“Why do you always have to bring up race?” Is probably the most common statement I would hear from my (primarily white) friends both growing up as a kid and even today as an adult. In the grand scheme of things it is one of the least harmful questions one could ask, although tone is everything in this scenario. However, the answer to the question—no matter how in depth you go—often falls on deaf ears; pointing to the possibility that the question itself was meant to stop the discussion rather than progress it further. As a result, over time answer become less thoughtful, more terse, until the holy grail of answers is presented: because it applies. What I aim to cover in this blog post is to highlight how and why race is always a factor in discussions: whether it be popular culture, public policy, education, social media and more.
The fact of the matter is most folks who don’t identify as a marginalized group(s) will never truly be able to relate to their experiences, but that is not an excuse to stop trying. Far too many allies are discouraged by this fact because it renders their own lived experiences as null and void. When you try to participate in a movement that does not cater to you in any way it’s nearly impossible to feel engaged or empowered—which is a completely human feeling. Now imagine if nobody on television, in school, in government or in your neighborhood shared your experience living as a person… this is precisely the struggle that Black folks have been born into for centuries.
A forced participation in a system that at best doesn’t serve them in any way and at worst is built in direct opposition to them.
One of the most pivotal voices in this discussion is the late Toni Morrison, whose life’s work expands from critical theory, to nuanced sociological analysis, to escapist literature. Through her writing so many black folks (and especially Black women) have found their voice, a spotlight pointed directly to their experiences of love and loss, and the means to digest the nature of racism and sexism as a construct. She has taught countless people that so many of these biases are truly figments of our imagination, or at least that is the root of them. The danger comes when these imaginations aren’t just given a voice, but given power to distribute laws, rights, resources, jobs, and more. Her writing allows Black folks the opportunity to point these things out and find refuge through her storytelling; providing her readers both a sword and a shield when interacting with racism and sexism in their daily lives.
“In this country American means White, everyone else has to hyphenate”
While her work is incredible, it is only one facet of a Black experience that is wide-ranging and encompasses centuries of stories and billions of lives. Many of the Black actors who have broken through racial barriers are still alive today, and of the stories Black directors get to tell far too many are limited solely to slaves or the civil rights movement. Black folks have to settle for this because there simply isn’t enough space in the lexicon for Black fantasy/sci-fi/horror films. While the horizons for Black media are beginning to widen in the last decade, the cost of having Black stories is that it still has to be somewhat digestible by a larger commercial audience. The question now is: where is the pressure for white movies to include Blacks? The same way some English period films don’t need Black characters to maintain relevancy there should be a similar understanding that stories of color (Live action Aladdin for example) don’t need White characters. However, that just is not reality at the moment.
When I explain to my friends that Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and other franchises “don’t do it for me” I’m usually met with some type of mild animosity.
“I can’t believe this!”
“you’re lying, right?”
Are the calling cards I’m left with. When I tell them that there’s very little for me to grasp onto (other than the usual divides based on class or mythical race) the curiosity turns to disdain:
“So it’s a race thing”
“Why does that matter?”
“It’s about the story, right?”
There are a lot of Black folks who love these stories, they are wildly successful for a reason, and those Black fans of fantasy bring about concerns of their own. In subtle ways all of those stories give their audience rudimentary tools to parse out how prejudice can lead to injustice; and yet, that vein of the story is never expanded upon. Maybe the authors didn’t mean to make that type of statement, perhaps they didn’t have the skill to give voice to goblins, elves, and muggles in a manner that would mirror reality a bit more. Overwhelmingly though, these types of twists to the narrative only occur when I speak to my friends from minority backgrounds.
When we look to our government, or even the media coverage of our government, there are racial structures we can rattle off like an itemized receipt of oppression: police brutality, gerrymandering, the prison-industrial complex, the school-to-prison pipeline. But what has come to the fore most recently due to Covid-19 are the devastating statistics about who’s getting infected and ultimately dying more than others. The Covid Tracking Project, a collection of corona virus data subsetted by race, how outlined what so many Black and Brown folks have been suspecting all along. When the government fails to protect all people, the most vulnerable communities will be hit the hardest.
Over the course of the past few weeks we have seen how disparities in health and socioeconomic class directly affect who’s more or less at risk. Black people across the country are disproportionately suffering at the hands of this virus and there are multiple stories of Black people getting denied a test several times. This dovetails with what we’ve already seen in healthcare settings, that Black people with symptoms are often not believed—outlined clearly by maternal deaths during childbirth. So yet again race applies here—and even further—race is critically important to understanding the situation at hand.
Yes, America was founded by the genocide of indigenous people, fueled by the enslavement of Africans, and today stands directly on the backs of essential workers who are overwhelmingly from impoverished communities. Although these are facts we can all bring up relatively easily with no backlash, the question I’m begging to get an answer to is “what has America done to take responsibility for this and remedy the situation?”. Native Americans are definitively the most vulnerable population in the face of this pandemic and yet have the least amount of resources available. Black and Brown people in jails are living completely defenseless from the virus and huge amounts of prisoners die daily as a result.
What I’m attempting to say here again is that at its best, Black people are at an overwhelming disadvantage in every facet of life. And when America fails its citizens, Black bodies are on the front lines whether they want to be or not despite only being 13% of the population. Everything is about race and that’s because America was built by and lives off of racist ideals. I would love to find a positive way to spin this blog post before it reaches the end but the fact of the matter is right now there’s very little to look at for optimism. I try to imagine a framework where these disparities cannot just be called out, but can be confronted and mediated for the sake of the greater good, but it’s honestly hard to see. Diversity and Inclusion are pivotal to the success of people living in the margins of society but in order to see real change, systematic change, we need to create new systems of government, education, entertainment, and health that work to directly solve the problems society has caused up to this point.