In discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement, I’m relatively sure you’ve heard at one point or another this line of thinking: “It should be All Lives Matter.” I’m also relatively sure that when you heard it, a white person said it. As a white person—an exceedingly white person, at that—I would like to speak directly to those other white persons who have espoused such a belief.
As well-intentioned as you may be in insisting that we are all one people under the same sky, supplanting the black in the phrase “black lives matter” is missing the point. Either you are missing the implicit argument that black lives matter too, and therefore falsely regard the movement as a bastion of black pride at the expense of all other makes and models of human existence (or worse, a terrorist organization), or you acknowledge that black lives matter, but by downplaying that sentiment in favor of some post-racial love for humanity, you are complicit in the preservation of systems of power that marginalize African-Americans and other minorities. To that effect, I don’t know which is worse.
I was reminded of the “Black Lives Matter”/”All Lives Matter” logical trap earlier this week following activist and actor Jesse Williams’ acceptance speech at the BET Awards for the Humanitarian Award. Williams had this to say in closing regarding the topic of race in America:
Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter, but you know what, though—the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.
And let’s get a couple things straight, just a little side note—the burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander.That’s not our job, all right—stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest, if you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.
We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil—black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is, though—the thing is that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.
Powerful words. As is often the case, though, influential white people soon started rendering their opinions, and that ruined that pretty quickly. The inevitable hubbub/backlash started when Justin Timberlake took to Twitter to react to Williams’ impassioned speech:
Which led to this:
And all this:
OK, so there’s a number of things going on here, so let’s break down the component events/issues:
1. Justin Timberlake was #Inspired. Good for him. I don’t have any particular grievance with this Tweet other than the notion #Inspired, as far as hashtags go, isn’t particular inspired. At least he didn’t use his remaining characters to fill the space with more unnecessary hashtags. #ThankYouJT #WhitePeopleWatchTheBETAwardsToo
2. Ernest Owens (and a slew of others) took umbrage at Justin’s alleged history of habitual cultural appropriation. This is where the issue of race and culture gets decidedly thorny. More and more, white entertainers and famous individuals who lack real talent but are a subject of interest nonetheless (e.g. Kylie Jenner, and as some would argue, Iggy Azalea) are criticized for their use of African-American cultural elements without standing with blacks on social issues like discrimination and institutionalized racism. And God help them if they’re wearing cornrows or dreadlocks.
On the subject of Janet Jackson, meanwhile? Sheesh. Guess neither Justin nor Janet are ever going to live that one down. #WardrobeMalfunction #SuperBowlProblems #OneTittyOut
3. Justin Timberlake took patronizing umbrage at Ernest Owens’ umbrage. “Oh, you sweet soul?” Who are you, the Dalai f**king Lama? Rather than just leave that comment alone, Timberlake committed the cardinal sin of feeding Internet trolls, something which he does acknowledge in his follow-up Tweet. By this point, however, the damage was done, and JT had exposed himself (much in the same way he exposed Janet Jackson’s naked breast at the Super Bowl) as someone who, maybe just maybe, didn’t truly get why people were upset at him in the first place.
4. Justin Timberlake only proceeds in digging himself a bigger hole. On some level, yes, Justin, we are all one race under the sun. Physiologically speaking, distinct racial markers are relatively recent developments in human development. That said, you’re never going to win that argument, and on the subject of perceptions of race in America and around the world, and how that has been instrumental in the perpetuation of graphic inequalities economically, politically and socially for people of different skin colors, um, no, we’re not the same. Not even close.
In saying people of different races are not the same, I am indeed speaking of their treatment within complex systems, and not as a referendum on supposed mental or physical attributes. On the first count, this is 2016. Sorry, #BeckyWithTheBadGrades. Sorry, Angry Ghost of Antonin Scalia. The vast (and sensible) majority of people are not trying to argue the point that affirmative action produces weaker candidates to earn degrees and jobs, nor is it wildly unfair to poor, hard-working Caucasians. On the second count, what are we talking about, exactly? Sports? Dick size? Either way, the stereotypes get blown out of proportion, not to mention after a certain point, er, depth, a gigantic member can only do so much good.
Concerning why I say that the topic of cultural appropriation is so thorny, what makes it so complicated is not only that the appropriator may not see much of a problem with his or her appropriating, but the aggrieved arbiter of matters of appropriation, seeing himself or herself as defender of cultural values, is usually self-appointed and therefore somewhat questionable as an authority figure. As far as Kylie Jenner’s (cornrows) and Justin Bieber’s (ugly blonde dreadlocks) limited self-consciousness was concerned, they were just, well, styling their hair. In the eyes of one Amandla Stenberg, however, it’s more than that. In a video entitled “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows,” Stenberg waxes theoretical on cultural appropriation, saying:
Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.
In making the connection to larger issues about race in America and the disenfranchisement of blacks as part of a society designed to suppress them, Stenberg also makes a connection between one’s follicles and hip-hop music, which, more and more, white people seem intent on co-opting for their own purpose, too:
Hip-hop stems from a black struggle, it stems from jazz and blues, styles of music African-Americans created to retain humanity in the face of adversity. On a smaller scale but in a similar vein, braids and cornrows are not merely stylistic. They’re necessary to keep black hair neat.
Assuming they’ve seen the video, Mr. Bieber and Ms. Jenner probably are defensively resisting any implication they are prejudiced or racist in any way. They also are probably wondering why the heck the young girl from District 11 of The Hunger Games is giving them a dissertation on black culture. Perhaps, though, the source is not so important as much as the message itself. Even when you tend to be kind of a dick.
More than just resisting the urge to look like Coolio, however, it would seem more worthwhile for white people to acknowledge that racism—both explicit and implicit—exists in today’s America. Taking it a step further, it’s time for more people of the Caucasian persuasion to recognize that white privilege is, in fact, a thing. A number of months ago, Saturday Night Live‘s Sasheer Zamata penned an essay and made a short video about privilege as an ambassador for the American Civil Liberties Union. It is primarily concerned with the intersection of gender and privilege, but race is also touched upon (as is the intersection of all three, and spoiler alert—it doesn’t tend to work out great for African-American women!).
Zamata says outright in the essay, “The fight to protect and advance the rights of women and girls is far from over.” Again, the focus is mainly on the role sexism plays in the power of privilege, and deservedly so, but the same may be said about other forms of prejudice. Your evidence? Look no further than the Comments section for Sasheer Zamata’s post. You would’ve hoped for more respectful input from a page on the ACLU website, but apparently, a Comments section is a Comments section, and trolls lurk in all corners of the Interwebs. Courageously hiding behind the designation of Anonymous. Your fearlessness inspires us all, Anonymous Trolls!
Were Justin Timberlake’s ill-fated comments the worst reaction we’ve seen to insinuations about appropriation, privilege and racism? No. Just look and listen at Tomi Lahren’s repugnant rant following these same BET Awards. You’ll have to fight the urge to stab your own eyes out with a sharpened Blake Shelton CD and cut off your own ears with—OK, what else is sufficiently white?—a kitchen knife covered in mayonnaise. Still, could we learn a thing or two from JT’s folly? I submit yes.
So, in summary, white folks: 1) It’s Black Lives Matter—take it or leave it, 2) if you love and appreciate black culture, love the things that empower black people (and consider forgoing that fresh Jheri curl hairstyle you’ve been thinking about), and 3) just accept your white privilege. Even when you think you’re not privileged, you probably are. That is all. You may now return to your regularly scheduled programming. Which is, like, what? Watching re-runs of Mad Men? What do white people watch these days anyway?