The events in Missouri have sparked debate about how we deal with race in this country. During protests across the nation, activists are being condemned and called animals. As well, we see those who oversimplify the issues and Band-Aid them with “can’t we all just get along?” The problem with these perspectives is at the root of what makes people of color angry.
This country began by being colonized. The cost of that colonization came at the expense of the Native American and the African slave. Natives were driven from their lands as white settlers fed their hunger for expansion. To produce the goods and build the structures needed to sustain the insidious sprawl, Africans were packed into ships and brought to the Americas to be sold in town squares — their only function, to work and breed free labor. To be sure, neither group was seen as people, but as savages, not much above apes to be tamed, used and taught to respect a white deity that was the image of their masters. This hasn’t changed with the current issues of immigration.
As America again faces the results of her humanitarian abuses, it is clear that despite legislation to provide “land” for Native Americans, “freedom” for enslaved Africans and a “reprieve” for immigrant families, she has done little more than use these people and offer just enough to buy complacency and silence much the same as offering an empty apology with no substance and no evolution.
When author Daniel Handler made a joke about African-American author Jacqueline Woodson’s allergy to watermelon, he was surprised when the audience at the National Book awards ceremony sat in near silence. His response was to issue an apology and donate $110,000 to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. A generous gesture to be sure, but his comments still serve as an unmasking of his belief that a joke about a black woman being allergic to a symbol of racist mockery was appropriate during a ceremony to celebrate achievement and scholarship.
Locally, Bullitt County Fire Chief Julius Hatfield’s racist mask was removed when a recording of him surfaced and he was heard calling an injured black family “niggers.” It is also clear that not only did he engage in racially volatile speech but also denied treatment to the people in the accident who needed it most. The week prior, he’d been on the news arguing with an Asian reporter whom he questioned about her ability to “understand English.” She says she didn’t notice the remark right away. Having watched that first report, I immediately found his remark racist and demeaning. Hatfield apologized and resigned only after facing pressured to do so by the media and community. He was not sorry for what he said or the reasons that calling a family of injured people “niggers” was out of line, but that he offended anyone. Again, we are presented with an apology that amounts to nothing. His prejudice prevented this family from having value and because of this he did not recognize their suffering.
Most recently, we saw the Obama daughters accosted by GOP Representative Stephen Fincher’s Communications Director Elizabeth Lauten who accused the young women of being classless and dressing like they “deserved a spot at the bar.” Ms. Lauten apologized after she was called out for her loaded remarks. What she failed to acknowledge and possibly failed to understand was that the message she communicated in her statement is one that African American women face regularly. Doing the things all people do — being born, dressing and existing — are perceived as low class and lascivious. I’ve experienced it. Now these very young women have the awful taint of racist and puritanical ideology projected onto their developing bodies. Ms. Lauten offered yet another apology and rightfully resigned her position.
I’m reminded of a quote by author James Baldwin about the trouble with being black in the world. He says, “When you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here. When you do that, without knowing this is the result of it, you have attacked the entire power structure of the western world.”
We are seeing, in a very real way the fear that the hegemony still has about its grasp on power. Despite only asking for humanity and to be acknowledged as tangible and empowered, the black community continues to struggle and this is why I say, keep the apologies; I’d rather look at my enemies and not their masks.