There have been so many articles written about this man in the last few days that it’s making my head spin trying to keep up with them. Then throw the Facebook newsfeed on top of that and all of the debate back and forth about each article that comes up. But in all of that, two contrasting themes have emerged, at least within my FB newsfeed and some of the comments on the articles I’ve read: 1) We (black folk) need to start making more vocal stands and engaging in more tangible activism, i.e., stop being cowards, and 2) The burden of change shouldn’t be on those that are marginalized but those that are responsible for the marginalization, i.e., white folks, and furthermore, that those calling ‘coward’ aren’t respecting the need for survival. Of course, this is my overgeneralization of complex opinions where most people, like myself, fall somewhere along the spectrum.
I don’t think this is an either/or issue; it’s a both/and. I don’t think the responsibility should be solely ours (people of color) to educate the dominant group about why something is wrong, to demonstrate, to put our own job security and safety at risk because it IS exhausting, and it’s a burden on top of the burden we face daily from the micro and macro aggressions received for merely existing. BUT we also cannot afford to throw activism out of the window either. The course of history has shown us that left alone, the state of racism doesn’t change much. It took an incredible amount of hard work and sacrifice to change some of the more obvious discriminatory laws. And it’s going to take even more of our sustained efforts to change the mentalities that continue to come up with ever more creative and sinister ways to institutionalize oppression. My point is, we can’t afford to simply sit back and say the race problem is a white problem (it is), that we have the right to survive (we do), and expect anything to change. Whether we think it’s right or wrong, the situation demands that we play an active role in determining our destiny, lest it be determined for us. Unfortunately, much of the “activism” we see today is passive and reactive, which by definition are the opposite of activism.
We often wait until something goes horribly wrong, or rather, we wait until something goes wrong AND generates a lot of news, to take a stance on something, to react. Then we make our strongly worded statements, maybe choose a day to wear a certain color/clothing item or ribbon, and we round it off with a hashtag about whatever the issue is, which trends for a couple weeks on social media with accompanying photos and memes. If it’s a celebrity, the photos may also earn them the cover of a magazine or the headlines of a news website, which is always great for improving their bottom line. When the attention dies down, we all return to business as usual.
Cynicism aside, I get where some people are coming from about not being too critical of the type of activism that the Clippers player chose to engage in in the wake of all this drama. They were on contract, and they were clearly already well aware of Sterling’s racism given past reports. However, to say that all forms of activism are valid and that we shouldn’t engage in inward criticisms of the actions we take and the statements we make when it comes to racial discrimination, is inane. It all but assures the stagnation of progress. I’ll be the first to tell you that there have been times where I’ve felt that some of the commentary from a few of the older activists about the current state of affairs has been outdated and off the mark. I’ve also felt that some of that commentary that has made it into the national discourse probably should’ve remained a dialogue internal to our communities, reserved for spaces where the discussion could actually be productive rather than feeding into the larger (white) narrative that our problems are of our own doing.
I’m not so quick to give everyone a congratulatory pat on the back for just doing something, not if that something isn’t meaningful, not if that something isn’t proportional to the amount of power that you wield in a complicated structure, not if all you were really looking for was that pat on the back. And I think that the eagerness of younger people to hand out gold stars to celebrities (for example) for just doing or saying anything, whether or not there’s any intention or depth behind it, is really something worth investigating.
There are many people who can’t afford major acts of resistance, those for whom the life-stakes are high. But those of us with the financial cushion and the platform with which to speak on an issue (and this isn’t just directed towards the Clippers), have the responsibility do to so. And, yes, I say responsibility. Progress requires sacrifice. What we end up seeing is an inversion of what should be happening, where those who have the most to lose embody and vocalize their beliefs harder and louder than those for whom the stakes aren’t as high. Prime example is Leonore Draper, 32, who just lost her life in Chicago as a result of her activism. So you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t think that turning a shirt inside-out is worth much more than an eye roll. Although, at the end of the day, those who need change the most will fight for it the hardest, and not just make gestures.
I know many young like-minded activists are afraid to diminish or invalidate other people’s actions and experiences in any way because of criticism and invalidation our existence has received throughout history. But we’ve gone to the other extreme, where we now shout that “all-acts of resistance count.” We cannot be so fearful that we don’t engage in the critical examination and reevaluation of what it is we want to achieve, how we plan to achieve that, and whether our actions and statements are in line with, or running contrary to, our goals.
The actions of the individual Clippers really weren’t all that important in the larger scheme of things given the measures that Adam Silver took just a few hours ago. Maybe they would’ve been more important if the NBA as an institution had stayed silent on this issue, but they didn’t. And they shouldn’t have. Perhaps this is an indication of progress. However, I can’t help but reflect on Bomani Jones‘s point, that the outrage came from Sterling’s statements as opposed to his well-documented history of discriminatory practices. There’s something wrong with the fact that we’re only driven to such outrage at someone’s words rather than their legacy of harm.
One of the gravest obstacles to the achievement of liberation is that oppressive reality absorbs those within it and thereby acts to submerge human beings’ consciousness. -Paulo Freire
Could the Negro ever possess himself, learn to know what had happened to him in relation to the aspirations of Western society? It seemed to me that for the Negro to try and save himself he would have to forget himself and try to save a confused, materialistic nation from its own drift toward self-destruction –Richard Wright