“Let’s not be divided. Divided people are easy to rule.” That was Trevor Noah’s appeasing request in an essay for The New York Times. In a perfect world, such a request would be noble, sensible even. But in this world, where the lines that divide have been chiseled and cemented over centuries, removing that division requires much more than a naive commitment to “speaking in measured tones about what unites us.”
Before we go about the business of uniting, we must first make it clear that the right of Black people to be completely liberated from white supremacy is not a negotiation. Too often, conversations around Black resistance to oppression are predicated on the premise that freedom is white people’s to give rather than our inherent human right. We are not coming to the table asking for favors. We are demanding what’s ours.
Those demands were never meant to be delivered devoid of the anger and frustration that has festered for four centuries. So, no, we should not be “speaking in measured tones about what unites us,” when our opponents oppose not only our political positions, but also our humanity. Whatever commonalities between the oppressed and the oppressor resulting from sharing physical space are not icebreakers. Certainly, I agree with the assertion that most of us want the “good jobs, decent homes, access to opportunity and, above all, respect,” that Noah wrote about. But the barriers that prevent those reasonable expectations from being met for many Black people in this country are constructed and upheld by those with whom we’re expected to play nice.
But there is no common ground.
This isn’t a scenario where both sides can give a little. My side—the side that this country’s economic, social and political systems feeds on—has nothing to concede. The country just elected a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan as its Commander-in-Chief, but we should “reach out to reason with his supporters,” who regularly tweet out racist slurs and terrorist threats to Black people? Nah.
“We can be unwavering in our commitment to racial equality while still breaking bread with the same racist people who’ve oppressed us,” the South African-born Noah advises in his article. But…how, Sway?
Should I visit my local Neo Nazi office with a basket of baked goods hoping that once they bite into my famous pound cake they’ll realize that maybe I’m an equal person? Do we keep offering hugs to police in hopes that they’ll be slightly less inclined to kill unarmed Black people once they remember the sweet embrace? Do I respond to tweets calling for Black people to be hanged with an invitation to discuss their legitimate interest in my body swinging from a tree?
Why are Black people expected to set aside an expectation for the most basic of human rights and show people who would just as soon see them back in chains any modicum of respect? What do people fighting for everything stand to gain by engaging in civil debate with people who stand to lose nothing? Why are Black people’s expectations that the police to do their jobs without killing unarmed people something we must explain politely?
Noah’s argument that South Africa’s so-called “peaceful transition to democracy is an example of how Black people can meet their oppressor’s halfway” is at least naive and at most a manipulation of the truth. Black South Africans fought and died for decades before those in power conceded—and like in America, many Black South Africans still paying for this today. Despite an end to apartheid, Black South Africans still suffer from racism, poverty, and the ghosts of colonialism.
Moreover, if Mandela did engage “white South Africans in a language that soothed their fears and reassured them that they would have a place” in the new South Africa, as Noah suggests, it was not an act of benevolence so much as of desperation.
Victims and perpetrators are not simply indebted or owed. There is no “middle” or “margin of victory” for Black people and America. We are either equal or we’re not. Humanity cannot be prorated. Thus those who believe we must hit moving targets of white supremacy before having that humanity bestowed upon us in its entirety should be given neither a moment’s peace nor an ounce of understanding.
There is a scene in the preview of the upcoming film Fences where Denzel Washington tells his on-screen son, “Don’t you go through life worrying about whether somebody likes you. You best be making sure they do right by you.” If ever there were a line that sums up the most effective approach to collective Black liberation, that is it. Whether racists like me or not is not my problem. Whether they do right by me is all that matters.
Making the white masses like me—and by extension Black people—is neither aspirational nor beneficial to me. Approval of individual white people is fleeting and fickle, and won’t topple the hurdles put in place by systemic racism. My aim is to make it clear that their peace is predicated on my freedom, unadulterated and unconditional.
LaSha is a writer and blogger who is passionate about Black people. Find her on Twitter @knflkkollective.