Was it as a little girl? Did your soul ache, every time you were told that the tightness of your curls or the darkness of your skin was “bad”?
Was it in college, while immersed in a multicultural, multiethnic, pan-religious experience? Did you reconsider your bond, when a non-black friend confided that her parents would disown her should she marry a black man? Were you wounded by her tone and its suggestion that you should understand their bigotry (that she understood their bigotry)?
Was it upon entry into the workforce, while you toiled alongside a diverse array of “progressive” professionals? Did “color-blind” colleagues remark that your polished appearance, professional accomplishments, diction, or general comportment rendered you “not like most black people”? Did your affirmation that you are, in fact, like most black people fall on deaf ears?
Did you realize then that the multitude of black Americans–playful children, moody teens, striving young adults, thriving middle-agers, bucket list-ticking senior citizens–are largely invisible? Did you realize then that too often, when we are seen, the image reflected back at many Americans is that of the boogeyman.
The Trayvon Martin verdict is devastating, but it is largely unsurprising. We are seen as worth less. Many believe that our lives are worthless.
For all of the social progress achieved since the civil rights era, the institutional racism that forms the bedrock of our culture remains. If we are to blast through it, as a nation, we must stop lying to ourselves about the pervasiveness of prejudice. We need to engage in discussion–honest, raw, heated, challenging and just–if we are ever to heal.
Instead of lamenting the dearth of non-white models on the world’s high fashion runways, we should examine the mutable constructs of the beauty hierarchy. Exploration of the horrific origins of our limited, Eurocentric concepts of what is beautiful (and the reasons why black women are considered undesirable) may explode preconceptions, and lay the groundwork for a cultural shift.
Instead of focusing solely on Cosby-style entreaties that we pick ourselves up by our collective bootstraps, we should explore the historical realities that removed our proverbial boots. Over at The Atlantic, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates occasionally delves into the lingering aftereffects of black America’s exclusion from the sweeping social reforms of the New Deal era. Tacit acknowledgement of these grave omissions will eliminate certain stigmas, nurture understanding, and ideally lead to the implementation of corrective policies.
Instead of framing the dialogue around affirmative action, we should be discussing privilege, its (largely) invisible influence, and its tremendous breadth. “Affirmative action” has become a dirty term, associated largely with unworthiness in ways that legacy, private networks and nepotism are not. Privilege, in terms of class, race and culture, must be recognized and addressed if we are to find means that encourage merit-based equality.
We need to ask the right questions. We need to acknowledge their uncomfortable answers. We need to work together to create solutions that value our lives, all lives: different, but equal.
We are worth it. We are worthy.