What Does It Mean to “Love White People”? On Common and the Absurdity of #HandInLove

It’s sort of beneath my dignity to have to say that I love and have loved quite a few white people, but let’s just put it out there:

Yes, some of my very best friends are white folks.

I’ve spent a great deal of time in predominately white suburbs of predominately white nations, predominately white schools and predominately white organic grocery stores.

By virtue of my minority status and choices, my life involves a lot of working, talking and loving across different types of racial lines. I’m a East-coast raised, Southern-born, multi-generational, multi-racial black woman of U.S. slave ancestry. Unsubstantiated, but persistent, rumor has it that there’s Irish on both sides of my family tree. My family (biological and chosen) includes a diverse array of beautiful people: loved ones from a variety of diasporas, a Haitian godmother, Jews whose families immigrated from Europe.

I have a lot to learn and much room for growth, but I live a relatively cosmopolitan life. I like the fact that my hapa girlfriend grew up between California and Tokyo, spent years in Africa and speaks French with a Senegalese accent. I’ve visited a dozen countries and spent a significant portion of my twenties living in Paris. In my personal life, I have made it my business to consciously learn and explore what interracial, anti-racist love looks like. My spirituality is deeply influenced by Eastern traditions and philosophies, including Buddhism and Hinduism (Advaita-Vedanta). As an anti-racist educator and a panentheistic non-dualist, I know that who we are, on an existential level, has absolutely nothing to do with the social fiction of race.

And yet, I’m also intimately familiar with the social reality of our collective fictions. While I teach my students that our ideas about race are socially constructed, I also equip them to recognize and understand the very real consequences of past and present racism.

What I know for sure is that much of what people say about matters of race and love in public contributes to white supremacy.

I say all of this, in part, as a response to highly problematic comments made by the rapper Common, who recently appeared on the Daily Show and shared his stunningly ignorant take on race. In an apparent attempt to reflect on the power of reconciliation, Common told Jon Stewart:

If we’ve been bullied, we’ve been beat down and we don’t want it anymore. We are not extending a fist and we are not saying, ‘You did us wrong.’ It’s more like, ‘Hey, I’m extending my hand in love . . . ‘Let’s forget about the past as much as we can and let’s move from where we are now . . .  Me as a black man, I’m not sitting there like, ‘Hey, white people, y’all did us wrong.’ We know that existed . . . I don’t even have to keep bringing that up. It’s like being in a relationship and continuing to bring up the person’s issues. Now I’m saying, ‘Hey, I love you. Let’s move past this. Come on, baby, let’s get past this.’

There is so much wrong with this perspective that one hardly knows where to begin.

But let’s just start by acknowledging that what Common is advocating here has nothing at all to do with love.

What Common is suggesting, in fact, constitutes erasure and denial. He’s not only explicitly erasing the existence of present-day racism, he’s also implicitly denying that race relations today have anything at all to do with society and its institutional arrangements of power. In his view, “the race problem” is merely a lovers’ quarrel, a simple misunderstanding that happened a really long time ago and should be forgotten.

It didn’t take long for Black Twitter to wig-snatch the absurdity of Common’s proposed solution to healing the racial divide. You can find a deluge of damning criticism on social media neatly packaged under the hashtag #HandInLove.

Common appears to be suffering from the profoundly offensive misconception that racism:

1) is merely an interpersonal misunderstanding (and not a systematic and social reality)

2) only existed in the past (and is not an on-going feature of our society)

3) can be solved by people of color loving white folks better

As you may know, Common recently won an Oscar for co-writing the original song Glory, a paean to the Civil Rights Movement. And though he appeared in Ava Duvernay’s Selma, one wonders if he actually saw the film at all. Because I’m pretty sure that Martin Luther King extended a #HandInLove, and I’m also pretty sure that he’s dead.

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A Black Bisexual Manifesto

Hey y’all! Check out my latest piece, “A Black Bisexual Manifesto” on The Huffington Post (Black Voices). It’s part of #ThisIsLuv, an exciting and inspiring multimedia campaign launched by creative visionaries Darnell Moore and Wade Davis to shine light on LGBTQ-inclusive families in the black community. I was honored to take part in a segment about the campaign on HuffPostLive today along with Darnell, Tiq Milan and the brilliant Alexis Pauline Gumbs.

I want to also take this opportunity to recognize and express gratitude to my mother, Barbara, for encouraging me to take part in the campaign. As I explain in the post, she’s come an incredibly long way toward being a supportive ally as I’ve stepped out in my truth. But, it’s a path that hasn’t been easy. I was unsure about keepin’ it real regarding the difficulties involved in navigating homophobia and biphobia in our family, so having her support in telling my story means a lot to me. Our mother/daughter relationship continues to play an important role in teaching us both about love, and for that, I’m deeply grateful.

Blackwashing History: Slavery, Lynching & White Erasure

This morning, I came across a newly published article in the New York Times on the history of lynching in the U.S. south. Curiously, I noted that the author racialized the lynching victims – they were repeatedly referred to as black – but the race of those who did the lynching was left unmarked. In the article, blacks were lynched by “a group of men”, a “mob”, or simply by no one at all (using the passive voice). Not once in this article about a horrific chapter of the racial past was it ever explicitly acknowledged that whites did the lynching. Even more disturbing to me, when the author characterized lynching as “racial terror”, he used quotation marks. As if the phrase was in question.

Reading this piece of journalism, early in the morning before I’d even had my coffee, felt like a slap in the face. I wondered about the depth of denial required to not only write, but approve, an entire article about racial lynching—during Black History Month, no less!—that implicitly masks the role of white people in the bloody affair. But this pattern of denial was as unsurprising as it was upsetting. Not only is the erasure of whiteness and white responsibility a general feature of white supremacy, it is also one of my main findings about the representation of racial history on the other side of the Atlantic, in France. This latter topic is the subject of Resurrecting Slavery, the book I’m currently completing during my leave.

The lynching article illustrates similar patterns of asymmetric racialization and white erasure at work in the way slavery and colonialism are depicted in French society today. In official representations, I found that the enslaved were very often racialized as black – yes in “colorblind” France – but whites were rarely acknowledged. But this is far from the entire story. Outside of official speeches and texts that promoted white erasure, whiteness was at times recognized and deconstructed in commemorative events on the ground, especially in arenas where people of color had the opportunity to engage each other and openly discuss the history and legacies of slavery. These spaces of discussion and contention among ordinary people are important sites of knowledge production where minorities and anti-racist whites can produce alternative understandings of race, challenging the post-racialism and denial of the French state.

In Resurrecting Slavery, I argue that it’s a mistake—in France and elsewhere—to think that “breaking the silence” about racism or racial history is itself anti-racist. Racial history is all too often represented in ways that perpetuate the invisibility of white people’s role in (re)producing racism. This is particularly the case when authors, politicians, commemorative officials or academics join in masking, denying or justifying white people’s agency and responsibility for racism in the past and/or present. Take, for example, the 2001 “Taubira Law” that made France the first (and to this day, the only) country in the world to recognize slavery as a “crime against humanity”. On its face, this legislative development might seem like a significant step in the fight against racism. After all, no other Western nation has explicitly enshrined in law any recognition for the criminality of transatlantic slavery—a practice that was routinely legitimated and justified with racist ideology by European practitioners throughout its history. Yet, a closer look at the text of the law reveals certain peculiarities. The three main articles of the legislation read as follows:

Article 1

The French Republic recognizes that the transatlantic negro slave trade as well as the trade in the Indian ocean on the one hand, and slavery on the other, perpetrated from the 15th century in the Americas and in the Caribbean, in the Indian Ocean and Europe against African, American-Indian, Malagasy and Indian populations constitutes a crime against humanity.

Article 2

The academic curriculum and programs of research in history and the human sciences will accord to the negro trade and slavery the consequential place they deserve. Cooperation which permits and places in articulation written archives available in Europe with oral sources and archeological knowledge accumulated in Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean and in all other territories having known slavery will be encouraged and promoted.

Article 3

A request for recognition of the transatlantic negro trade as well as the trade in the Indian ocean and slavery as a crime against humanity will be introduced before the European Council, international organizations and the United Nations. This request will equally target the selection of a common date on an international scale for commemorating abolition of the negro trade and slavery, without preference for the commemorative dates of each overseas department.

The text of the law makes it clear that the French state now acknowledges that transatlantic slavery was criminal and calls for educational and commemorative efforts to resurrect this aspect of the past. But, as other scholars have pointed out, the legislation decries a crime without a culprit. The wording also singles out specific groups that were targeted and exploited: African, American-Indian, Malagasy and Indian populations. Further, the law implicitly reifies a racial category—in this case, blackness— with four references to the “negro trade” (traite negrière). But how are those who carried out enslavement characterized? The first article declares that slavery was “perpetrated”, yet no perpetrator (individual or collective) is mentioned. More to the point: not only are the perpetrators of slavery not named, they are not racialized. The slavery past is represented in terms that resurrect certain aspects of race, but only the race of the victims.

Many sociologists have argued that race is socially constructed. Resurrecting Slavery draws attention to an aspect of racial construction that is rarely addressed by social scientists: the way our understandings of race are intertwined with ideas about time. Colorblind discourse (which is hegemonic in France) not only denies the existence of racial groups (especially whites) generally, it also asserts a specific temporal representation of race. As critical race theorists have shown, colorblindness is, first and foremost, an attempt to erase race from representations of society and often entails a denial of various aspects of race in the past and present. At times, people are able to challenge this erasure by constructing what I call racial temporality—making connections between racial categories, relations and processes across time. Such temporal labor is, I argue, both a key component of racial cognition and an important tool of anti-racism.

25 Things That Co-Exist with White Supremacy

For the uninitiated, I’ve assembled a non-exhaustive list of things that co-exist with [socially defined] whites’ collective political, social and/or economic dominance in countries with histories of white supremacy, anti-blackness and racialized terror against people socially defined as non-white:

1. The fact that many whites are wonderful and kind people.

2. The fact that some white people do nice things for some people of color.

3. The fact that white poverty exists [and enriches the white 1%].

4. The fact that some white people are allies.

5. The fact that some white people have sex with people of color.

6. The fact that some (evidently smaller number than those referenced in #5) white people build loving, romantic relationships and families with some people of color.

7. The fact that whites personally and individually experience struggle or disadvantage.

8. The fact that many, many, many whites treat other whites poorly.

9. The fact that after voting for 43 white presidents in a row, some whites voted for and elected a half-white President.

10. The fact that there are people of color who are in denial about the existence and illegitimacy of white supremacy due to internalized oppression.

11. The fact that there are white people who are in denial about the existence and/or illegitimacy of white supremacy due to the psychic and material rewards of white supremacy.

12. The fact that “not all whites” [insert oppressive verb here].

13. The fact that a white police officer hugged a crying black child.

14. The fact that Oprah exists.

15. The fact that people are seduced by narratives of hope and progress even in the midst of on-going oppression.

16. The fact that certain elite social spaces that were previously 100% white are now “only” (!!!) 99% 95% or 90% of 85% or 75% white.

17. The fact that whiteness, specifically, and race generally are social constructs and therefore neither primordial nor essential.

18. The Emancipation Proclamation.

19. Affirmative Action.

20. Black millionaires and billionaires.

21. Beer summits.

22. White House meetings with Ferguson protesters.

23. Cameras on cops.

24. OWN.

25. Eric Holder.

It should really go without saying, but none of the aforementioned is capable of negating white supremacy.. in the same way that the existence of really awesome heterosexual people does not negate the social and historical reality of heterosexism, in the same way that Ellen’s individual success does not negate the on-going realities of homophobia, in the same way that the existence of women CEOs does not negate the social reality of unequal pay, in the same way the existence of generous, compassionate and kind-hearted men does not negate the social and historical reality of patriarchy, in the same way that the existence of loving and compassionate cis people does not negate the social and historical reality of cis-sexism and transphobia, in the same way that the existence of inter-ethnic friendships and relationships does not wash away the legacies of ethnocentrism and privilege on the part of the dominant group(s), in the same way that the “philanthropy” of the 1% does not erase the horrid realities of capitalist exploitation..

And so on, and so forth.