“I love talking to white people,” Dia told me in our bathroom this past Sunday night. What started as sharing a face mask ended up–as usual for me–in a political conversation. We talked for at least an hour, myself ignoring my French homework, and Dia openly talking about race tensions in our country. Needless to say, as a white person, hearing everything she had to say was fascinating. So I had her sit down with me again, 5 days later, in a more professional environment (Starbucks) and we talked for two hours. The conversation covered many topics related to racism and race relations in America but, in the end, it all boiled down to one simple fact: white people aren’t educated about African-Americans’ culture in our country and, quite frankly, we’re too scared to educate ourselves.
Meet Dia, a First-Year Spanish Major at UNC Chapel Hill, and my suitemate. If she could be any historical figure, she told me, she’d be Madam C.J. Walker, the first millionaire African-American woman, who made her fortune off of her invention of the perm. Dia said that she obviously respected her for being a successful woman who invented modern-day hair techniques for black women but she added, “If I were her, I would have used my influence better, to make more of a change.”
Dia and I discussed many things and, really, there’s no way for me to infuse them all into one, cohesive post. Instead, let’s see what Dia thinks about each individual point that we discussed. How are white people misconceived by these things? Why does she believe white people need to educate themselves on these topics?
I would like to say that none of this should be taken with a grain of salt.
Dia on #AllLivesMatter:
“Saying that you see all people the same is a lie, first of all…”
“The whole idea behind #AllLivesMatter,” said Dia, “stems from the idea that we’re all equal.” She continued to explain that, though we are all biologically equal, due to the structure built into our society, we are not all, in fact, equal. We are not all viewed as equal; we view people as society has labeled them and, having grown up in this society, it’s next to impossible to shed these stereotypes: “The truth is, we don’t operate equally.” These societal barriers aren’t going to stop us–particularly the white, dominate race–from seeing black people as more dangerous, Asians as more intelligent or Mexican immigrants as less trustworthy.
Dia continued to explain the reasoning behind #AllLivesMatter. When this hashtag first appeared (in response to #BlackLivesMatter), I thought I understood its meaning: people were trying to emphasize that not just a specific group of people’s lives mattered more than the other. Viewing this as a white, middle-class woman, this made sense to me, except for the one flaw: black people are targeted more in hate crimes and violence than white people are, so shouldn’t we be highlighting the importance of their lives more than we do of white people? After all, white people’s lives have, quite frankly, always mattered.
Dia explained it from a minority’s standpoint. She said that, for white people, when they’re taken out of the main picture, they feel very intimdated, as if they’re no longer important. They feel the need to reassert the focus on themselves. Dia emphasized that #BlackLivesMatter isn’t saying that white lives aren’t important: “Nobody said that your life, as a white person, doesn’t matter. It’s a little redundant. It’s already been said like a thousand times.”
I mean, really, when you think about it, the importance of white lives has never been questioned in the big picture. Our lives have always been given more meaning than any other, espeially a race that we kept enslaved, raped, lynched and sold like cattle for hundreds of years.
Dia on white people’s reaction to the black power movement:
“When we start to focus on other people, they [white people] feel undermined in their own affirmations.”
Just as I mentioned in my Beyoncé blog post, white people automatically associate black power as the black population taking over the white population. Essentially, I guess, white people are terrified of black people treating us the way we treated them for centuries (shocker). But, as Dia pointed out, until black people are killing white children and teens in cold blood (i.e. Michael Brown), they won’t be treating us in the equal way that we treat them.
Black power simply means that black people are empowering other black people. This includes highlighting their attributes, culture and way of life. Excluding themselves from the mainstream white community and culture, they are emphasizing the importance and uniqueness of their own. It has nothing to do with being dominate over another race. Sure it’s about asserting dominace, but this is something that represents confidence. This shouldn’t be threatening.
It is threatening to white people, however, since we’ve always been the race with all the attributes: beauty, brains, wealth. We have always been the race to excel, so we’re intimdated when another group of people actually prove, and embrace, their qualities that compete with ours. “It feels good,” Dia told me, referring to people having confidence in their attributes, “[For white people] there’s a lot of privileges and advantages when you’re the ‘beautiful one’ or the ‘smart one.'” For white people, the idea of having to share these attributes with another race–another race that we specifically marginalied and continue to marginalize for being inferiror to us–is “radical.”
Dia on police brutalities:
“White people have to look at themselves and ask if they’re adding to this racist structure that we have. And nobody wants to be racist.”
“It’s easier to say that the problem stems from our [African-American] community because, when you say that, we don’t have to acknowledge the deep roots of racism within our country,” Dia stated. And she’s right.
For starters, our country is rooted in racism, right down to our founding fathers. Denying that is accepting ignorance.
When I asked her about many Conservatives’ reactions to police brutalities (claiming that African-Americans are instigating these attacks, or that they’re fabricated), Dia’s response was pretty black and white (no pun intended): “It’s such a violent response. It’s like when we say that the girl instigated her rape–we don’t want to believe the constructed misogyny or racism in this country.” It’s the “violent” response to institutionalized racism in America. We, as Americans, don’t want to accept that we do have a structured society that does favor one race in particular, so instead of trying to fix the problem, we just blame it on the race we’re marginalizing.
Dia on HB2 and it’s similarity to institutionalized racism in America:
“The fact that you’re separating them is promoting an enigma that they’re lesser than other people.”
There have been just as many supporters of North Carolina’s HB2 as there have been dissenters. Conservatives say that they’re afraid men will dress as trans women and use this advantage to enter a women’s bathroom, taking advantage of women and children. I see two problems here: first, it’s no secret that Conservatives view the trans community in a negative light, so coming up with some kind of different “problem” where it’s never existed before is just them finding a way to prevent trans people from using their bathrooms; secondly, most cases of sexual assualt against women and children are done by men either a) in a men’s bathroom or b) in a private residence. So, is this just a problem that Conservatives are making in order to keep trans people out of their bathrooms?
Along those lines, what are some solutions offered by Conservatives in regards to transgender bathrooms? “Instead of making bathrooms sexually neutral, the Conservative idea is to have a transgender bathroom on the side,” Dia told me, continuing, “and that reminded me of being ‘separate but equal.’ If they’re [bathrooms] going to be ‘equal,’ then why separate?”
Rewinding back to pre-1965, we have the familiar idea of White v. Colored bathrooms. I can only wonder if Conservatives back then shared a similar reaction to black Americans being mixed with white in public restrooms. My guess is that they were probably pretty similar, since because black people are viewed, by society, as more violent and trans people as more sexually “perverted.”
Overall, the argument of HB2 and bathroom usage is very sensitive and much more in-depth and complicated than I can make it here. Dia has given an interesting perspective and argument, though–one that cannot be fully understood by white people. To read more of my writing about North Carolina’s HB2, click here.
Dia on Harriet Tubman’s big comeback on the $20 bill:
“I think who is on our currency symbolizes who is an American…if she can be an American, what does that say about me?”
For those of you living under a rock, some exciting news has been released regarding the face of the $20 bill: Harriet Tubman, former slave and major leader of the Underground Railroad, is replacing former president Andrew Jackson. I can’t begin to tell you how relieved I was to find this out: a black woman replacing an incredibly racist president, best known for executively enforcing the Trail of Tears. Dia was initially excited too: “Saying that a poor, black, unmarried, illiterate former slave was an American makes a profound statement.”
Dia, however, sees some flaws with Jackson’s replacement that are pretty crucial in understanding racial divides in our country.
“It’s a bandaid,” Dia told me, “Does this mean that my discrimination stops? Does this mean that we’re not a racist society anymore? Is it an end-all, be-all situation? Absolutely not. I mean, people snort crack out of $20 bills.”
Dia said that instead of just putting Tubman on the bill, we should educate citizens as to why it’s been done. We need to be talking about why she’s an important person. What made her so remarkable? Dia is afraid that the mere fact that she’s a black woman will overshadow everything else about her: “Her race and gender is kind of overshadowing the fact that she accomplished all of these things.”
“I would just hope that this isn’t a substitute for educating people about how black peopple are one of the most marginalized groups in this country. It’s like PC [political correctness]: we’re doing it, but we’re not telling them why it’s important.”
People are more undereducated than we might believe. Sure, my generation is very familiar with Harriet Tubman and her accomplishments, but not everyone is. Hell, when I told my grandmother about this, her reaction was, “Who is that?” Given her childhood and education in the South before the Civil Rights Movement, it isn’t surprising that she isn’t as familiar with a leader like Tubman and we shouldn’t be surprised if a majority of other Americans aren’t either.
Dia on cornrows and the *possible* appropriation of black culture:
“The problem in this country is that black features are only considered attractive or acceptable on white people.”
There’s been a major outcry in popular culture today that I didn’t quite understand until talking to Dia about it last Sunday. To me, this is an incredibly important issue that needs to be addressed: African-American culture and white peoples’ possible appropriation of it through dreadlocks, cornrows, baggy pants, etc. This boils down to appearance, folks.
“Cornrows,” Dia began, “were something we did when we were denied access to proper haircare.” Black people have different hair than white people and it’s actually harder to maintain. Through slavery and until the Civil Rights Movement, it was hard for African-Americans to keep up a constant beauty regimine. “White people think cornrows are cool and we [black people] haven’t been given the proper recognition for our historical culture.” It makes sense–many African-Americans wore (and still wear) cornrows not for a fashion statement, but as a necessity, so the white culture–as a whole–making them fashionable, temporary and accessorized can be very offensive to the black community, especially when white Americans don’t understand the context behind them.
“When we talk about African-American culture, we talk about a culture that rose out of struggle, oppression and heartbreak,” Dia said.
We don’t just see this in fashion. This has been a major problem in the music industry (ahem, Elvis) for black people and I can definitely see why so many are outraged by white people taking credit for trends that have historically black roots. “There’s the fear that it will be changed, watered down,” she explained to me, “and the meanings that these prodcuts have for us will be erased or watered down by white people in this country that choose to adopt them.”
“I think we have the right to be upset about these products that have meaning for us. We’re being discrimintaed against in the workplace or society, whereas when white people adopt it [dreads, cornrows], it’s seen as trendy.”
Sometimes this adoption isn’t intentional. Dia explained that many natural features for a black person are only viewed as acceptable or attractive on white people. Big lips or a large bust and ass are seen, in many cases, as “ghetto” on a black girl, like she’s from the hood; whereas, Angelina Jolie is idolized for her large lips and the Kardashians are using corsets to achieve a small waist and using implants to enhance their breasts and butts, and inspiring many other white women at the same time. For both men and women (though this is mainly seen on black men), cornrows/dreads and tattoos and low pants are also seen as “ghetto” and unacceptable while we have stars like Justin Bieber and Kylie Jenner being called “edgy” and “trendsetters.”
So, then, it makes sense why black people are outraged by white people claiming their looks. They’re afraid that, in a society that has always marginalied their opinions, lives and worth, they won’t receive the credit–or the signifigance won’t be prioritized–of these new fashion statments that are predominately being used by (and praised by) white people…on other white people.
Dia on white people’s impending fear of being racist:
“White people are so scared to be called racist, that we don’t want to talk about race–it makes us uncomfortable.”
The problem with so many white people not understanding the struggles of black Americans is their lack of information about their struggles and views in today’s society. Both Dia and I agree that, in order to build a better and more accepting society, we need to begin talking–between the races. But what happens when white people are scared of saying something that could make them appear “racist” to a black person?
It’s a thing. There’s definitely a white guilt out there that has been instilled in many Americans when discussing the issue of race with someone else who isn’t white. To this, Dia says: “We don’t want to hear about your white guilt.” Be upfront and don’t be afraid to discuss matters with people different from you, because they’re actually a lot more similar to you than you may think, even if the color of their skin tells you otherwise.
Dia on white people educating themselves:
“Black History Month, what is that? This isn’t just black history, it’s AMERICAN history.”
Dia believes that standardized, unbiased, in-depth history lessons about slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement should be taught to all Americans, though we both realize this dream is simply that–it’s basically impossible to assume that all things will be taught the exact same way, in an un-biased manner to all children of America. “For Southerners in particular,” Dia said, “I think it’s hard to be educated on the history [of black people] because it involves a reevaluation of what they have considered to be their heritage and their identity for the rest of their lives.”
“That’s the power of education,” she continued, “it makes you question and think for yourself and not just believe what you’ve been told. And that’s why it was denied to us [African-Americans] for so long.”
So, how should white people go about educating themselves on black history–American history? She has some simple tips:
- You cannot be intimidated by someone who is different from you.
- Don’t be afraid to have an opinion. It’s not racist to have an opinion, as long as you’re not enforcing it on someone else.
- Listen with an open mind and stop talking.
- You’re not racist to ask questions. Racism and ignorance are two different things. You grow out of ignorance.
- Black people can be assholes too. You’re not racist for thinking a black person is an asshole.
- Don’t let anyone discredit your opinion.
- Be willing to look at yourself in the mirror when it comes to racism. When you’re white, it’s going to start with yourself. We’re not going to do anything about stereotypes unless we acknowledge them for what they are.
- Don’t do this just so you’re not considered a racist. This focuses the issue on yourself, when you should be making this about creating a better country for marginalized people.
- Don’t act all guilty. It’s impossible to have a conversation with someone when that conversation is centered around their guilt.
“At the end of the day,” she finished, “it’s about structuralied and institutionalized racism and not individual racism.”
Education is a powerful entity and it’s important that we, as white Americans, take time to educate themselves on a part of history and culture that is deeply ingrained within ours. Just because we’re not black, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be informed.
Photos Courtesy of: Mia Renee Cole