This summer of 2020 with its global COVID-19 pandemic and crisis in racial justice makes for a very interesting time to be Black in America.
This is not to say that Black people have not always been self-aware of our blackness before now. It’s just that the awakening of white people across the globe to the inhumanity of global racism—and its myriad manifestations--means that we are all in a very peculiar moment.
Part of this peculiarity comes in the fact that white folks are for whatever reasons being forced to acknowledge their own unconscious complicities in perpetuating and sustaining racist practices from which they have benefited for hundreds of years, actually in this country since 1619 when the first Africans were brought to what is now the USA.
Indeed, so much of what we witness now as racial, financial, healthcare, educational and social injustices are rooted in American slavery and the ways in which Black people on whose backs this country was built have arguably suffered most from systemic racism in all its many permutations.
That a “day of reckoning is upon us” seems a common sentiment among many across racial groups.
After all, organizations, institutions, and corporations are racing to unveil “Statements” as pledges of allegiance, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are retiring their names and logos but not their products, as Confederate flags are offering a final wave from some public buildings, and as some monuments glorifying “the good ole days” that were not so good for too many are being toppled and removed.
I remain skeptical, though, about much of this activity, not because I don’t believe in the promise of this USA as “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” but because I watch the human capacity to lose interest in movements between crises.
Lots of white folks are doing stuff – supporting black-owned businesses, talking to their Black friends and colleagues and watching lots and lots of black stuff as though cramming for an exam.
While many applaud these latent alarm clock moments, this frenzy to fix feels slightly reductive, imagining that anyone’s lived Black experience can be understood by simply reading books or watching documentaries absent of real critical analysis and interrogation.
The emotional toll this “awakening” from white slumber or inactivity as a non-racist vs. and anti-racist is overwhelming for many Black folks I know – whether asking Black people to recommend reading lists, offer diversity trainings, or simply to validate their white allyship card or moral uprightness in some tangible way.
These observations near and far are leaving many Black folks vulnerable, angry, and fatigued.
Many of us are also grieving the loss of “friends” with whom we have had to sever ties because they have deeply disappointed us in their performative allyship.
They have betrayed our trust and made us reevaluate our ability to see and know confidently ourselves and other people.
Race and racism have always been threaded into the very fabric of this country, and its serviceability as a denier of basic humanity affects all of us but does not benefit us all.
Such systems of oppression exist because they are profitable. The extent to which we can dig up the roots of racism’s serviceability and see the connection between capitalism, resources and humanity – or the lack thereof – is the extent to which we can move closer toward a more just society and world. I am looking forward.
Ahwatukee resident Neal A. Lester, PhD, is Foundation Professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.