“Who taught you to hate yourself?”
Malcolm X’s famous query has been on my mind lately. It was there when President and First Lady Obama took brand new HBCU alumni and their families to task on Morehouse and Bowie State’s graduation days. It was there when Don Lemon posed Boy Scout-esque steps that we—we—could take to end racism. I thought of those words when our beloved POTUS came for us again in his comments during the celebration of the anniversary on the March on Washington. And when Sheryl Underwood sat beneath a shiny wig and before a largely White audience and mocked nappy Black hair. And again yesterday, as the image of a crying Black girl circulated the net after her Black-led school punished her for having Black girl hair.
I don’t think that any of these people would tell you that they hate Black people or themselves or things that are associated with blackness. But the uncomfortable thread running all through these narratives is the suggestion that we have to be good to be good enough. To be respected, to be human, to be validated in the eyes of White folk.
Because, you know, this is what really matters. In fact, I often feel like some of us are walking around wearing invisible W.W.W.F.D. bracelets around their wrists in hopes of somehow policing themselves into validity.
What would White folks do? And what can we do to get them to tell us we’re okay? Who do we have to be to gain their respect? If we play nice, will you finally treat us that way?
If only White supremacy were your stodgy old neighbor who could be warmed with a pitcher of lemonade and a plate of homemade cookies. If only being nice were enough to chip away at institutionalized racism. If only so many of us didn’t seem to think we deserve the inhumanity and the indignity of being America’s problem. If only we felt that Our Hair was good enough and our entitlement to Our Hair was worthy of defending when challenged by others, as opposed to stripping a Black girl at a Black school of any follicular pride just to prepare her for the real world. If only it occurred to more of us that you can be Black and raggedy and still worthy of basic human rights and entitlements—such as access to decent public schools and walking the streets without being prodded by a nervous cop or shot by someone who always wanted to be one.
If only we could acknowledge the cause and effect relationship between structural oppression and the shortcomings of members of our community without suggesting that somehow, we deserve what comes our way and HOW ARE WHITE FOLKS GONNA RESPECT YOU WHEN YOU DON’T EVEN RESPECT YOURSELVES? And, really, how are White folks gonna confront their biases when at every turn there’s a Black person willing to hop up and tell them that we are really the worst and we don’t deserve equality anyway? Alas, in the collective Black mind, “respectable” is too often equated with “respected.” And that is just fraught with errors that none of us could ever correct.
The respectability policing must end. Especially considering that the respectability police are often unable to meet their own standards. How can Deborah Brown wear what looks to be a wig that looks like natural hair, yet the Deborah Brown Community School sends a child home for actual natural hair? (Because, really, what is even the point of having a Black-led school if we’re assaulting the self-esteem of our own children on campus? How will this prepare her for Hampton’s School of Business? Oh, wait—those nappy dreads aren’t gonna fly there, either.) How can Don Lemon tie sartorial choices to the proliferation of racism and then get a haircut that is a clear homage to Juice?
How can POTUS and FLOTUS—living, breathing examples of Black excellence—continue to push the idea that we just have to “do better” to get the treatment we deserve when few humans on this earth will ever achieve what they have professionally and yet they still get treated like crap, because racism really doesn’t care about your degrees or your accomplishments.
As presidential thorn-in-the-side Kanye West once said, “Even if you in a Benz, you still a n*gga in a coupe.” A n*gga in a suit.
“How we gonna get mad when White people do X if we do Y?” is one of the most infuriatingly defeatist approaches we’ve got—and we’ve got quite a few of those. It is literally the opposite of freedom, of self-pride, of actually believing that we deserve to be treated with any modicum of human dignity. I would rather someone articulate the underlying sentiment more bluntly: “I just think we’re worthless.”
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I am certain that the path to Black liberation will not be defined by our ability to be “good,” but rather, our ability to develop the sense of racial self-esteem required to stand up and challenge racism on micro and macro levels. Will we eradicate it? Not in my child’s lifetime. But we can move the needle, we can change hearts and minds and legislation. And we can get to a place where we love ourselves so much that we don’t see others (or our unrealistic image of others, more accurately) as the metric by which we should judge ourselves.
We know who taught us to hate ourselves. We see the blood on the leaves and the blood at the root and where it all began—and those of us who don’t are, at the very least, vaguely familiar with the concept of how we got to this point. But many may find themselves at a loss for words when asked what I think to be the most salient follow-ups to Malcolm’s query. Who taught you that you could politely excuse yourselves from racism with superb manners and “good Negro” behavior? Who taught you that you had to be “good” to be respected?
Jamilah Lemieux is the News and Lifestyle Editor for EBONY.com. Views in the “Beautiful Struggler” column are her own. Follow her on Twitter @jamilahlemieux.