current conversation about race that our American perceptions of race are based almost entirely on the historical relationship between black and white. You cannot have a conversation about oppression and bigotry against Asians or Latinos or Native Americans in America without talking about blacks. Just look at the fact that the three groups I just referenced are identified by location or language; yet blacks are identified primarily by a color. It is the total anonymizing and obliteration of a history and the complete packaging in the context of oppression that s contained in the word nigger and that is why this conversation must continue. One can claim, Scoth-Irish ancestry, French, Chinese, Spanish, Mayan ancestry, but blacks in America can claim only a vast continent…Africa. We can’t point to tribes or recognized ethnic groups within the African diaspora, it was erased when our humanity was erased. When we simply became bodies that were part of the machine of America.
Although I believe that sexuality and gender oppression is the worst global issue, I believe that the lack of understanding between black and white is America’s worst issue by far. But that is my perspective and the perspective of every other person who has lived with the fear and cultural restriction that goes with our history. My perspective would, I’m sure be very different if I woke up every morning and never had to think about justifying my education or worrying about publicly expressing my solidarity with other black men for fear of being seen as a threat. But I will never know that for sure. All I can do is have compassion for your perspective and ask you to have compassion for mine.
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