Ending the silence

On the heels of celebrations recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and the anniversary of the March on Washington where King delivered his most famous speech, it seems as if the issue of race is as much an issue now as it was on that day 50 years ago.

Certainly the days of outright and unapologetic racism died with the likes of Jesse Helms, but still trust and believe that racism and racial prejudices are just as alive as ever. What was once Alabama Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor and his anti-integration attitude is now Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and her anti-immigration policies. The policing of “freedom papers” for enslaved blacks has now become the policy of “stop and frisk.” Missy Ann, the plantation owner’s wife, is now Paula Deen, the Food Network star. The old Angela Davis is the new CeCe McDonald. Emmett Till is Trayvon Martin. Or Oscar Grant. Or Amadou Diallo. Or even Louisville’s own Adrian Reynolds. The KKK (Ku Klux Klan) is now TKE (Tau Kappa Epsilon): Old Southern white men in white sheets are now young collegiate white boys in oversized basketball jerseys drinking out of watermelon cups at a so-called “black party.”

And then you have the recent Huffington Post story of the white editor-in-chief who posed for a picture sitting atop a “black woman chair,” a piece of furniture designed to look like a naked black woman. And you have Madonna referring to her white son Rocco as #disnigga. Or remember what Gwyneth Paltrow tweeted when she went to the Jay Z concert in Paris?

When someone steps out of line or says or does something racist, we can expect the usual suspects of activists and social commentators like Al Sharpton, Melissa Harris Perry and Black Twitter to start chin-checking folks. Still, there are not enough black radicals or talking heads to confront and combat racism and racist behavior everywhere it happens. And, frankly, we shouldn’t have to. Enter the White People’s Collection Agency.

My (white) friend Laura first pointed me toward the White People’s Collection Agency, a Twitter account whose job it is to show up and make a collection in threads where white people are acting a fool in someone else’s mentions. From Laura: “I love the idea that when someone in a privileged group is acting ignorant, it’s up to other people in that class (not the people they are oppressing) to come and collect them.” Brilliant.

So from now on, I’m looking to you, white people, to clean up your own messes. It is not enough to simply be anti-racist yourself. You must actively fight racism when you see it or hear it. You have to challenge racist attitudes and speech from your friends, family members, co-workers and your political allies. And, yeah, sometimes you gotta stop being friends with folks who refuse to stop being racist.

White people need to be equipped and empowered to check other white folks’ racist attitudes and behaviors, just as one of the most effective tools for disrupting a culture of violence against women is for well-meaning dudes like me to call other brothers out when they degrade or disrespect women. After all, as King pointed out, “It’s not the words of our enemies that we’ll remember in the end, but the silence of our friends.”

And while we are on the subject, it is also your job as a white person to educate yourself about issues relating to people of color. It is no longer OK (not that it ever was) to ask to touch or smell my hair, or to ask me to teach you how to Dougie, or what it means to be “ashy.” We live in the Internet age. If there is something about black culture that intrigues or confuses you, Google it. But please don’t expect black people around you to make you hip, cool or cultured. And please don’t ask me why it’s OK for black people to use the N word if you can’t say it.

The great African-American lesbian feminist poet Pat Parker wrote a wonderfully entertaining but accurate piece called For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend,” which I encourage everyone to read. In it, Parker says, “The first thing you do is to forget that I’m black. Second, you must never forget that I’m black.” Yep, race and racial relations are complicated that way.

Therefore, I lovingly call on you self-proclaimed hip and progressive/liberal white folk to walk the walk and let us black folk rest a while. Let your actions show how committed to justice and freedom you are. I dare you to finally begin to clean up after yourselves.