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.
Common’s words reinforce the obscene and remarkably persistent slander that people of color (not white folks!) are the ones who actually need to learn how to love. No one who has seriously studied race and racism would conclude that the history of racial oppression boils down to people of color having a love deficit. And yet, the fact is, minorities who stand up against racism are routinely accused by actual racists of being hateful, of not “loving enough”. Common’s absurd #HandInLove reinforces this narrative, and, in so doing, minimizes the racial violence that ordinary people of color experience on a daily basis.
As someone who actually does love interracially, let me state this clearly:
Trivializing white supremacy, treating it like a “character flaw” that should be overlooked or a “side issue” is morally reprehensible.
More to the point:
How can I extend a #HandInLove if #ICantBreathe?
The first requirement of “interracial love” is that all involved recognize the historical and present day reality of racial oppression. Trying to “love white people” without first decolonizing from white supremacy is a very bad idea. It leads to a warped perspective that misreads situations of oppression as interpersonal disputes that can be healed through sentimentality. If your “love” for white people leads you to lie to them and yourself about the reality of racism, you might need to rethink what love means.
The truth is that you can’t actually “love white people” without asking the question: “What is a white person?” And in order to answer this question, you’re going to have to extend your hand into several books. Loving across our racial differences requires learning and studying what race actually means, where it came from and how racial hierarchies continue to reproduce inequalities and forms of violence–not “a long time ago”, but right now. Today.
We have very few models that illustrate what healthy interracial love and discourse looks like, but it certainly doesn’t look like
#HandInLove. Racially ignorant “interracial love” isn’t helpful. To the contrary, such misguided, honey-glazed post-racialism only serves to placate white folks who don’t want to acknowledge the on-going atrocities of white supremacy. Whether Common knows this or not, masking the social realities of racial oppression actually makes anti-racism more difficult to achieve.
Black feminists like Audre Lorde and bell hooks demonstrate that interracial love is built on a shared commitment to dismantle white supremacy and intersecting forms of oppression while expanding our capacity for compassion and empathy. Reducing oppression cannot be achieved by pretending it is not happening, or cultivating a nice “feeling”. It is reduced through collective action. Real love, in the service of social justice, means having the ovaries to tell the hard truths, to face the depths of our individual and collective suffering and work together to find ways of reducing harm. It is not built on racial erasure or denial.
I do not know what kind of rarified social world Common lives in, where it is possible to genuinely believe that racism ended at some point in the distant past. Has he been doggedly avoiding the news for the past several decades? Did he miss the whole Ferguson thing? Does he talk to black people outside of Hollywood? Is he under the impression that his Oscar win means that white supremacy has been vanquished? Does he use the Internet? Is he familiar with Black Twitter? How does one derive #HandInLove from “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”?
Thankfully, there are other black voices in Hollywood that show it is, in fact, possible to win an Oscar and yet still be aware that racism is still “a thing”. John Legend, who co-wrote Glory, responded to Common’s comments with a few of his own. While he acknowledges the importance of love, he also insists:
I think it’s not enough for us to extend the hand of love. I think it’s important that that goes both ways. It’s important also that we look at policies we need to change as well. It’s important for us also to fight for certain changes that need to happen And one of those issues that I really care about is education . . . It’s not enough to say we need to love each other, you have to go behind that and say we need to change these policies, we need to fight, we need to protest, we need to agitate for change.
This is the kind of active, informed love I see in the work of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk who founded Engaged Buddhism. It’s the kind of love I see in black feminists’ invitation to make decolonizing a central feature of our efforts to build more just communities. This is the kind of love I’m trying to practice as I go about the difficult work of being vulnerable and honest about oppression in my public and private lives.
As so many of us know from our own forays into relationships, dysfunctional “love” is not (and has never been) enough. Although Common may not yet be able to admit this to himself, we are (still) involved an a dysfunctional and abusive relationship with white supremacy. Pretending that the abuse is over or can be rectified by simply “moving on” only makes sense within the mind of one who is still grappling with the trauma of internalized oppression, and therefore, unable to actually see it clearly.
What we need, quite desperately, is the willingness to cultivate revolutionary love, grounded in knowledge, compassion, courage and collective action. What we don’t need is more kumbaya, post-racial sentimentality.