If I may briefly interject from my original post…
Though this piece is largely about the destructive nature of respectability politics, particularly in the Black community, it also is a piece on self-love through defining one’s self as an extension of their community, not simply as an individual. This past weekend, my fraternity brother and dear friend took his own life. This event has left me shattered personally and devastated the many communities he called his own and blessed with his presence. I would like to dedicate the underlying message of this post to my brother Andrew and anyone else going through a similar struggle, but more importantly, to anyone who has ever caught themselves openly condemning someone among their own community. We’ve lost too many of our brothers and sisters to depression and self-inflicted pain that could have been prevented through better communal care practices. I don’t know the state of mind my brother was in when he left this Earth, nor do many of us know the mental state which Marissa and Mara were in when they expressed their truths. The public shame and ridicule directed at these two women from everyone, including members of their own community, I’m sure was enough to push even the most stable of people to their limit. Imagine if their mental strength was fragile before their action at this event. Imagine what it’s like to have the foundation of your community ripped from beneath your feet and attempt to balance on the last corner of stability you may have. All it may take is a simple push to tip you over. We must love each other relentlessly and with vigor, even if we’re wrong, and constructively express our thoughts. There’s already enough hate expressed externally to us that it should never reflect how we direct our energy internally, because we never know when a simple “I love you” may save a brother or sister’s life, or a reflection of that hate may result in the loss of one.
Before I speak on my appreciation of these two women, allow me to preface this letter with a lens that I believe is necessary to comprehend my perspective. It is in my experience that black folks in these united states have been disproportionately pressed into positions of hypercritical introspection and self-disdain. Whether this hate materializes through the shade of our skin, the height of our pants, the might of our laughter, or the tone of our aggression, the U.S.’s infatuation with disparaging Black lives is undoubtedly reflected in how we perceive and understand each other. We self-perpetuate these external attacks on our identity when we speak on the fallacy of black on black violence. When we condemn our vernacular as incompetent. When we choose to berate the shortcomings of our brothers and sisters on a lack of resolve rather than chastise the oppressive structures that held them behind. When we don’t allow our children to make mistakes and settle with an “I told you so” and a subsequent jail sentence.
Though this list can go on, today I’d like to speak on a more recent instance when we dismissed two women for the tone of their justified anger and ignored the truth behind their words. I’m talking about when Marissa Johnson and Mara Willford seized Bernie Sanders rally to speak for only but a moment on Black lives. It’s sickening how U.S. culture takes to either condemn or entertain themselves with Black anger. In all honesty, I fell for this condemnation myself. My initial witness of this event was short clips of two women who represent a movement with which I identify with aggressively silencing a politician whom I personally support. My first reaction was confusion and frustration. I thought, “Why didn’t these women let Bernie speak? He’s our ally. Why would they choose to disrupt a space that seems to support our cause?” I watched the heavily edited clips shown on every major media outlet, even those on more progressive pages, and made the mistake of letting their perverse coverage determine my opinion.
After some reflection and discussion following watching the raw video, I find it problematic how we as a community were so quick to denounce these women rather than take a moment to listen to their message. The conversations that followed this event did not discuss state violence and racial injustice. On the contrary, they criticized the tone of these women’s voices and questioned the effectiveness of their strategy, neglecting to ask them, “why are you angry?” Many folks even demanded an apology from these women, incessantly calling their efforts counterproductive and disrespectful, and I must ask, counterproductive and disrespectful to who? Have we become so hypercritical of the external perception of our Blackness that we must apologize to our allies? I think not, nor do I believe in apologies in this context. The truth is emotional and unpleasant, and those who speak it will reflect that unfortunate reality. You cannot call yourself an ally if you do not accept that. What I find troubling are those many who prioritize respectability over authenticity.
Respectability politics is a front that allows people to claim that two Black women truthfully calling a crowd racist is somehow more offensive than state violence. Respectability politics is a tool that only supports aggression when it’s passive, and has been used to dismiss people of color from platforms that people like Sanders have the privilege to stand on. We will not win through communicating like this. We must stand firm in our truths and recognize the necessity of aggression. Anyone who preaches Dr. King’s non-violent message out of context and ignores the militant forces that expedited and ensured our progress are misguided, and those who call these women’s message militant are mistaken . It’s through actions like Marissa and Mara’s, in addition to the collective movement, that our voices are heard and progress is made. It was their voices that pressured Sanders to take an official stance on racial justice. Their voices sparked him to hire a Black woman, specialized in Black criminal justice, to his campaign. Their voices have held Sanders accountable to the progressive agenda he preaches. Something other Black Lives Matter activists in New Hampshire were unable to do in an encounter with Hillary Clinton.
To be clear, this is not a denunciation of those organizers who spoke with Hillary. It is simply an example of how confrontational organizing can often be more effective than what’s deemed politically correct or appropriate. Not much came from the encounter with her. In fact, she ended up instructing these organizers on her opinion of what they need to do to improve the social climate, giving little concrete evidence of intention to hold herself accountable and fix her past racial injustices. She has no official platform and has made little to no mention of race, only vaguely when confronted with it. With that being said, it’s no surprise that people advocate for such passive tactics if this is the result.
There are definitely appropriate times and spaces for different methods of communication. Nonetheless, we, as people of color, absolutely cannot silence or condemn someone of our own identity for speaking our truth, no matter the manner in which our emotion is translated. That’s an internal division as damaging to our community as embracing a concept as foolish as Black on Black crime. That emotion is as necessary as any statistic, court case, or fact we speak on. Unfortunately, we don’t often have the privilege to tell our story to the masses; a story that only we have the right to tell. A story even Bernie has no entitlement to, and sometimes, it’s necessary to create our own opportunity to do so. So, the next instance one of our own speaks out in an unconventional manner, first ask yourself all the things right that are being said, and refrain from defaulting to nitpick the few points you may disagree with. Broaden the lens of what you deem appropriate and worth your breath, because if we continue to consider conventional political incorrectness as more offensive than rampant racial injustice, we will never break loose of these chains.