By Michelle Palmer
As the dialogue around racial justice continues, I’ve noticed (and experienced) some complexities and frustrations. Things that, if not confronted, can make us want to give up, throw in the towel, and retreat into complacency.
But the thing is that complacency is how we got here. White supremacy and systemic racism RELIES on the complacency of people who don’t want to stir the pot. People who don’t want to address complexity. If there was an easy fix, we’d have gotten there already. But there’s not, and we need you.
So today, on a very complex day for many of us, I want to dive in rather than ignore.
I used to LOVE the 4th of July. It was a simple holiday…the epitome of summer fun. BBQ, watermelon, ice cream, fireworks, family. On my best 4th ever, I got to judge a pie baking contest. But once you read Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and once you know about Juneteenth, it gets a little more complicated. I still eat the BBQ, but the simplicity is gone.
Before we get into arguments about patriotism and before anyone says “If you don’t like it, leave,” we need to talk about Wakanda. There’s a scene from Black Panther that I can’t stop thinking about (spoilers ahead)…
After Killmonger takes the throne, Nakia entreats Okoye for aid to overthrow him. Okoye tells Nakia that she is “loyal to throne, no matter who sits upon it.”
Nakia responds: “…I love my country too.”
“Then you serve your country,” Okoye says.
It’s Nakia’s retort that so draws me to this scene.
“No, I save my country.”
To love this nation, to serve this nation, does not mean we cannot criticize its leadership or its direction or its failings. It’s both/and.
“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”James Baldwin
“Black Americans from Haynes to Truth to Hughes knew the hypocrisy embedded within the nation’s celebration of freedom and justice. But they, like those celebrated signatories of the Declaration, grasped the country’s potential for progress and that only dedicated, persistent protests and activism could deliver the nation from the ever-present tyranny of slavery and racism. Today, as protesters again assemble to challenge injustices, it is again time to imagine how we can better the country.”Jonathan Lande, Perspective | The Fourth of July is a Black American holiday
Loving America doesn’t mean I love everything about it. Loving America means I want to do everything I can to make it the best it can be for ALL Americans (and those who come here to seek refuge). Doing so means sacrificing both simplicity and complacency. And July 4th is the perfect day to love this country AND to work to make it better. Not easy, but worth it.
On Small Steps vs. Performance
I see a lot of criticism on social media about performative behaviors, specifically from politicians and brands–those with the most power to enact change. The best definition I could find on my very short timetable is from Wikipedia: “Performative activism is a pejorative term referring to activism done to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to a cause.”
This kind of behavior deserves the criticism it receives. Some performances are particularly gross, but even beautiful gestures are just that…gestures.
Here’s where it gets complex: I also see small (but real) steps in the right direction getting criticism too. For instance*, I loved that a lot of my media streaming services (Hulu, Prime Video, Apple Music, etc.) put Black stories and Black content and Black music on their front pages. That helps bring those stories and that music to new audiences, makes it accessible, and gives it publicity.
And here’s where the complexities deepen: While it’s good, it’s not enough. The film/television/music industries, including these streaming services, need to do much more to support Black creators and artists in those fields.
So, yes, it’s good that Hulu put Black stories where millions of us could see it, but that won’t end systemic racism. Small steps can be good steps, but they can’t be the only steps. It’s complex and nuanced to both praise the small steps and simultaneously call for bigger ones.
This type of complexity makes me want to give up because I just don’t feel smart enough to understand it all. (And it scares me when the VERY smart people I follow on Twitter disagree.) But what I’ve come to realize over these last few weeks is that I don’t have to figure it all out or be smart enough or even have an opinion on every single debate. My job is to keep learning, keep sharing what I’ve learned, find ways to make America better for the marginalized, get involved in politics (especially locally), and support the people and organizations who are doing the work. Not easy, but worth it.
I’m not super clear on the organizational structure of Apple Music or General Mills. I don’t know who makes the decisions about investments and employee pay, but I know it’s not down to a single person. I worked with a much smaller organization recently, and even there I saw the complexity of instituting change…procedures, various channels, the wide spectrum of view points.
Change is hard. It takes time. Especially when the change we need is systemic. Succumbing to the difficulties is not an option. Complacency gets us nowhere. And hear this: We cannot do it without you.
When you feel the weight of complexity, the resistance in your spirit, the hardship of dealing with multiple emotions at once, that’s when you take a deep breath, remember your lane, and step on the gas. Because that’s how we get to a better America. Not easy, but worth it.
*Another (simpler) example: General Mills removes Aunt Jemima. It’s a step in the right direction to remove that particular caricatured representation, but to make systemic change, General Mills needs to make sure they’re paying employees living wages and using their political power as a major corporation for wider changes that actually impact people’s quality of life.
The Most Important Debate in Black Panther Is, Unsurprisingly, Between Two Women by R. Eric Thomas for Elle
Performative Activism is Basically Silence. Here’s Why. by McKenna Kelley for Swaay
Performative Activism Is the New ‘Color-Blind’ Band-Aid for White Fragility by Maia Niguel Hoskin, Ph.D. for Medium
On Allyship and Performative Wokeness – Eric Peterson for Medium
Black Lives Matter and the trap of performative activism by Thabi Myeni for Al Jazeera
What Is Performative Allyship? Examples & Alternatives by Monisha Rudhran for Elle Australia
Not sure where to start? Check out White People, This is Where We Start. Here’s an excerpt:
…following organizations who are working to fight structural racism is a great way to find ways of getting involved. You never know when an organization will post a way to contribute, volunteer, or work for justice. Again, here are some organizations doing great work: