Why we can’t ‘move on’ from racism
Black History Month this year has been, shall we say, rough? Each passing day brings a new headache for Black America to deal with. It all started with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam apologizing for wearing blackface in an old yearbook photo, then claiming that it actually wasn’t him in the picture while admitting he had done it at another time to win a dance contest as Michael Jackson; followed by the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia Justin Farifax facing allegations of sexual assault and rape from multiple women; and troll/commentator Candace Owens using Adolf Hitler to defend nationalism. All of this on top of just the general constant headache that is to be Black in America. With all this racism flying around, there is the completely predictable (and wrong) response that we live in a post-racial society and that we have moved past racism. This is wrong on so many levels I could dedicate a series of books, a James Bond number of movies, enough documentaries to put Ken Burns to shame and enough think pieces to litter every webpage. I will attempt to hit on the main points to introduce you into the discussion.
Let us start with ya boy Liam Neeson. He recently admitted to prowling around bars 40 years ago hoping a “Black bastard” started something with him so he could kill them in revenge for a friend who was raped by a Black man. He did this while promoting his new movie, which could be seen as “Taken: On Ice.” It has been followed by an onslaught of people saying he is racist, people saying he isn’t because it was so long ago and he didn’t kill anyone, and all the other same boring opinions people have when something like this happens. He even went on “Good Morning America” to further explain himself and try to save his image. Sure, he feels bad about thinking that way and wants the world to believe that he isn’t racist. However, there has been something missing from these conversations. It is the fact that the world he and his defenders say is in the past is the current world for Black and brown people. Every time I walk out the door I fear for my life because there could be an angry racist just looking to end my life because he felt like my skin means I am lesser and deserve to die. Neeson could have spent the last 40 years dedicated to fighting for civil rights, but that doesn’t exclude the fact that he knew he could kill an innocent Black person and probably get away with it as white people have done for hundreds of years. I get people grow and change, and that’s a great start to real change. But the system is larger than any individual and, despite not participating in racist actions anymore, the system that emboldened Neeson to feel like he had the justifiable right to kill an innocent Black person is still present and endangering lives on a daily basis.
Jussie Smollett’s alleged attack is also indicative of this system. Even though the situation has since become more complicated, as Smollett himself was arrested for helping orchestrate the attack, the direction of the rhetoric surrounding it before the newest discoveries was clear as day. As usual, people were tripping over themselves to make their all-too-predictable opinions known: “This isn’t indicative of America,” “This isn’t who we are America,” “This couldn’t have happened because it was so cartoonish,” “We have to wait for all the facts because we can’t trust the victim, but we can trust the Chicago Police Department.” The slow trickle of concrete facts from an organization that has historically abused Black people is not surprising. Even though no one believes Smollett, the sad reality is that, despite what people think, attacks on Black and LGBTQIA* people still do happen in 2019.
There is so much that happens to marginalized communities when they have to deal with the constant news about how they are under attack. The anxiety, depression, anger, cynicism, apathy and profound distrust in the systems that govern our society. The systems that have been temporarily put in check in order to live a semi-healthy life roar back to the forefront and disrupt everything they have built. Imagine you wake up one day, get ready for class, and see several stories about how the group you most identify with is being jailed at disproportionate rates. How you have to make up for 400 years of discrimination and hatred. How you don’t have the space or time to properly digest the reality. How people see you as less than human. In short, marginalized communities are constantly retraumatized by these events while also having to attempt and live a productive life.
So, while I am glad individual people, especially people of extreme privilege, have been speaking out more about equality, they represent the very first step in dismantling the system. We need to hold them, and ourselves, accountable for past actions. If we don’t, then this tired cycle will continue until we end up permanently ruining any chance of fixing what’s wrong with society.