Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

People of Color Should Be More Than Just Useful

Disclaimer: Even though there is a certain amount of anger in this piece, I believe it is healthy anger. And anything I hold against white people is not against the people themselves but against the system that makes them white. I have tried to put as much calm and practicality into my essay for those people of color who have wondered all their lives how to express in words what white people can do to change racism in America, and for those white people who have genuine sincerity but feel helpless… to be educated and to be awakened. I write this in the spirit of Malcolm X and his hard truths, and I pity anyone who, because of this reading, ignorantly dares to call me a racist. If that is you, please try for a second read. Here’s hoping for peace in America… after a little truth.

As a person of color in America, I think about race often, sometimes casually, sometimes academically, sometimes mournfully: but not a single hour goes by when I do not think about the state of race relations in this country (either as relates directly to myself or in general theory). All people of color in America know that part of the amorphous label “white privilege” is the concrete manifestation of the ability “not to…”—in this case, the ability not to think about race. This is why so many liberal intellectual whites today will say things like, “Why does everything have to be about race? Can’t we all be human beings?” Truthfully, even to the well-meaning white person, discussions about race are usually just that—discussions, which she can dispense the way she dispenses toilet paper. At worst, it is a trash can that sometimes has an unavoidable stench. At best, it is an unpleasant locale she makes frequent trips to in order to alleviate the guilt of her conscience.

What can white people do? Think of race as an integral part of their being, if only by default, in being the only race in the United States that is not forced to be race-conscious every day of the week, every week of the year. I’ve heard many white people say, “we feel guilty enough,” or “it’s not our problem; it was our ancestors,” “I’m not a racist,” “you’re just as good as me,” “I just see people as human beings.” To all those white people, I say this again: concrete action #1 is to think of race as an integral part of your being because that’s what it is in today’s society. You cannot solve a problem by ignoring it. Identify the problem, recognize its existence, discover its prevalence, then work on solving it. But first you must recognize that race cannot be wished away any more than a building made of concrete can be wished away.

Still, I can hear the cry of the well-meaning white person: “But I’m not a racist! Maybe I have some hidden prejudices, but I do not discriminate.” Ask any white person who says this or thinks this way what those “hidden prejudices” are and she will not be able to answer you. Well, I can tell her exactly what they are—any time she perpetrates, or allows society to go unchecked with members perpetrating, the following:

1. White people (total strangers) asking an American-born Asian (without even knowing her name), upon meeting her, where she’s from (meaning some place in Asia, not an American geographic area), if she knows Kung Fu, or if she understands some butchered version of a Korean, Chinese or Japanese phrase.
2. White people always having an opinion about something, never once feeling it normal to just not know something that perhaps a person of color knows.
3. Along similar lines, as Malcolm X noted, no matter how a white person praises a person of color for her intelligence, asking her opinion solely on racially-related matters.
4. Casting Hollywood movies with white protagonists who have depth of character, supported by people of color who are either positive or negative stereotypes.
5. Assuming that the status quo, as per racial theory/ literary canon/ current psychology-related conventional wisdom/ etc., has an inherent (not rationally argued on equal footing) truth to it that so-called “radical” theories do not.
6. Referring to people of color as “Black people,” “Asians,” “Native Americans,” etc., and then feeling uncomfortable when a person of color says, “white people,” or “that white guy.”
7. A white person purposefully avoiding social situations where she will be the only white person present because they make her feel uncomfortable.
8. Not realizing and not bothering to find out the ways in which white people constantly remind people of color of their race while still affirming that “we are all human beings.”
9. White people feeling uncomfortable in a situation where people of color are leading a discussion or in which white people are not the loudest voices in the room or the people who get the most air time for their opinions.
10. Comparing Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, Jr., and discrediting Malcolm X because he “didn’t do anything. What did he really do?”

I am going to leave the list at ten, though I’m sure if other people of color in America had a few hours to think of more ways racism continues in the U.S. as systematic and prevalent (i.e., not isolated, extreme/ violent incidents), they’d be able to come up with at least 200 more, not the least of which is that some “scientific” white-initiated projects study only Blacks and whites in America and actually believe that white people have a genetic predisposition to intelligence that Black people do not. Oh, and complaining about how sexist or violence-promoting rap “is” without acknowledging the extent to which other forms of musical expression are as well.

The tenth perpetration is what irks me most about any talk about race. When I do think about race in America, I think about race in terms of three categories:

1. People of color who’ve read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
2. People of color who have yet to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
3. White people.

Most people of color I know do not agree with everything Malcolm X has to say (in fact, how can anyone ever agree 100% with anything she reads?), but they recognize the power of who he is after reading his book. Any white person I’ve talked to about race, whether she’s read Malcolm X or not, still questions his worth, his value.

I’ve had at least two people ask me what Malcolm X “did.” One was a white person, who had read the autobiography (yet who still asked me), “What did Malcolm X do? Martin Luther King, Jr. got legislation passed which affected everyone in America.” One person of color, very enlightened on racial matters in general (but who still had not read Malcolm X), asked me a similar question. I do not think, after reading the book, she will ask that same question.

Of course, the case could be argued that Malcolm X, in fact, did more than Martin Luther King, Jr. Many historians recognize that no matter what the abolitionists did, Lincoln only “freed the slaves” as a political move when it was convenient, and, in fact, he only ordered the emancipation of slaves in the South, over which he had no jurisdiction at that time. And Malcolm X himself told the truth about “The March on Washington,” and the power it had over civil rights legislation: nothing. Congress, the president, Washington… they do nothing, they pass nothing, unless it is politically advantageous to the parties in power: P.R., votes, image.

But there’s something more important than arguing whether Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work directly affected legislation in the U.S. Why should it matter that much? Evidence of the white American’s dominance of the national thinking about race is the fact that most discussions about race center on what’s “useful.” What legislation got passed? Are people making more money? I remember reading a Newsweek article recently about how conditions for African-Americans are improving. If that were true, no one would need an article explaining things were getting better.

The condition of race in the U.S. will not improve with legislation. Corrective legislation is supplementary, secondary to real social change. You can change policy, but you will not change racism until you change people’s minds… especially white people’s minds and their thinking about race. Then, the real change will happen. Once we can figure out a way to do the following, in the following order, racism will be on its way out:

1. Get every white person in America to recognize racism (which benefits whites and not people of color) exists as an operating and prevalent system, not a series of incidents.
2. Get every white person in America to realize that white is not some there’s-nothing-I-can-do guilt-trip to be stuck in… it’s not a complexion gene or eye color: it’s primarily an attitude of entitlement.
3. Get every white person to realize real integration can come about through only natural means: people of color want dignity, not to live with white people. As Nina Simone said, “You don’t have to live next to me. Just give me my equality.”
4. Focus on education: do not keep critical race theory in the upper echelons of academia. Bring it to the masses, the children, the public schools.
5. Work on uncovering subtle forms of racism. This will undermine more overtly violent expressions of race discrimination. Dwell on this illustration: who changed more laws before he died—Jesus or Hitler?