By Vanessa Leigh Lewis
We live in a country where white is the default; beauty is measured in standards defined by whiteness. Racial controversies can appear small, but are common place. Remember the racist backlash from white fans (largely millennials), when Amandla Stenberg, a young mixed race actress who plays Rue in Hunger Games discussed race in her Tumblr video, “Don’t Cash Crop my Corn Rows”?
Social media racial backlash often gets brutally ugly —very quickly.
When these issues come up on my Facebook feed the “discussions” quickly turn into a battleground. Those discussions turn personal quickly and the argument becomes “I’m not racist,” or “This isn’t about racism.” People throw out that there is another reason, another way, another issue, but those reasons or issues are never racism.
White people don’t like to discuss racism unless they are assured that they are not racist. If you can’t give them that assurance, it is a problem.
WE are too sensitive.
WE Black folks are always making it about race.
In the last few weeks, 14-year-old Dajerria Becton was assaulted by a policeman and humiliated trying to attend a pool party in McKinney, Texas. Another 12 year-old Black girl was also assaulted by police had her jaw fractured and injured ribs after being forcibly removed from another public pool in Cleveland, Ohio. In the same incident another teenager was pepper sprayed. The aggression and violence directed at these kids is heartbreaking and senseless.
In the last few weeks, 22-year-old Kalief Browder killed himself. He was arrested at 16-years-old and kept imprisoned on Rikers Island Jail in New York City for three years without ever having been charged with a crime. For two of those years, Kalief lived in solitary confinement where he made his first suicide attempt. During his unjust imprisonment, he was repeatedly beaten and tortured. After finally being released Browder attempted suicide a fourth time, this time the US justice system was successful. The racist US “justice” system is responsible for Browder’s death.
These shocking disturbing events were quickly overshadowed by the media’s fascination with Rachel Dolezal. A white woman who it turns out has been passing for Black for the last seven years. She claimed to have suffered eight hate crimes, taught African American studies and was a chapter president of the NAACP. She also sued Howard University, the historically black college (HBCU) she attended for racial discrimination. Her appearance quickly derailed any discussion on the racist criminalization and dehumanizing of Black people and instead started a conversation about whether there really are races or is race simply a political construct? The question became: “Why can’t Rachel Dolezal identify as black?”
The shooting of nine Black members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the murder of nine Black community members at the hands of a self-proclaimed white supremacist changed the conversation. The act of terror did not bring cries of national outrage and did not break evening programming to alert us of the shocking devastating act of terror, although it was already deemed a hate crime.
The nine victims and their stories were replaced with debate over whether the killings were racist. Was the shooter was sane? How the shooter was such a quiet person.
Once again the media wants the story to be framed from the point of view of a racist white mass murderer instead of the Black people he killed, six women and three men who should not have died. Even when Black people are murdered, somehow, the story is not about us….
Race is a political construct, but that makes racism no less dangerous to the lives of Black people, and all other People of color. Racism criminalized Black people. Racism is a dangerous reality that hurts our psyches, our self-esteem, our perceptions of ourselves and literally causes trauma. And yes, we Black folk -in particular- are pretty sensitive about it.
You can’t even begin to know how sensitive we are. And what is wrong with being sensitive? The definition of the word sensitive means to be “quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals, or influences; displaying a quick and delicate appreciation of others’ feelings.” To be sensitive is to not be detached or dismissive.
To be Desensitized, is to “make (someone) less likely to feel shock or distress at scenes of cruelty, violence, or suffering by overexposure to such images.” To be desensitized makes it incredibly difficult to relate to another person’s experience much less point of view. The words racial, racist and racism seem in themselves to incite white rage and surprising indifference and annoyance from people of color often. It seems clear on Facebook and on social media in general that the people commenting and debating on these controversial threads are largely desensitized to racism.
As a Black woman, I have been conditioned to be sensitive. I have been conditioned by the state to be sensitive to whether or not I will be perceived as a criminal for just being. I have been conditioned by my family to be sensitive and shrink down, be especially nice, especially calm, and especially friendly – to avoid being stereotyped, generalized and judged. I have been conditioned by my interracial friends to be sensitive to their boundaries, what we can and cannot talk about and remain comfortable because we all have to be comfortable all of the time…. I have been conditioned to be sensitive to the parade of white bank tellers, cashiers and service employees who smile and greet the three white people before me in line with “How are you today?!,” but greets my smile with a stony “ How can I help you,” if not silence. I have been conditioned to be sensitive.
Next time you hear someone say that not everything is about Black and white, or comment that a Black person is being too sensitive, why not consider whether or not they are desensitized to the reality of someone else’s experience. Think about whether or not You are desensitized when racial profiling unfolds itself to you on the 11 p.m. news. The next time someone is adamantly defending some generalization of Black people based on their own limited experience, think about whether or not you make these kinds of generalizations. And by all means pull them aside and call them out on it.
Silence equals more abuse of liberties and police assaults. Silence means even more murders of Black children, women, and men of all identities and abilities. Silence equals more Black people scrutinized for questioning authority. Silence equals more Black children being singled out in class as not being smart, well enough behaved and/or teachable. Silence equals more BlackTrans and queer POC bullying and brutalization going unmentioned, because the media doesn’t identify them as newsworthy. Silence equals Black people not feeling safe, ever. Silence equals more death. But it shouldn’t take death to see that racism is dangerous and damaging and dehumanizing.
This weekend I had enough. Enough of the minute debate, enough of the silence from so many of my non-Black “friends” on the topic of racism and the year of racist terror we have all witnessed. I deleted almost 60 FB friends in order to stop being torn up inside by the deafening silence on their feeds around racism and the dehumanizing of Black life. I grew tired of providing resources to be understood to silence. It was an act of self-care and self-preservation. My soul required it and I am better for it.
People come in a diverse array of ethnicity, dis/ability, gender, shape, size, and a/sexuality. The world we live in is dominated by the white male point of view and white skin privilege. The sooner everyone accepts that reality the better. When white people start acknowledging that privilege, educating themselves on racism, actively listening to people of color and hearing and validating our reality, the sooner we can move forward together on the task of ending this plague that is racist injustice. It would do us all some good if everyone got a lot more sensitive about racism.