Tuesday, July 23, 2024

A sign seen during a Washington, D.C., rally in July 2016. (Photo: Victoria Pickering via Flickr)

The Black Student Union at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School released a video last year that, without naming names, called out various teachers for racist comments. The backlash was swift. People accused the students of lying, of attacking teachers and making them feel uncomfortable in their workplace. The students were criticized by many – white and black – for doing things the “wrong” way, for being unkind and immature.

From slavery to Jim Crow, the civil rights movement to mass incarceration and police brutality, black people have been faced with two paths of rebellion: violent or peaceful. Neither have proven effective. Nat Turner led an armed slave rebellion in 1831. Rather than change anything, it strengthened laws supporting slavery. Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton was perceived as too militant, and was shot in his bed during a police raid. Malcolm X, who moved multitudes, was assassinated. But even the most famous peaceful resister, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was slandered and assassinated. It isn’t a problem of “militancy.”

In the modern day as well, black people are held accountable for demonstrations that are not even remotely threatening. Football player Colin Kaepernick has been blacklisted since kneeling as a protest during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games – and even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg initially called his protest “dumb,” “disrespectful” and “arrogant.” Philando Castile was killed by a Minnesota police officer after announcing he was reaching for his identification. Even Barack Obama’s presidency raised questions: If a half-white Ivy Leaguer from Hawaii is still being called the N-word, and a life-size doll of him is lynched in Georgia, have we progressed? The most peaceful and compliant acts by blacks are automatically a threat to even the most liberal whites.

Black people are in an insoluble dilemma. They can protest peacefully and be denied their rights, or protest violently and be denied their rights.

That is why it is ridiculous for black people to tiptoe around racism for the sake of whites. They have long since deserved the right to be angry. And at this point – after more than 200 years of blacks fighting to be considered Americans – liberal whites at the very least should acknowledge this. There is a clause in the 13th amendment that technically still allows slavery. Police consistently shoot innocent black men without repercussions. Black people make up 13 percent of the population and 38 percent percent of inmates in prison. These are things to be extremely angry about.

Liberal whites insist that black people find a place for them in their movement and be forgiven all their subconscious racism – and get upset when they hear, “I don’t like white people.” If you support the black movement but not black people’s right to be angry, you are claiming that years of oppression, destruction and historical trauma should not affect them. Of course years of structural violence will prompt them to say “I can’t stand white people” – just like women say often with a sigh of disgust, “I can’t stand men.”

Alienating white people might make the movement’s success harder. It doesn’t matter.

Encouraging black people to be kind, patient and forgiving is outdated. If Kaepernick wants to kneel, we should kneel with him. If black people want to say they don’t like white people, they should feel free. If we are to combat racism, we have to start by combating the assumption that black people need to be superhumanly kind. Are people who deserve equality expected to ask for it nicely? That assumes that what they ask of their oppressor is a privilege, not a right. 

It doesn’t matter how they protest: Black and brown people are being punished for having the audacity to complain about their situation. And as long as that continues, nothing will change.

Jahnavi Zondervan is a Cambridge Rindge and Latin School graduate starting her first year at Columbia University.