I am dreading Martin Luther King Jr. Day. There, I said it. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for commemorating Dr. King, but it feels like this day has more to do with social media posts than working to end injustice. We post about his dream as we fleetingly remember the aspects of his life that fit our polite narrative.
Meanwhile, the capitalism-bashing, militarism-fearing, racism-despising man that Dr. King was is relegated to an after-thought at best. Those of us with the privilege to dream, do so at the expense of King’s vision while others remain trapped in the nightmare of an unjust existence.
On Wednesday, CNN aired this story about black workers in a Toledo GM plant who have endured violent racial hostility for years. They are subjugated to racial slurs, derogatory writings, and vague threats, but two specific aspects of this harassment caught my attention.
The first is that, on multiple occasions, nooses have been hung in the plant. NOOSES Y’ALL! The same terror-inducing tool that was used during the height of the lynching era to destroy black life is being used in this GM plant to intimidate black workers. That is how bold people have gotten.
Moreover, both upper management and the union reps. have indicated that they believe part of the problem is the sensitivity of the black workers themselves. Phrases like “you just can’t say certain things anymore” are subtle hints that someone feels the real issue isn’t the violent or degrading language, but rather our PC culture or the sensitivity of the victims. In short, they are offering legitimacy to the abuse that is taking place.
Perpetrators are thus emboldened and those in positions to stop the abuse, are indifferent. More than fifty years after Dr. King’s assassination, workers at one of the flagship American companies are subjected to lynching-era threats and the terrorism is subtly endorsed by those in power. The value of black life is still being demeaned. Lest you think this is just a few bad apples, allow me to remind you that in some way, shape or form, this demeaning of blackness happens daily.
I know this because it happens to me. Someone recently told me that I perform my job duties so well that when they think of me, they don’t see me as black.
Somehow they thought they were complimenting me with this observation. They were smiling when they said it. No context provided. No realization that I might be offended. No insight about the underlying assumptions that drove them to say this. They simply offered their “compliment” as some kind of endorsement of my solid job performance.
Second-by-second, my heartbeat grew louder as it threatened to break open my chest. A strange cocktail of anger and confusion swirled in the pit of my stomach and the weight of the invalidation slowly set-in. I sat dumbfounded as I tried to decide if I wanted to confront them or just move on. I decided to move on, but I emailed him later to explain how I’d received his faux-compliment. I doubt they ever truly understood how problematic their words were. Unfortunately, this experience and the accompanying feelings weren’t new to me.
Whether it’s being called “boy” by an older white man or being called an oreo by white friends, I’m familiar with these subtle invalidations of my identity. (Side note: oreos are inferior to nearly every other cookie product, so being called one is quite insulting. I’d rather eat a box of fig newtons than one oreo. Come at me!)
At some point, people either choose to completely ignore my blackness because they see no value in it, or they use it as the only means to determine how to relate to me. That is the sad reality of being black in the U.S. In one way or another, blackness is devalued or demeaned.
Not everyone who commits a microaggression will hang a noose in their workplace. That isn’t what I’m saying, nor am I suggesting that I’ve gone through anything as traumatic as what those GM workers are experiencing. What I am saying is that our national racial ideology is built upon the premise that black is bad and white is good. Therefore the possibility for terror exists at virtually every moment for people of color. The weight of this possibility is a heavy burden to bear, and we’re tired. I’m tired.
As I’ve shared with y’all in previous posts, I already have old anxieties that constantly tell me I’m not enough. I worry that at any moment, people might see me as I am and decide they can’t handle me. This work of countering negative self-messages becomes even more difficult when I’m forced to confront the truth that my skin color or hair texture can actually be enough for someone to invalidate me.
As much as I work to tell myself that I’m loved, appreciated and cared for, I can’t ignore the reality of my experience or forget the history of my people. The unfortunate truth is that at any moment, in almost any place, my perceived racial identity may be enough for someone to reject me, or at worse, threaten my life.
What I still haven’t even acknowledged yet is that for a variety of reasons, my privilege has protected me. I’m light-skinned and college-educated, so there are ways in which I don’t feel the full brunt of this terror. Memes won’t undo this reality and quotes won’t awaken us from this nightmare. We need action.
Instead of posting about King’s marches, will you march? Instead of quoting from his speeches, will you speak out? Instead of lamenting the bullet he took, will you offer your body so that black and brown folks might save theirs? This ‘dream for a day’ way of commemorating King is tired and ineffective. Nooses still hang. Black bodies still burn, and black existence is still invalidated in large and small ways daily.
I’m not looking forward to Monday because I know that Tuesday always comes. On Tuesday, there will be another noose. On Wednesday another abuse of power, and on Thursday we’ll be told we’re too sensitive or, all lives matter or some other bullshit that does nothing but reinforce the nightmare that Malcolm spoke about so often.
Monday will come whether I want it to or not. When it does, please save the dream memes and instead name the realities of this nightmare from which so many cannot yet awaken. There are resources at the end of this article that you can utilize to help you think about what that might look like.
As always, I pray you first do the uncomfortable work of looking within. I still find myself perpetuating negative stereotypes and racist thought from time to time, so know you are by no means alone in this on-going work. Continue to make time to learn and reflect, and as you do, I leave you with this question.
How might your silence or inaction be creating space for terror?