Dr. Cornel West, #EricHarris, and white allies.

I. Dr. Cornel West

I recently heard Dr. Cornel West speak in San Francisco on a very important topic: the burden of the Black man in America. Just sit with that for a moment. Dr. Cornel West speaking on the burden of the Black man in America. Having never read anything by him, but knowing of his intelligence, I intended to sit and take notes for myself. After realizing how many friends wanted to go but could not (including one in South Africa), I decided to live-tweet the flecks of gold floating through the air: @anthoknees.

Dr. West engaged us in a conversation for about an hour and a half, followed by a Q&A session. He structured his argument around three questions from W.E.B. DuBois:

  1. How shall integrity face oppression?
  2. What does decency do in the face of insult?
  3. How does virtue face brute force?

All questions relevant to any time for Black America, but particularly relevant for me as Anthony J. Williams. So here is a little background. I’m 25 years old, unapologetically Black, Seminole Indian, and gay. I grew up with an older brother and a younger sister and then a younger brother came along the way later. I was primarily raised by a beautiful Black mother from California, but my [also Black] father from Florida was along for the ride. Now I give you this background to say that I had a wonderful upbringing in Japan (~2 years, air force family), Texas (~3 years), and California (most of my life). Specifically, I grew up in very white areas, often being one of the few Black families in the area (I’m looking at you, Vacaville). I grew up with tons of positive encouragement from my mother for my intelligence, physical appearance, and ability. I grew up knowing that I was Black and being told that Black was beautiful (by my mother), but we were the minority. I grew up hearing that I was cute/well-spoken/cool “for a Black guy.” Growing up I was told that I was whitewashed, meaning that I talked/acted/behaved like I was “white.” Hopefully if you are reading this, you know that the concept of race is socially constructed and there is no one way to act “white” or “Black.” There are things associated with whiteness of Blackness, but by nature of me being Black and doing whatever it is I do, it is Black. Period.

Cool, so let’s move on. Now, my mother grew up the daughter of working-to-middle class parent, but more middle class than working class. She is the proud daughter of a Spelman graduate and an Air Force veteran, both deceased now. So she grew up aware of her Blackness, but with a certain amount of class privilege. My dad grew up poor-to-working class. So when raising us, we became part of that same working-to-middle class of people. My dad was in the Air Force and my mom worked multiple jobs in different fields, primarily in care (hospitals) and retail (clothing, sales, cell phones, etc). So with a two-parent income and often three-to-four jobs between the two of them, I grew up pretty comfortably.

Now I give all this background to say that I grew up aware of my class and aware of my Blackness. But I did not grow up reading a lot of Black revolutionary thought. I didn’t learn about Emmett Till until I was 24. I didn’t start looking into the Black Panther Party or SNCC until I was maybe 23. I read Frantz Fanon for the first time around that same age (The Wretched of the Earth, Black Skin White Masks). I just read James Baldwin–outside of an interview I had read with him a few months ago–for the first time a few weeks ago (The Fire Next Time). Toni Morrison, Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Steve Biko, June Jordan, Audre Lorde? Recently. So what I’m saying is, I’ve always been Black, known I’m Black, and been proudly Black. But I have only recently stumbled upon literature that speaks to my experience in such plain language; things I have always known but have never heard expressed in books. So basically, my Black consciousness has grown over the last two to three years and it has been quite the experience. My growth comes from my mother, my family, my teachers, my friends, my enemies, my readings, my elders and even strangers. To quote Dr. West, “I am who I am because somebody loved me.” My mother taught me to love my brown skin, the lineage that runs through me, and my late grandmother who watches over me. My friend Toya told me about the event around Emmett Till in Oakland. Toya was also who I went with to see Angela Davis speak in Oakland. Marcel Jones, during my first semester, gave a lecture on the UC Berkeley Black Student Union and introduced me to SNCC. Arame Niang got me into some Pan-Africanism. Gabaza Tiba gave me a reading list. Princess Malebye kept me informed on South African scholars. And those are just a few of the friends/fam/mentors/mentees.

So essentially, I am trying to deniggerize myself and those around me, because despite my mom’s best efforts, the world teaches us that Black lives do not matter and that Black is not beautiful. Particularly because this white supremacy teaches Black people to hate ourselves–as well as our brothers and sisters–and teaches white people that white is the norm, and that white is right. But as Dr. West said on Friday (paraphrase):

When you niggerize a people, you convince them not only that they’re less beautiful and less moral, but you make sure that they stay so afraid and scared and intimidated, laughing when it ain’t funny, wearing the mask to fit into a white mainstream and then going home to deal with the repression.

Add to that another fleck of gold from Dr. West: too many people in the Black middle don’t believe that their[/our] destiny is inextricably tied to poor black people. And I think that was true for a lot of my life. I’ve always been empathetic, but having grown up more middle class I rarely even saw my poor black brothers and sisters. Going to South Africa broke my heart in many ways and for many reasons, but one of the big ones was Black middle class guilt. To be the first-world part of a first-world/third-world nation feels shitty, and so I’ve been working on turning my guilt–white guilt and class guilt are useless, because you just stew–into action and change. I’m trying to “be wise, courageous and visionary” and I’m trying to “listen to learn.” We can’t let ourselves be paralyzed by our guilt, but instead we must be empowered by our choices (another West-ism).

Also, if anyone wants my notes from Dr. Cornel West’s lecture, send me an email at anthokneesplease (at) gmail (dot) com. Sharing is caring.

II. #EricHarris

The reason I started to write this post tonight was to chronicle an argument I had on my Facebook page. If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you know I often post articles that spark debate. I am all about sharing the wealth of information that I have the privilege to receive and process, and sometimes that means a healthy debate occurs. But sometimes those debates turn into arguments. Like when a white friend and his white girlfriend argued with me that in the case of the lynched Mississippi man. The debate became an argument when they argued that the race of the killer did not matter to the case, but displaying his criminal record post-death was important for the case. And I said ‘sure, his past murder charge could be relevant to the case, but what is also key is that the way that media reports on Black people boils down to: Black man killed…but once he did __________, that may have been bad but it isn’t relevant to this case.’ So, I’m not here for that. See Walter Scott as a case study (and obviously Mike Brown). They’re already dead, why keep killing them through the symbolic violence of replaying gruesome death videos or posting horrible photos?

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” lang=”en”>

“He’s already dead, why keep killing him?” He’s already dead, why keep killing him? He’s already dead, why keep killing him?

— anthoknees (@anthoknees) April 12, 2015

I got off topic. My point was Eric Harris. I posted this article/video along with these comments about Eric Harris on my Facebook, qualifying that I am sick of having to defend my dead Black brothers and sisters:

I’m so motherfucking through.

“Fuck your breath” are the last words this Black man heard before he was killed. Seriously, if you don’t think Black lives matter, if you want to try to justify this is any way to me, if you want to spew some bullshit at me, unfriend me and stop talking to me. Immediately.

How many fucking hashtags are we, as Black people, going to make? Fuck.

I received many comments with similar sentiments, including this one:

Comment 1:

If the murder of Walter Scott was not caught on video and the video hadn’t been released I can almost GUARANTEE YOU that the police would have put out a statement saying that Walter Scott had the cop’s tazer and “posed a risk” when he was shot 8 times in the back.

The sad thing is, I don’t even know that he will be convicted.

But then, he posted this one shortly after:

Comment 2:

I also just want to put this out here, if Eric Harris was white, I bet the police would have treated him in exactly the same way.

They think of those who break the law, disobey them, or run from them are deserving of being beaten, tazed (and even shot, obviously) it IS about race in many regards but its also about police being out of control.

2,151 white people have been shot to death by police over the last 10 years.

Spoiler alert: he later apologized, but this was a learning moment for him and I feel that it could be a learning moment for many people, so I’m going to repost some of what I wrote:

In response to comment 2:

I firmly disagree with your second comment and find it reductive. We are aware that white people are being killed by the police, but are they being disproportionately killed? And if not, why bring it up in reference to this?

How many killings have you heard of/researched in the last two years of white people by cops? It is about race and the police being out of control, yes, but race and implicit bias, white supremacy, and structural inequality are huge aspects as well.

Do you have those same numbers for black people shot to death by police over the last 10 years? I don’t, but I’m fairly confident it’s a lot higher. And given the point you made, I also think these reported cases are not always reported as they occur. If the video did not exist Walter Scott would not have been counted, as they were framing him. There are so many stories that people/cops/the public did not believe, yet these videos are proving it hard to ignore the epidemic of Black genocide in America.

To which he replied:

“No no, I did not mean in ANY way whatsoever to diminish the fact that non-white people are disproportionately targeted by police or the justice system AT ALL.

I was talking about this SPECIFIC case and trying to point out that had a white person sold a gun, ran, was shot rather than tazed, the police would still yell “FUCK YOUR BREATH” at him. That’s it.

I am certainly not ignorant of the reality of the world pal.

2,151 white people, ~1300 black people killed by police in America in the last 10 years. This shows the black people are targeted ASTRONOMICALLY more in comparison considering that black people only make up 12% of Americans.

I was just pointing out that police don’t have respect for people.

(this comment was edited by him after his initial posting)

(I posited that Black and white people are not treated similarly by cops)

It is indeed true that black peole are generally treated worse by police and many other people (tons of evidence of this throughout all of American history) I’m just saying that police violence is a problem for EVERYONE.

They see someone who committed a crime, automatically they are less than human in the eyes of many police officers

(in this stream of comments, he also posted this):

so, you may be right, maybe if Eric Harris was white these particular officers would have treated the situation differently.

He also posted a link of a “white guy who just got the shit beat out of him as bad or worse than Rodney King for instance.”

III. white allies

At this point I was really fed up, so I repost this now for any of my white allies who have trouble seeing my logic. I think this is the clearest I’ve written it before:

So. See, [name of commenter]. Here is my issue. I never denied that police violence is a problem for everyone. It is. Obviously.

But you came into this thread (after me asking people specifically not to) saying “but what about the whites, it would have been the same.” Even going to far as to post articles about white people as badly brutalized. And now you seem to have maybe potentially come around. But it’s this back and forth that I have to go through to prove to [mainly White people] that Black people have never been and may never be seen as fully human in the U.S. Sure, the cops beat white kids too, but who do they beat more? And in more disproportionate numbers? Black kids. So we’re mourning 100s (there has only been one day in 2015 where someone wasn’t killed by a cop) of Black deaths. And you want to add insult to injury by playing a game of catch up?

It’s exhausting. People don’t believe our stories until we have them on video. White kids get killed and brutalized by cops, correct. And I don’t have the numbers to back it up (the Politifact article is interesting because looking at the CDC the info only goes back to 2007…unless I’m looking at the wrong thing?) BUT, I can bet that those white kids killed by cops were killed under much different circumstances. Much like the photoset I posted months ago where a cop choked a white kid and was fired, the experiences still happen, but the result in that case was that the white kid was still alive and the white officer was fired. That shit doesn’t happen to us, [commenter]. People get GoFundMe’s and paid leave when they kill us and they don’t get convicted.

So for me, it IS reductive to bring this debate, which is a different one, in. You don’t find it funny (strange, not “ha ha”) that he talks about his breath and he responds with fuck your breath? After a man was choked to death and said I can’t breathe? You’re smart, so I’m sure you see the cruel irony of NY cops where “I can breathe shirts” to mock the death of a young Black man and now this other Black man being killed, with a knee constricting his breath, being told “fuck your breath?”

I’m also pretty sure that those racist texts from SF police officers were about Black people. So even when we aren’t being killed, we’re being talked about in homes and institutions. In America, being Black means you are still seen as 3/5ths a person to the majority of people.

I’ve literally had people look right through me as if I wasn’t human, [commenter]. And this is obviously a different thing, because cops see everyone as inhuman. But you know who they see as the most inhuman? Black people. Black and brown people, rather. Black and brown and anything other than white. Essentially, the only way white people are seen in the same way is if they are hardened criminals, and yet all I have to do to be seen that way is be Black and alive.

So, forgive me (no really, it’s an expression), if your comments invoke a little bit (a lot) of rage in me. And forgive me (again, not really) if I feel you are being reductive in a post where I specifically asked people not to be.

For me, this is not a game of tit for tat but the reality of white supremacy in the United States.

And I’m all for white allies, [commenter]. Truly. But I need y’all to listen when we speak and not co-opt the conversation. My patience and emotional energy are already running thin when I live in a world, as a Black man, constantly in fear and constantly worried about if people fear me.

I’m open to hearing about the other side of things. But I don’t see white people rallying around police violence among whites in America. So for me, it seems a little childish to bring it up in this arguement. It goes back to my cover photo, where people talk about Black lives mattering and others respond with “all lives matter.” Of course all lives matter, but who is being disproportionately killed? Black lives. Brown lives. Indigenous lives. Trans* lives. Marginalized lives.

And I realize you apologized and I’m still talking. That could be seen as childish of me, and I recognize that. But I’m doing this publicly because:

1. I was silent for too long in my life.
2. I’m worked up, so I’m writing through it.

But again, I do appreciate and recognize your apology as well.

And here is where I want you to pay attention. He apologized twice, and owned up to his actions and his privilege.

You know what? I really appreciate you. I didn’t mean to argue or diminish but only to add to the conversation but I see that that is exactly what I did.

I have never lived in a world where I had to worry that the people around me are scared of me solely because of the pigment of my skin. I don’t have that daily struggle and I will never fully understand that struggle from the perspective of someone who does.

I always try to remain empathetic and I always speak out against racism though.

Sorry again for changing the subject to police violence in general when you were obviously expressing anger at white racism and the dis-proportionality of violence against non-white people.

So, in short, while this argument began by taking a lot of my emotional energy–and just walking through the world as a Black person, our mental tolerance for ignorance is low–it ended with me feeling really good. He made an effort and he tried and by me persevering with the conversation instead of giving up, I feel like (and hope I’m not naive in thinking) that his thinking will change from here. So if you wanna talk about some real shit, let’s do it. Y’all  know how to get ahold of me. But don’t act like you’re an ally and then invalidate me, my experience, or my feelings. Take the example of my acquaintance and don’t be afraid to engage in difficult conversations with your friends who are not white. In fact, you should really be engaging in some of these discussion with your white friends. Because like Dr. Cornel West said:

“We always embrace our progressive white brothers and sisters. But they got cousins.”

So I’d like to commend him and myself for engaging in difficult conversations and I want to encourage more of them. Silence is complicity.

“Love your enemy because even your enemy can change. You don’t want to foreclose that possibility. Allow other people to grow so they’re not frozen in one particular moment.”

–Dr. Cornel West

Post-publishing edit:

Silent white allies, and anyone else being silent about these issues, speak up. I heard about Eric Harris through twitter and FB and shared it. Now I’m sharing it with y’all. Keep the information going. Use this as a call to action to talk to your friends, families, and social networks about white supremacy and the role that plays in police violence. Remember, 3/4 of whites don’t have any non-white friends. So let me, your “Black friend,” encourage action rather than complacency.

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