The adopted voice of the Black Lives Matter movement, Kendrick Lamar, has always done what many wish they could: transfer meaning through words and tell a tale specific to themselves and their people.
We’ve stared at his Grammy-winning, black-and-white album cover To Pimp a Butterfly for five years. As is often the case with transcendent works, its beauty and predictive genius grows more and more evident each day. Over the last three days (since I committed to this stream-of-consciousness-turned-“paper,”) the world watched as protestors set ablaze that same White House lawn that Denis Rouvre so vividly captured in that album artwork half a decade ago.
An unfettered display of Blackness and bravado brashly shot atop an X’d out lawyer in front of the holy and white sepulchral mecca of white supremacy. On June 1 we watched as peaceful protesters stood in unity, only to be met by tear gas kisses sanctioned by the world’s leading white supremacist in front of that same tacky, columned, house of sin. One can only hope that tear gas today, extrajudicial murder the day before, and a collective 400 years of systemically placing a well-polished dress boot heel to the temple of a people, could incite enough anger to attempt to recreate Rouvre’s magical image in real time.
But how do we get to a place where white supremacy is met with the fervour it deserves? How do we get to a place where we don’t feel a sense of relief that somebody who doesn’t look like us might actually want to do something to help more than virtue signal their allyship? What do we need for the pimping of our Black community to not just be a thing that white people admit is bad and undesirable, but a reality they refuse to allow?
The concept of caring needs an overhaul. We must spindle the verb in silk, and accelerate the metamorphosis into modernity. Caring can no longer exist as a passive quality, because passively caring has no utility to us as a society. Since the first slave was dragged across the sea and the plunder of Black bodies began, what we’ve needed is not passive assertions that people care about us. A passive act of caring internally is no more than a self-serving pat on one’s back to ease any guilt. Caring has to grow into a verb that ignites a mental fire when it’s heard, sending its subjects headlong into action, with selflessness as its driving force. Caring needs to motivate people to act in defiance of their status quo — because change has never come from sitting in comfort, or upholding the hegemony that has taught little white children to scream “nigger” at little Black children to break their spirit.
An act does not become selfless until the actor is risking something they hold dear: something as peripheral as their comfort, or something as qualifiable as their job. Action from allies that stress the limits of their own self-interest are needed to create any paradigm shift. If we can tilt the idea that to care for somebody means to think of them and their experience fondly, and instead let it mean that we will fight with a fire in our loins to make what ails them end, we begin to have a chance.
Then there is this fundamentally corrosive notion that understanding is unattainable: This ongoing doctrine being disseminated through social media that white people need to shout from the mountaintops that they “will never understand the things my Black brothers and sisters go through.” That lack of understanding is a conscious choice. There is a lack of personal education which bars entry to understanding, but more dangerous is the classification of whiteness.
The constructed theory of whiteness that dominates to this day does not come from holy scripture or poems. It is not an indelibly true law of nature, but instead a concept that sailed across the ocean as a captive ideal on the ships of colonization, written into law in the courtrooms of the United States. Until 1952, American lawmakers helped to build one of the most homicidal myths in the history of Western civilization by determining who they would grant citizenship, rights, property, and ultimately humanity to in America based on this myth of the white race; a concept that continues to persist.
When these lawmakers could not find scientific evidence that properly outlined what whiteness was, they instead grew the fictional tale into a double negative. Whiteness, to those that uphold the racist doctrine, is merely the act of not being non-white. It’s a venomous ideal that one has been preordained with traits that contrast with the fabricated negative traits they decided to give to Blacks. “The promise of whiteness is that no matter what happens to you in your life you will never be a nigger. No matter how many jobs you lose, your wife leaving you, anything,” explains Ta-Nehisi Coates. That is the utility of whiteness, and why understanding the Black existence is no small task.
The privilege to ignore one’s racial existence, while still reaping all of the benefits it has been designed to give, is what makes most Black people feel that they will never be understood by their colleagues who call themselves white. To rid themselves of the title would mean they must accept that they wear the title, and that the bloody history drips in their wake. Black people have grappled with the weight of these myths; it is our existence and our history. The onus is now on the people who believe they are white to bear the responsibility of the system they uphold with their silence and inaction. Only when the individual has moved past this notion and understands that whiteness is a construct of policy and power, and only when they believe they hold value as a human without the crutch of whiteness, do we move one step closer to understanding.
Then comes the learning. Once freed from the fallacies of a racist structure, people are free to educate themselves about the existence of the rest of humanity. There are white professors of marine biology, white professors of wildlife biology, and there are white professors of astronomy. Yet there are no white women who have lived the life of Nemo the clownfish, no white men that have lived the life of Simba the lion, and there are no professors of astronomy who have travelled through the endless hellscape of the universe. Yet they have LinkedIn bios and keynote speeches proclaiming their expertise in understanding the very nature of things they have no way to physically experience. How then, can the men and women we grew up with who call themselves white not begin to understand the world to which we are subject to? The only difference between Dr. David Sims and those decrying their unwavering support online is that one decided to pick up texts and learn the history of the many beautiful organisms that inspire their desire for understanding, while the other did not. Perhaps if Black people had scales and breathed in water instead of dark complexions and on land, our friends would seek to understand.
To understand our plight is not to say that you know the distinct brand of sorrow that washes over like a tidal wave when you have to add a new colleague to that mental list of people who simply don’t fucking care about you. It’s not saying you’re aware of the ever-present self-doubt that exists in our heads when we occupy white spaces or the heat on the back of our necks when white gaze begins its usual song-and-dance to determine exactly what you have done to “deserve” to be in this sanctified sector of society.
To understand our existence and sorrow we do not need nor wish for our compassionate allies to know what a lack of representation feels like. We only need you to understand that what we feel is real. Tangible. A life in a glass dome lined with incandescent light bulbs shining whiteness, ever-present and emitting a heat that we can’t escape under any awning or umbrella because the floor of this solarium was built by the same company that installed the fucking lightbulbs. We need you to learn where this started. Where we’ve come from. We need you to know that we’re dying at disgustingly disproportionate rates amid a global pandemic. That we are twenty times more likely to be murdered in cities that we’re told are post-racist utopias. And in our daily lives, we grapple with the facts that the world around us does not care to even hide the depths of its apathy for our existence. These are our realities. But you can learn them.
It’s also entirely likely that the pursuit of understanding will be riddled with potholes. That you’re going to crash your fucking car of righteousness over and over as you seek to unearth how this all continues to spin so far out of control. You’ll be embarrassed realizing that some things you’ve done have added to the problems. But we can guarantee that this embarrassment pales in comparison to the feelings of Black girls violently removed from classrooms because of racist interpretations of laws permitting “disorderly or boisterous” behaviour. An interpretation and punishment their white counterparts will never have to be a victim to.
You will likely feel shame for things that people who look like you have done. This pales to the shame a Black man feels being slammed face-first into a car hood for a act that our white friend would never be punished for. This pales in comparison to Black boys who must watch from their stoop as the hero they grew up with — larger than life in their eyes — is reduced to a man bent to the will of his oppressor. We stand as a society with our feet firmly planted in centuries worth of coagulated blood; a magnificently, well-functioning foundation for a system that works impossibly well for a select subsection of humans, and fatally poorly for the rest. If you are dissuaded by the uncomfortable truths that you’ll find on your journey, then clear the area as we put on our hard hats with those who are brave enough, and embolden the violent hum of the jackhammers to shake up this gory foundation.
We don’t owe you a library of resources on where to begin your education. We don’t need to make this as easy and accessible as possible because this hurdle is truly not one of access, but one of conscious apathy. We all know white students who pop 36 mg pills of adderall and stay awake for 48 hours hours to learn the minute details of botany in an elective course they’ll never need again. They comb the internet like Julian Assange to ensure they can keep that grade point average high enough. But when Black people are being used to paint the sidewalks in our society, our white classmates need to be walked to the fountain of knowledge that only our community seemingly has access to all of a sudden. It starts within. All of this does.
Lastly is the supposed dichotomy of love and hate. In times of strife and anguish we are accosted with messages of love over hate without end. It’s an inescapable and easily predicted playbook. We’re taught to believe that anger and hatred can do no good in the hands of Black people, that before we will be heard by the people in power, we must quiet the anguish in our voice, like one would attempt to still the tide of an ocean. Because a loud Black voice is not seen as one with a respectable rationality — a Black voice crashing loudly with waves of anger to denounce a world that is actively attempting to drown out our cries is one that won’t be heard.
We’re struck against the head with quotes of Martin Luther King. We’re told that “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” by the very same demographic that disapproved of the reverend in the 1960s (63% disapproved according to Gallup polls). They throw Arnold Toynbee at us, saying “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.” They aim to arrest the terror-inducing visions of a Black populace finally moved to action for the sins of their enemy generation over generation. But where does this love get us on its own?
Love does not enact policy nor stop a careening canister of tear gas. Love will not single-handedly flip a proverbial switch in the collective consciousness of a society who does not find interest in learning its lessons in the first place. Love can be powerful and may hopefully inspire the butterfly of caring to become her full self in active beauty and defiance of the systems that be. But it is not enough. The great Serena Williams loves winning, without question. But winning is not her greatest motivator to continue to smash records and defy every conventional wisdom about what is possible with a racket in one’s hand. There are allies of Black people everywhere, with true love in their hearts for their marginalized neighbours, but this alone is not enough to smash a system that upholds nations.
Serena loathed the existence of losing. She loathed the possibility, however small, that there could be an evening in which she rested her head the loser. This loathing and hatred ignited her spirit, not the desire to win. Loving one another is not enough. We cannot love away the truth that the bodies of Black men, women, and children are already piled under the outstretched feet of Lady Liberty. We cannot love away the facts that those bodies will continue to pile up if things do not change now. It is a hatred of the existence of racism, much like the possibility of losing, that will keep fires burning inside of us, regardless of the colour of our skin.
This hatred of racism and all of its malignant faculties will inspire us to never rest until we have seen it forced to the fringes of society, if not abolished entirely. We must hate every vessel, article, corporation, law, precedent, system and way of life that allows racism to breathe. Systemic racism causes institutions to produce racially distinct outcomes, regardless of the intent of their enforcers. Policing is broken. Every truth of this is available at your fingertips or the turn of your television dial. Loving your Black brother will not save him from the asphyxiating clutch of racist systems or the racist cops that uphold them. We have no choice but to dismantle a system of exploitative profiteering that has mutated from the legal enslavement, rape and murder of a people, to more palatable — yet equally malicious — forms of plunder.
We must carve out the sickness with knowledge, communication, protest — however she should manifest — until the root and stem of racism is relinquished to textbook material for our children’s children, reading like an inconceivable concept of the past. There is no justice in our capitalist system for those who have not. While a select few march upwards on the shoulders of those who need their help, edging closer to measures of wealth we’ve never seen before there is no hope for the necessary redistribution of wealth to heal this aching. And while the racial wealth gap survives as the successful mark of decades-old policy who’s intent has been manifested, some start on third base while others start in the proverbial dugout with poisoned water their government doesn’t feel inclined to.
Do not let your fire dampen. And do not let those who wish to silence the movement speak with the bombast of misdirection, co-opting the musings of the great Reverend King.
Love will help us win. But not alone. The beauty in love comes not from what you stand to gain by surrendering to its dulcet promises, but from what you stand to lose. To love someone is to accept that your indelible happiness and part of your being has now been forever intertwined with the actions and existence of another. If we can choose to love our neighbours, our brothers, our sisters, our children and our parents, then we must choose to destroy everything that dares rip them from us with a virulent loathing that they cannot withstand.
Love humans, but find every drop of anger you may muster and unearth. Shake free every grain of hatred you can dig up for the things that allow police brutality, classism and mass incarceration to breathe even one more breath. The rallying cries of “I can’t breathe” have echoed through the Black community enough to satisfy our side of the ledger for eternity. Ensure you care with passion and action. Promise to denounce the myths in the misconceptions of whiteness. To understand to the best of your educated ability. And let hate partner with the love you hold for humanity to put coals in your engine of change. Let us allow the momentum to rage onwards and signal the time has come to suffocate the flame of white supremacy, and all of its institutions for good.
(Editor’s note: Nate Behar’s essay was originally published on his Medium page)