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2015: The Year of Black Erasure

From Maryland to Missouri, Black rage came to a boil in 2015. Reported riots in Baltimore and Ferguson summed up the country’s frustration with the government-sanctioned violence against Black Americans over the course of the year. The cry for justice was loud and boisterous, yet it would do little to stop the assault on Black bodies, Black history, and Black pride.

As if they’d been written in pencil, African Americans watched their lives and legacies scraped at and scratched out this year – our ability to live, to learn, and to love ourselves constantly under siege. 

There’s no doubt about it: Black erasure was REAL in 2015.

Although they represent only 6% of the U.S. population, a Washington Post report found that Black men made up 40% of those shot and killed py police while unarmed this year. One by one we watched the stories of these men unfold in the national media. Names like Walter Scott and Sam Dubose became a part of our dinner table discussions. It seemed like every day were  inundated with images of Black men being hunted and killed and we wondered if our brothers, our fathers or our sons would be next.

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Black women and girls weren’t exempt from the violence. Sandra Bland’s alleged suicide death after a routine traffic stop gone rogue left us with more questions than answers and the viral footage of an officer manhandling a teenage girl at Spring Valley High School left us feeling like there was nowhere safe.

Perhaps we were right.

On June 17, 2015, Dylan Roof opened fire at a historically Black church in South Carolina committing one of the most devastating acts of domestic terrorism to date. 9 people were murdered in their place of worship, simply because the color of their skin.

Perhaps more devastating than the loss of so many Black lives  in 2015, was the realization that the murderers would not be punished. In some cases, they might even be rewarded.

Dylan Roof was treated to a meal at Burger King shortly after his arrest this summer and the NYPD officer who shot Ramarley Graham four years ago received the latest in nearly $25,000 in raises.

It’s obvious: the color of justice was not Black in 2015 and the tumultuous year draws to a close with news that the officer who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland will not be charged with his murder. While Tamir’s young life was snubbed out before it even started, his killer’s life will continue unscathed.

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Not only were Black lives under attack this year, so was the legacy of slavery. Texas mom Roni Dean-Burren called national attention to the distortion of Black history after her teenage son sent a photo of a textbook referring to enslaved Africans as “workers.” Interpreting the slave trade within the context of immigration, the McGraw Hill text deludes its readers into believing in a false history – one where slavery and, consequently, racism does not exist. As Dean-Burren eloquently put it, “THIS is what erasure looks like.”

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Finally, and perhaps most ridiculously, we witnessed countless attempt to obliterate Black pride in 2015. For merely advocating to protect the lives of African Americans under the law, organizations like Black Lives Matter found themselves under intense scrutiny by conservatives conservatives, often referred to as a “hate group.” 

(It’s worth noting that those same conservatives had very little to say when a group of masked vigilantes, unquestionably motivated by hate, opened fire on PEACEFUL Black Lives Matter protestors in Minnesota.)

Even the most harmless displays of Black pride were policed disproportionately this year with African American families facing criminal charges for cheering on their loved ones at a high school graduation ceremony and  a group of Black teenagers, including a 14-year-old in a bikini, assaulted by police at pool party in McKinney, Texas .

With our newsfeeds overwhelmed with the blues this year, we faced the unfortunate reality that the fight for Black equity and justice is far from over. Sadly, we will carry these moments of defeat with us into 2016, but we cannot afford to abandon the will to overcome them. In the words of a  Black soldier who has seen far more battles in this ceaseless war, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”  

Happy New Year.

Photo by Vox Efx/CC BY 2.0

Light Handed

You ain’t gotta lie to kick it: Rachel Dolezal, white mediocrity and the idealization of blackness

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 2.53.04 PMThere was no shortage of comedic gems to stem from the Rachel Dolezal controversy. Quickly following the news that the white activist had disguised herself as African-American for years, black Twitter tackled the moment with a series of cheeky one-liners, hashtags and memes, sparking a hilarious yet honest dialogue about race.  But perhaps the most absurdly amusing part of Dolezal’s story is America’s refusal to recognize the sociopathy inherent in her assumption of a new racial identity. Rather, critics and supporters alike are immersed in a debate around the authenticity of Dolezal’s blackness; and with the public unable to come to a consensus, the term “transracial” has emerged to legitimize her web of lies and the media circus surrounding it. Drawing parallels to transgenderism and bolstered by the fluidity of race as a social construct, transracial advocates argue that if Rachel’s racial identity does not match the norms associated with her assigned race, she should thus be allowed to transition into blackness. In short, despite being born to white parents, Rachel has the right to be black.

“Well I’m definitely am not white. Nothing about being white describes who I am. So what’s a word for it?”
 -Rachel Dolezal in an exclusive interview with NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie

This logic only makes one fallacious assumption: that a black identity can be assumed by merely mimicking the stereotypic physical attributes, language patterns and political interests associated with it. While a great deal of evidence suggests there is no biological reality to our understanding of race, racial identities nevertheless have real and lasting effects on our lived experiences and social outcomes. Blackness, in particular, is inextricably linked to a history of oppression and systemic discrimination; ergo, it is an experience that is in no way uniform, but inevitably influenced by white fear, insecurity and privilege. Blackness is a self-conscious existence that stifles the ability to express the nuance’s of one’s identity within a dominant culture that denies one’s humanity.  Thus, to be black is to inherit not just the historical baggage, but the psychological and emotional trauma that comes along with it. Blackness is all these things and so much more, but what it is NOT  is something that can be performed — no matter how convincing the act.

We do not live in a transracial America. The assertion, in itself, runs counter to the logic that serves it. If there is no such thing as “race,” how can one transition between racial categories that are at bottom negligible?

Dolezal’s passing is not a symptom of misplaced identity nor, as she suggests, being switched at birth. Rather, her behavior falls in line with a trend of modern-day blackface where adopting a black aesthetic becomes an instant remedy for white mediocrity. By assuming stereotypically “black” cultural codes, norms and physical characteristics, whites who are generally uninteresting, untalented, and  “unattractive,” can suddenly be more entertaining…
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and more “beautiful”…kylie jenner animated GIF

While blackface performers have historically worn their bigotry on their proverbial sleeves, today’s perpetrators justify the practice under the guise of false idolization. Unbeknownst to them, they contribute to a sordid history of cultural appropriation that makes black people the butt of an old racist joke. Just like their predecessors, they exercise imitation as the sincerest form of mockery, ridicule and disrespect.

They say if you tell a lie once, all your truths become questionable. Accordingly, as Rachel Dolezal’s lies unfold, her truths — namely her accolades and activism — have come under intense scrutiny. Yet, despite her questionable ethics, the fact that Dolezal is not biologically black has little bearing of her contributions to the black community. After all, as NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar notes, when considering her commitment to black equity, “does it really matter whether Rachel is black or white?”

In a world where black joy is policed with the same intensity and brute force as a criminal act, I suppose black Americans can use all of the allies they can get. White liberals have long played an important and strategic role in the movement for black civil rights and Dolezal, identity confusion withstanding, is a welcome and valuable asset among them.

Rachel, my dear, you ain’t gotta lie to kick it.

Photo by Vox Efx/CC BY 2.0