In these seemingly worsening and turbulent times for racial, economic and social justice, I’d like to reach out to my brothers and sisters across the globe and make a simple declaration: I am here for you.
Whether or not we agree on every issue. I am here for you. Whether or not we have similar lifestyles. I am here for you. Regardless of your complexion, hair texture, level of education, personal style, marital status, sexual orientation, religion, type of housing, family make up, diet, body type, preferred vernacular, physical ability, academic capabilities, where you choose to shop and how you choose to resolve conflicts or cope with being Black in an anti- Black world- I am here. This took time and it is an on going process of unpacking, unlearning and choosing love.
I want you to know that my love for you will always compel me to fight for you. Your safety, happiness and health are of the utmost importance to me. When people hurt you, although I cannot physically share your pain, the connection I choose to share with you on a spiritual level ensures that I am moved to act when you have been done wrong, whether by an individual, a group or an institution.
I take PERSONAL offense when you are disrespected. From the woman at the bodega who rushes you to buy something because she assumes you’re trying to shoplift and slams your change down on the counter instead of putting it in your hand to the teacher who tries not to laugh when you tell him about your love for astronomy (YOU? An astronaut?!) and the police officers who stop you no matter what you’re wearing because ‘you look like someone they’re looking for,’ I choose not to accept this as your reality and dedicate myself to our freedom and autonomy as a collective.
I’m working everyday on not throwing you away when I feel as though you don’t love yourself or your people enough, because a dear friend recently reminded me that our conditioning exists by design and that we each have our own individual moment of awakening. The truth is some of us may never wake up, but there are enough of us with our eyes wide open to fight the good fight in an effort to help us ALL get free.
It is my dedication to our collective that compels me to speak to you- our most prominent figures- to demand better from you.
First, allow me to take ownership of my prejudice against you. We may have a shared heritage, but our lifestyles are worlds apart, and that can cause confusion and animosity on both sides. I understand that we are not a monolith. I understand that our experiences of blackness in our homes, in our families, in America and abroad, are very different. What I want us all to keep in mind is that the struggle for black autonomy doesn’t recognize class or celebrity. You cannot escape your skin or background anymore than I can, nor should you want or need to.
I am aware that choosing to live a life where your gifts and talents are what keeps the lights on comes with a certain level of hardship. I understand that everyone who sings, acts, plays sports or is paid to share their opinions with a broad audience isn’t necessarily an activist. It’s not a title to be taken lightly and it’s not a role we are all willing to play. This is a simple truth and I am trying every day to remember that you all are people just like us, with personal lives outside of the public sphere that we don’t know the first thing about. I acknowledge your humanity.
I want you to know that I truly believe we all have a role to play in our advancement as a people. You may not consider yourself a revolutionary and that’s fine. It doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference. With every role you choose, with every song you sing, with every blog you write and every game you play- you are making a statement. With every endorsement you accept and every tweet you send you are supporting something or someone so when you dare to discuss the issues most pertinent to our community- you continue a dialogue that is essential not only to OUR empowerment, but to strengthening the very fiber of our national and global consciousness as well.
There will always be a wide array of opinions within our community because the diaspora is so beautifully diverse. That is a positive thing. But sometimes our most prominent figures fall short of presenting their opinions in a way that has the presumably intended effect of shedding light on an issue and offering holistic means to addressing it.
This letter is especially for them.
Most recently we’ve been discussing police brutality, community violence and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Pressing issues that existed way before us and movements built to address those issues should always be approached with nuance and context. However some of our best, brightest and most popular stars, as well as several figures known for their problematic views, have missed the mark tremendously in their commentary related to current events, often giving credence to a dangerous narrative steeped in respectability and one dimensional blackness or showcasing a lack of understanding about the necessary specificity of the Black Lives Matter movement.
I’m going to focus on the three most common trains of thought our celebs seem to fall into when these issues arise. The first is respectability politics.
The notion that if we dress formally, speak the King’s English, attain higher education, and perpetually turn the other cheek in instances when we are violated simply for existing makes us the kind of black person worth protecting is incredibly dangerous.
Chrisette Michele for example penned a scathing Instagram post last summer in which she suggested being ‘loud and violent’ was not the answer to injustice, and that respecting and abiding by the law is essential to receiving fair treatment under it. She also suggested that protesting, boycotting and otherwise vocalizing outrage and disrupting the status quo ‘hadn’t worked in the past’ and wouldn’t work today either. She signed her diatribe referring to herself as a ‘law abiding citizen.’ Fast forward 7 months and she’s performing at Donald Trump’s inauguration under the guise of ‘being a bridge.’
I lovingly and emphatically call bullshit sis.
The instagram post in question was made the same week Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and Delrawn Small were murdered by law enforcement despite the fact they were not brandishing their weapons while in open carry states, complying with officer instructions and having committed no crime. Two of these men have been immortalized in the public consciousness with videos and photos depicting their final moments- clear indicators of their innocence, and the third somehow managed to be shot to death during a ‘routine traffic stop,’ the same circumstances under which Sandra Bland would be brutalized and imprisoned never to be heard from again.
Only in a world where the innocence of black people is confirmed or denied based on any mistake or undesirable quality that can be found in their past would anyone suggest that in order to receive just treatment from the police, one must be a law abiding citizen.
The very nature of police work entails that these people will be in constant contact with law breakers. Should these citizens expect no protection under the very laws responsible for their subsequent arrest and incarceration? Are the new rules ‘guilty until proven innocent’ and ‘comply or die?’ Is that what democracy looks like?
I certainly hope not.
I implore Ms. Michele, Charles Barkley, the old dude who went viral when he fooled us all into thinking he was handsome with that beard and anyone else who subscribes to the notion that we are responsible for avoiding murder by ‘making good decisions’ to consider all the respectable, upstanding, innocent men, women and CHILDREN who have been brutalized and murdered by law enforcement.
Consider the case of Martese Johnson, an honor student and student government member at the University of Virginia who simply attempted to gain entry to a club near his campus allegedly using an expired ID and was slammed to the ground causing him to bleed profusely from the head. Or Tamir Rice, who was murdered on sight merely SECONDS after police arrived on the scene to answer a call about a ‘child with a toy gun’ although they never made their presence known. He was literally killed for being a kid and playing with a toy that so many of us grew up using some form of- whether water gun, Bebe gun or Nerf dart launcher- all of which can look like real weapons depending on the make, model and distance from which they’re being viewed. How about 7 year old Aiyana Stanley Jones whose only crime was being asleep on her family’s couch during a botched no knock raid on her home for which no one was ever held accountable? Or Tanesha Anderson, a 37 year old woman with mental health issues whose family called the police to support them in trying to soothe her, only to watch the authorities slam her face into the pavement while detaining her, ultimately killing her. Surely an honors student, two unsuspecting children and a woman in need of medical assistance don’t fit the bill of ‘criminals.’ Yet that is what they were treated like.
Conversely, when two white teenage boys were found to be in possession of ‘very realistic looking Bebe guns’ in a public park, they were alerted to the presence of police and given a chance to put their hands up. They incurred less than $400 in fines and court expenses between the two of them and were sentenced with community service and- get this- an essay about Tamir Rice. Not only did they live to see another day but they also inadvertently helped to underscore a narrative in which black boys don’t get a chance to be kids or make mistakes but the assurance of white children’s safety and room for improvement is of the highest priority.
Consider the case of Dylann Roof, perpetrator of the AME church massacre in which 9 black people were senselessly slaughtered after praying with their would be murderer, and how he was given a bullet proof vest and a burger when taken into custody. This is no coincidence, these are not exceptions, and if we continue to put the onus of responsibility on our people not to be victimized and not on our peace officers to stop DOING the victimizing then we are upholding the deadly anti-Black status quo.
The next oft- used derailing tactic when we are specifically attempting to discuss systemic violence against black and brown bodies is ‘black on black crime.’ We’ve heard variations of this rhetoric across the spectrum of black thought from the ever problematic Charles Barkley to pro Black hip hop trailblazers Lupe Fiasco & Kendrick Lamar, Christian rapper Lecrae and even actress, singer and Broadway starlet Keke Palmer. While their points were made differently and some commentary provided more nuance than others, the take away was the same: ‘You can’t kill each other and complain when someone else does it.’
Again. Fuck outta here. And I’ll tell you why.
Using that logic, the hundreds of black, Latino and Native American lives lost at the hands of police this year ALONE could be used to nullify the assassination of 5 police officers in Dallas. But that’s not how that turned out at all is it?
No, the entire country turned on Black Lives Matter that very same evening and called for the head of a peaceful protester who happened to be carrying a licensed firearm after Dallas PD wrongfully shared his photo identifying him as a suspect and left it online even AFTER he turned himself and his weapon in, proving he was not the shooter.
When police are killed in the line of duty protesters are asked to be ‘respectful.’ When police are targeted and murdered just for being police officers citizens are blown up by mysterious machines on American soil. No trial. No jury. No judge or deliberation. But when black lives are lost at the hands of individuals who make up historically racist power structures with century old patterns of violence against black and brown communities, the corporate media and average Joes alike perform a level of mental gymnastics I can’t adequately describe without going off on a tangent in order to absolve the boys in blue of any wrongdoing.
We have to do better.
We all have a role to play in dismantling the racist status quo and it does not serve the progression of oppressed communities or the future of relations with police (assuming my hopes to abolish the police as they currently exist will not come to fruition) when we use one type of violence to excuse another. This is an especially important distinction if we aren’t going to mention the history that connects the crime black people commit against one another to the crimes committed against them that result in the cyclic poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and violence we see in many urban areas.
In an article for the Nation from August 2016 Joshua Holland said it best explaining that ‘It took 400 years of slavery, segregation, and institutionalized discrimination in the labor and housing markets to build the wealth gap that we see today’. What goes on in black and brown communities is a direct result of that purposeful designation of wealth and access coupled with mass media and marketing that presents black youth with false idols and skewed value systems as a way of life. Surely each of us must be held accountable for the state of our communities as we can all be the change we wish to see, but context is key and the deck is quite purposefully stacked against us.
The third talking point I’d like to address is one growing in popularity, notoriously used by ASAP Rocky in a 2015 Time Out New York interview that recently resurfaced and most embarrassingly utilized by Fetty Wap or Bow Wow depending on which Twitter roast session you found funnier. (All eyes matter?! Y’all dirt for that.)
It’s the notion that anyone who is multiracial and/ or affluent is no longer linked to their blackness and can therefore not understand, relate to or speak out against the systemic oppression effecting black and brown bodies globally.
Fetty said that since his children are mixed, he’s down with all lives matter. He and many others seem to have a deep desire to disassociate from blackness, even if it’s just slightly, by referencing non black relatives as a badge of honor and pro creating with members of other POC groups in the hopes of attaining ‘better’ hair, lighter skin and access to certain privileges that they know in their hearts their darker skinned, thicker haired counterparts are not afforded. Rather than acknowledge these inequities as the white supremacist ideology that that they are, people like Fetty take solace in the fact that they are less black by proximity to a Hispanic, white or Asian parent, child or significant other.
It’s laughable that these and other black artists, all of whom find the majority of their fan bases in the black community regardless of how many white folks have gotten trashed to their music, feel as though they could ever simply turn their blackness off. This is obviously not the case for every multi ethnic family but it is a trend too popular not to speak on.
ASAP Rocky said what a lot of black celebrities may be secretly thinking when he admitted to just wanting to talk about ‘fly gear, drawers he’s getting and friends that died’ instead of being ‘Al Sharpton or some shit’ since he’s ‘not in Ferguson and never has been.’ But if having money absolved black folks of all their race related problems Malia Obama would be able to go to Lalapalooza and have a good time without being lambasted as some kind of out of control party girl. Michelle Obama’s fitness would be celebrated in a country battling an obesity epidemic instead of used as a tool to constantly ridicule her for being ‘manly’ and suggest she is unfit to be the First Lady- a position she held gracefully despite consistent racists attacks against her and her family.
Having money and popularity on your side certainly gives you an advantage when dealing with a system built to oppress you, and the more Eurocentric features one has, the less anti Blackness can be hurled at them on the basis of apparent otherness, but if you feel like those differences remove you from the struggle altogether you are sadly mistaken.
The recent arrest of multi millionaire producer and emcee Dr. Dre outside his own home, the racist cyber bullying the lone black member of superstar pop group Fifth Harmony received after fans felt like she threw shade at one of her group mates and the racism Olympic gold medalist Rafaela Silva faces in her native country of Brazil on a daily basis because of her dark skin and thick hair are all just some of many examples from the week I finished this piece that prove neither affluence nor proximity to whiteness or POC who are not black can be used as ladders to escape the diaspora. Artists like Christina Milian and Becky G who have Afro Latino roots and have utilized urban appeal to achieve stardom and success in the mainstream proved their affinity to stay far away from blackness when inconvenient by tweeting #AllLivesMatter and back peddling after public ridicule. But the truth is that’s how they feel. And they aren’t the only ones.
It is my dream to see another Black Wall Street in my lifetime. I envision a black community where everyone, not only activists and members of disenfranchised groups, works to address the societal ills that plague black and brown people globally, but also addresses our internal struggles such as misogynoir and the lack of protection we offer our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. I believe that challenging the institutions that uphold whiteness as most important by default such as the film and television industry, widely read publications and social media platforms, is just as important as challenging the racist Hetero-patriarchal status quo by legal and academic means. I think exposing the truth and the historical context that shapes our daily lives and building toward a new and brighter future where we are capable of sustaining ourselves are equally important.
If we continue to allow the dominant narrative, which puts the onus of responsibility not to be murdered on one of the most judicially unprotected groups in America’s history, and not our police and our justice system, this dream will not come to pass. If we continue to deflect when the very real issue of systemic injustice comes up and instead address without actually attempting to solve the issue of intra-community violence, this dream will not come to pass. If those of us who are fortunate enough not to want for anything continue to act as though our financial standing means we no longer have to deal with, and therefore shouldn’t care about racism, this dream will not come to pass. If those of us who come from or choose to create multiracial families continue to find our blackness shameful and disconnect from it as a result, this dream will not come to pass.
Each of our brothers and sisters with a platform has a magnifying glass on them at all times. On one hand it can be demoralizing to have everything you do, say and wear constantly picked apart and scrutinized. Too many times our stars have been misquoted and ripped to shreds on social media over a sound byte or shamed for not looking like a million bucks during a quick run to the store. I understand the heavy load our celebrities carry. I also think that everyone who exists and who acknowledges their Blackness in this anti- Black world carries a heavy load as well, and it is in all of our best interest to stand together against the individuals, narratives and institutions that do not support our rights to life, liberty, happiness, access and equity. Those of us in a position where people are watching us and waiting to see what we do or say next should be doing and saying as much as possible to protect the sanctity of Black life at all costs.