Saturday, July 16, 2016

Breaking News: Black People Are Ordinary People

A few days ago, I described a centuries-long crisis facing African American communities, a crisis that must be resolved if Americans are truly going to come together. This is a crisis of White supremacy, and dismantling it is the only sure foundation for peace.

This is all true, but I'm uncomfortable with what I wrote--or rather, what I didn't write. This crisis does not define African American communities. Amid oppression, the banality and beauty of daily life goes on. 

I honestly think that many White Americans would be surprised to discover that African Americans are ordinary people. Partly because of the vast social distance separating most White Americans from Black Americans, we often talk about each other in terms of abstractions and media narratives. All too often, there is no human connection available to provide accountability in these conversations. In the White American imagination, at the end of the day, whether or not Black people are simply people is an open question.

When well-meaning Whites, seeking to dramatize injustice, describe Black neighborhoods as "war zones" or refer to a "crisis", we can reinforce stereotypes and negative assumptions that White Americans already harbor. Our words might awaken some people to a righteous cause. For others, our words provide more ammunition for the ongoing suspicion of Black humanity. As Daryl Michael Scott observed, there is a long history of sympathetic people portraying African Americans as fundamentally damaged (by White racism). While this may provoke pity in some, its corollary is contempt.

Housing and school segregation leave many White Americans in a state of extraordinary ignorance about their fellow citizens. They see discussions of crime on tv and hear about protests in Ferguson and Baltimore and Baton Rouge. So it's easy to lose sight of the fact that most African Americans do not live in inner cities and are not poor. Even worse, lack of meaningful social contact means that many Whites don't see, and can't even imagine, the ordinary rhythms of everyday life.

They don't see the strong bonds of community in many Black neighborhoods, neighbor caring for neighbor. They don't see the communities where everyone on the block knows the kids on that block and takes responsibility for their well-being. They don't see the parents working themselves to the bone so that their kids can have a better life. They don't see the people volunteering in the schools. They don't see the dozens of ordinary actions that build community between people--here, let me shovel the snow in front of your house, there, let me get those groceries for you.

And they don't see the hard work of overcoming obstacles and discrimination. The persistence of the mom who gets up early to take that long bus ride to work. The creativity of the dad who manages to earn money doing odd jobs even though nobody will hire him full time. The desperation of trying to find decent housing or a safe school for your kids. They don't see the psychological resources that resistance to centuries of oppression has produced.

Because we don't see this, because we're so disconnected, we get instead absurd discussions about how Black people supposedly don't care about and protest crime in their own communities. We get offensive advice about how Black people need to take responsibility for America's failures. Beneath this lecturing from the sidelines lurks that persistent doubtful question of the White American imagination: are Black people really just ordinary people with the same aspirations and hopes as me?

Most White Americans have probably never thought to ask a different set of questions. What if Black people are doing everything right, and the results are what we see today? In other words, what if the problem resides not in Black communities but in American institutions?

Some of the quickest people to take issue with the the simplicity of this hypothesis would be many African Americans themselves, for whom narratives of self-criticism and self-help are pervasive. If you think Black people aren't taking responsibility, it's a pretty sure sign you don't actually know Black people.

It is perverse for me to posture as an interpreter of Black communities to a White audience. That's not my intention. Rather, I invite White people to take it upon ourselves to break out of our self-imposed isolation. Some of us who are White are aware of how segregation harms people of color. But we are often unaware of the damage it does to ourselves. Be brave enough to ask yourself how often you actually have meaningful conversations with people of color. Be brave enough to read a little history and let the evidence guide you. Be brave enough to be honest about what you know and don't know. And be brave enough to be a nonconformist in your White community. I wish more White people would stop and ask themselves why they have so many strong opinions about people they don't even know.

For those of us who want to change White minds, it is not enough to speak of the problems African Americans face. The broader message is the extraordinary resilience and perseverance of a people trying to build freedom and community even as the country around them tried to tear it down.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting piece. I am european and white. I saw a picture on facebook portraying blacks very stereotypically and tried to google ordinary black people. However weird the term ordinary might be.But I wanted to see what turned up because i feel that ordinary black people are so seldom portrayed in cultural productions or media. Its like you are either a high achieving black person who made it through and should be congratulated for being almost white or its a struggling poor wreck or a gangster. Its a mess. And when a white person adapts to cultures originated amongst blacks then you are either confused or have to prove that you are worthy of the role so to speak. As if its the colour of skin that attracted you and not what the culture is about. Thanks again for an interesting well written text!