Over the last eighteen months of nonstop activism and exhausting levels of advocacy, I’ve noticed a trend rearing its butt ugly head pretty consistently whenever tough subjects come up. Maybe you have too. It involves lobbing the word divisive into the middle of a conversation like a flash bomb so you can make a quick getaway while attention is focused on the fire you started. And, honestly, it’s the new way to tell someone you don’t agree with to STFU, only it gives you the added bonus of taking the high road when you were actually the one out of line.
What exactly does this look like?
I mostly notice it in conversations about extremely uncomfortable subjects, like racism or sexism. My interlocutor and I can be grooving along, exchanging words and ideas as we work around every side of an issue, but if I throw a monkey wrench into the smoothly working gears of their casual racism, all of a sudden, I’m the problem, not their original behavior or ignorant comments.
Still not picking up what I’m putting down? Here’s a case in point:
Person of color: can you believe that a black man was shot 20 times the other day and all he had on him was a cell phone?
White person: I’m not saying he deserved to be shot and killed, but he probably shouldn’t have been out at that time of night vandalizing property.
POC: Seriously? A white kid can walk into a church, kill 9 people, and the cops somehow manage to bring him in without firing a single shot. But a black kid can’t have a cellphone, or a hoodie and a pack of Skittles, or ‘name anything else’ without getting gunned down.
WP: Why does everything have to be about race?
POC: Are you really unable to see the way race plays into large scale inequities in the criminal justice system, starting with how people of color are treated by the police?
WP: Why are you being so divisive? I’m on your side and you’re attacking me.
To onlookers, it appears as though the POC is the one out of line, and her poor interlocutor, who is on her side, is being verbally brutalized for no good reason. Black people are always so angry!
And did you catch the D word at the end? That means STFU.
You might be rolling your eyes right about now, but some variation of the above conversation happens just about every time I bring up race, even among so called ‘woke’ white folks. Why is that, you might be asking? Because racism is fucking terrible, and white people tend to feel shitty when they realize how their words and behavior work to hold up systems of long held oppression.
When you find a way to demonize the black victim of a police shooting (he shouldn’t have been selling illegal cigarettes) but give white suspects the benefit of the doubt (how did society fail this quiet, young, christian loner?!), that’s racism.
When you champion white voices speaking out about gun violence (and y’all know I’m talking about the Parkland kids who have acknowledged their privilege, unlike so many of the adults supporting them; keep on keeping on, kids) but label young folks uniting under the Black Lives Matter umbrella as thugs and criminals, that’s racism.
Calling me divisive when I speak about the reality of being black in this country is just another way of telling me to be quiet. Mostly likely because what I’m saying makes you uncomfortable. But 2016 threw us into the Upsidedown, folks. Uncomfortable is good! We like uncomfortable. We grow when we’re uncomfortable.
Here’s my advice: be uncomfortable. Bathe in that prickly uneasiness until you can actually feel the years of ingrained, socially programmed racist knee jerk responses begin to fall away. I don’t fault anyone for being born in the skin they were given. White folks have held a privileged position in this country since before it was the US of A, and the foundation of that privilege was built on the backs of black and brown people. There’s no changing what has already been written. But you can change what happens in the future. You can shut down ignorant comments and behavior, starting with your own. You can get called out on your shit and actually allow yourself to be uncomfortable in the short term in order to become a better, more open minded and fair person in the long term.
You can decide that racism is shitty and do better.