In this racist society where white Europeans came, committed mass genocide of a darker skinned people, became a physical majority in 3.8 million square miles of desecrated land, then stole and subjugated another dark-skinned people, black American culture emerged over the next 400 years to become one of the most influential and revered sources of cultural expression and artistic contribution in the history of the world. Society as a whole looks to black American cultural expression to articulate feelings and an unvarnished truth about being alive that white culture has never been able to muster. Black culture arguably IS American culture.
So why is there still so much disrespect? Is it really even hate or just jealousy? How can we worship and seek to emulate black expression, black music, black style, black creativity and have a pervasive throbbing structure of contempt for that which we clearly admire so very much? We laugh at Dave Chapelle’s jokes, listen to Beyoncé and Kanye (obviously too many names but trying to think of the most broadly popular), co-opt clothing, speech, stories, musical style, and still fear and abuse black people. As we admire, we objectify and fetishize and dehumanize.
The white gaze still looks more like anthropology than equality.
We do this because in most communities, and very notably in the south where I now live after years in Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, Brooklyn and a childhood in multicultural Miami, people who are not the same don’t know one another or speak to one another one-on-one or deeply enough to escape the ‘othering’ that poisons our sprawling car-dominated society. No matter how many somber promises people make to take responsibility and learn about race through books and Instagram quotes, we — all people — are always going to look at people who are different from us as ‘other’, as a thing to be judged and abstracted, either positively or negatively, if we don’t spend time with one another.
A lot of people, often referred to as ‘well-meaning white folks’, are right now scurrying to buy books and watch all those free movies on streaming that center on race. All the white talk show hosts are suddenly earnestly listening to black voices, chin on fist, head cocked, and it can’t be a bad thing, but it does feel just a little patronizing. It’s also forcing black people into a position where they are again expected to teach white people about what it means to be black. Hence the refrain “I’m tired.” It’s another way black people are not free to go and live their lives without some sort of external mandate or circumspection. The white gaze still looks more like anthropology than equality.
Racism is a spider web. A viscous, gauzy sticky knot. Sway any which way, and you’re enmeshing yourself in either festishization and objectification, victimization and pity, smug superiority and entitlement, or in the extreme, far right hate. All of this is a consequence of societal detachment.
The white majority that stole, oppressed, suppressed, co-opted, disfigured, fetizized and patronized, is dying…Now’s the time for rethinking basically everything.
Things won’t change until we wander away from our groups. People have a really hard time doing that. I am aware living now in North Carolina that if I wander into a black owned business today that the people in there will know exactly what I’m up to, or assume that what i’m doing is virtue signaling, taking a Black Lives Matter stance in the moment. Being some kind of hero. I’m not saying don’t do it. In fact do it. Definitely do it. But that’s not going to solve everything. The issue is even bigger than ‘not listening.’
White culture is straight up awkward in all this. And whether I feel I can relate to this new earnestness or not, I’ve been personally obsessed with racial injustice and black cultural contributions all my life, I have to own it as a white person on the wrong side of the equation who does not have to live every day with the threat of violence and the jugement (a.k.a. white privilege). What else am I going to do? Say hey, I’m different. I’ve read all of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and Bell Hooks in school, lived in a black neighborhood for 15 or so years and always ate at black owned restaurants and drank at black owned bars and experienced my early socialization in a children’s theater run by a black family? That’s forced and awkward too and oh-so cringey (yet I’m saying it here…I once had a black friend come over and see the books on my shelf and say ‘you do care Chauncey’ and leap into my arms farcically.) I spent a few years in South Carolina after leaving NY and when I went there I sought out black-owned centers of education for my kids and businesses and had a hard time finding them even though I knew they were there. In my time in the town, the black chamber was burned to the ground because of an electrical fire which hardly made the news, and that was after cries of ‘reverse-racism’ were painted on their newly constructed walls by local racists…
Ironically, I’ve drifted into a ghetto of whiteness as I’ve gotten older, and that has felt inevitable somehow. Now, I find myself representing white liberalness which I find well-meaning but problematic. I moved to Raleigh a year ago and moved downtown to be as much a part of a heterogeneous population as possible yet I have not seen more than one black-owned business near me. All the porch photos taken during our COVID19 lockdown are of white family after white family in a downtown Raleigh neighborhood which used to be mostly black but is now so gentrified that there’s not a single black soul visible in my vicinity unless they are driving through in a car? It’s so shameful and whether I like it or not, I’m a part of it. Spider Man.
We need to get together. And not just on the streets in a protest. We need to hang out more. In 2045, white people will be the minority in this country. These cops and white nationalists flailing about in the death throes of the white male hegemonic majority are raging against the dying of the light of their violent subjugation of society. It’s a rude awakening for them to realize they are not ‘naturally’ superior — that they’ve just physically dominated due to sheer numbers and their own hubris after killing the native people and stealing more people. People of color were outnumbered once, but that will soon not be the case. The white majority that stole, oppressed, suppressed, co-opted, disfigured, fetizized and patronized, is dying. It’s time we sit in one anothers’ living rooms, create sidewalks and town centers and institutions and holidays that embrace immigrant cultures and the gorgeous blend of language and color that is the ‘great’ America. If we don’t, we still don’t have that much longer generationally speaking to wait unit the white bigots and misogynists, the Harvey Weinsteins, Koch Brothers, Unite the Right military/ frat boy types, the irrepressible Karens, Greek life’s general awfulness, corporations microaggressive culture, and more will have to give way to a new white-minority America (and more female power). Time is running out for them. Yet we still pay so much attention to what they have to say.
Now’s the time to finally erect new systems that start with a primary and secondary education that acknowledges the vast and crucial contributions of not just black artistic culture, but scientific and societal contribution, and rewrite the history books with the truth that admits our vast crimes and undoes centuries of racist indoctrination, not just throw it a bone with a patronizing empathetic white gaze. Now’s the time for rethinking basically everything including democracy, housing, urban planning, financial institutions, corporate influence, healthcare, the electoral college... But it also comes down to individual relationships and one-on-one connection. We rob people of their individuality when we force each black person to speak for all black people all the time or just listen to public intellectuals and pundits. Everyone is robbed of one other when we don’t know one another.