How should the oppressed respond to their oppressors?
If we revere the Founding Fathers as much as we profess, then we will find that they, much like my generation today, used protests, riots, and yes, even violence. In pursuit of liberation from the British empire, John Adams’ words speak to the unrest remaining today, “We won’t be their Negroes.”
Proclamations like “Live free or die” and “Give me liberty or give me death” gave birth to this nation. But today, it seems that many Americans would rather fantasize about long gone patriots than acknowledge that black Americans are completing the Founding Fathers’ dream of ultimate equality for all.
But because racism is so deeply woven into the American consciousness, most patriot-lovers don’t recognize the irony. Rebellion and protest is only for white-bodied peoples. Anarchy and vandalism is for everyone else. White people can storm capitol buildings in full military gear to protest stay-at-home orders. But black people taking a knee to protest systemic racism are thugs.
I do not remember taking Activism 101 in high school or college, but I do recall being taught to admire colonists who tarred and burned office buildings after the enactment of the Stamp Act of 1765 and who responded with violence after the Boston Massacre in 1770. As someone who has been an educator around the world, most recently in Ethiopia and China, I can assure you that no country actively teaches its citizens how to violently protest their own government. That has certainly been America’s tactic.
Our nonviolent figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Park are idolized, while members of black nationalist movements like Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and Angela Davis are villainized. But even King, before he was assassinated, had begun to abandon his belief that America would evolve into a nation of equality. And Rosa Parks was not at all passive in her activism but had been on the executive board of directors of the group organizing the Montgomery bus boycott.
Let us be clear. The protests you see today are not a result of George Floyd’s murder alone. These protests are a result of suppressed collective pain and frustration from the unrelenting abuse black people have faced at the hands of white America. From Emmett Till to the Tulsa Race Massacre, from the assassination of black leaders to modern-day lynching, and from slavery to current economic oppression, black people have had enough.
The great American strength is amnesia. This country has an unparalleled ability to forget and dismiss its own history. This month, I had the great privilege to interview the Rev. Mpho Tutu, the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, on my podcast, The Buddy Pass. When asked if she sees a way forward for America, she responded with this:
One of the challenges in the United States, one of the challenges for racial reconciliation in the U.S. is that white communities are not willing to listen to the story being told. If you can’t get past Step 1, how do you expect to get to Step 4? You can’t jump from a hurt to reconciliation without going through the steps in between. And the stories are painful to retell and they’re painful to hear. The method works whether it is at an institutional level, a societal level, or a personal level. But you must follow the process.
The process Rev. Tutu is referring to is the Truth and Reconciliation process enacted by black and white leaders of South Africa after apartheid.
Step 1: Victims must be able to tell their story in full and as many times as they need.
Step 2: Victims must be able to name their emotional hurt.
Step 3: Victims must choose to forgive.
Step 4: Victims can choose reconciliation or release from that relationship.
So in the spirit of Rev. Tutu, let’s not jump to Step 4 and absolve white America without allowing black people to tell our stories and name our hurt. When we emphasize the plan ahead before acknowledging how we got here in the first place, we ignore and silence the oppressed. What is a protest, a riot, a march, a bashed-in shop window, or a bent knee, other than a person yelling out, “Let me tell my story! You haven’t been listening.” And what is any of that compared to the destruction of black bodies?
Instead of asking why we can’t all just get along, America needs to ask the right questions. Why are people willing to leave the safety of their homes during a global pandemic to protest in crowded streets? Why in a country of “economic prosperity” are people willing to climb through broken windows for a pair of jeans from Target? Why are white people so determined to uphold white supremacy at the expense of their own humanity?
These are some of the questions you should be asking yourself. And it is my belief that once you do, once you allow yourself the deep reflection into the pain and struggle of black Americans, you may be compelled to join those who protest for justice. Or, at the very least, you won’t condemn broken windows in response to broken bodies.