The Charleston massacre and the pervasive nature of white supremacy
Written by Bri Little|
July 1, 2015
Like many black folks, I’m still reeling from the recent massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In fact, I’m always reeling from the perpetual stealing of black lives. There’s hardly time to process what has happened in one tragedy before I hear about another. Constant psychological and emotional stress is unfortunately something that comes with the territory of navigating America as a black person. It begs the question of why Rachel Dolezal, former president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP, spent years pretending to be a black woman. Don’t get me wrong, being black is amazing — I love my culture, my skin color, and the legacies I’ve inherited and will create, but really —being subject to daily dehumanization, being seen as ‘the other’, and experiencing other forms of overt and covert forms of racism is not ideally how I’d like to live. Black people can’t even live, apparently.
Somehow there’s still a question of whether the Charleston Massacre was a hate crime or terrorism. I have the answer: it’s both. Time and time again, white supremacy rears its head in the mainstream media, which expresses confusion over the motive of the killer, a young white man who explicitly said he walked into the church to kill black people. There are resident white, male experts on CNN giving their “opinions” on how black communities should grieve when we are continuously plucked from this world one by one due to racial hatred that is as alive as it has ever been, and whether or not this mass murderer was actually racist.
According to his roommate, Dylann Roof made racist jokes. He also wore a jacket with the South African apartheid-era flag on it, he was pictured several times posing with the Confederate flag, and he actually said black people rape “our” (read: white) women, and that black people are taking over “our” (read: white) country.
The back and forth between white people on TV and other media, questioning whether the Charleston massacre was an act of racism and who is responsible is a predictable yet devastating blow to black communities who are grieving, and always grieving. Because, of course, we live these incidents on a daily basis; they don’t exist in a vacuum. But due to white supremacy we must always offer white perpetrators the benefit of the doubt (or, in most cases, the benefit of mental illness) when they commit atrocities. My favorite is when we decry on black-on-black crime, a derailing and false concept seeing as though nearly all crime is intra-racial (meaning it happens within respective racial groups). White supremacy is asking black people why they aren’t doing more to deserve humanity. White supremacy is, given this tragedy and all the violence and anti-blackness we endure, adding insult to injury by demanding we forgive and move on when no one has ever even apologized.
When people demand “forgiveness” in the midst of continued erasure of black lives and experiences, I think they really mean silence and compliance. Respectability is supposedly one of those things black people must “achieve” in order to be recognized as human and thus worthy of life. Yet, as we see time and time again, respectability won’t save us. The nine people killed in Charleston welcomed Dylann Roof into their place of worship and were, for all intents and purposes, “respectable,” as opposed to militant. Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated while appearing “respectable.” President Obama is constantly disrespected and subjected to racist comments and jokes despite being respectable.
Respectability is a vicious myth; it will not save us.
We live in a world where Rachel Dolezal, who I plan to address more thoroughly in my next blog, and countless others use black experiences and identities as fodder to mold into their existing identities. It happens in a myriad of ways, and, needless to say, is severely problematic — it’s appropriative, exploitative and silencing. Furthermore, it seems that when it’s time to defend blackness and take steps to eradicate white supremacy, more often than not those who take advantage of black culture when it’s convenient remain silent. Unlike those who want to be black so badly, I can’t escape blackness when I want to. I’ll always fear microaggressions, stereotyping, racism, and for my safety, on a daily basis.
So, white friends, here’s what you can do: start with confronting yourself, then call out your friends. It’s uncomfortable, I know, but it’s even more uncomfortable and exhausting when white people expect black people and other people of color to educate them and their counterparts on how to refrain from dehumanizing us. Promote voices of the marginalized. It’s important that we are at the forefront of our own movements, and white comfort is not a consideration we should have to make. Don’t assume your black friends or friends of color always want to discuss social justice. If we want to talk about it, we will. It’s often triggering and stressful when my white friends ask my thoughts and advice on this or that issue. I acknowledge your good intentions, but don’t be afraid to think critically and engage in discussions about race with your white peers without the permission or approval of a black person. Most importantly, say something. When your family, friend, or someone you know makes a racist or derogatory comment about a marginalized group. Say something about the acts of injustice that happen to us daily. Participate in these conversations. Challenge your own comfort. Meeting this bare minimum of decency in the interest of fellow humans can be difficult, but remember that remaining silent for fear of being corrected and actually learning something, or not being coddled, perpetuates violence against people of color.