As a white person, I think February is a time for reflection. Black History should absolutely be celebrated by everyone, but I think it’s really important for white people to realize that we even manage to further oppress the historical figures we attempt to celebrate.
One obvious example is Rosa Parks. She is one of the few Black women in public school history books, known for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person. We white people of today adore this image of a tired, elderly woman peacefully protesting in the most passive way possible: sitting. Not even sitting in front of a building or on the street, as many protesters do. We love that she fought for equality by doing such a simple action as sitting on a bus. The idea is such an easy one to support. “Of course she shouldn’t have given up her seat!” We love an uncomplicated hero.
But keeping her seat should not be Rosa’s entire legacy. Why? Because she spent her entire life tirelessly and passionately standing up for justice. First of all, she didn’t keep her seat that day because she was tired. She refused to give it up because she was angry. Her whole life had been spent dedicated to civil rights. She was an activist who worked as a recording secretary for the NAACP fifteen years before she sparked the bus boycott. She became the lead investigator for Recy Taylor’s case, who had been raped by six men. Rosa was dedicated to combating violence against Black women, particularly sexual assault. She was also passionate about voting rights, and fought for her own right years before she was permitted to register. She may have been a seamstress by trade, but the woman worked tirelessly to advocate for herself and her people, consequences be damned. There were many times she could have been killed, and she was arrested multiple times.
We love to memorialize activists who we can paint as peaceful. It is way more comfortable for us white people to celebrate the people whom we oppressed if we can convince ourselves that they were driven to fight for equality out of love for fellow man. When we think of them as angry, angry at people just like us, we start to feel uneasy. And we can’t have that, can we? It also makes it easier to celebrate these historical figures while still condemning today’s Black Lives Matter protests.
And so, we do things like co-opt the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. We take his quotes out of context to push our own I-don’t-see-color of-course-I’m-not-racist agenda. We even use his face to try and sell cars, apparently. We honor MLK for “having a dream”, the dream that we like to think erases racial inequality without blaming white people for creating it in the first place. No harm no foul, right? No need to actually address the insidious level of racism that has effected every aspect of our society from roots to leaves! A complete overhaul of our society would be mega inconvenient, so… let’s just chalk it up to all lives mattering and call it a day.
We love how easy it is to forget that MLK was incredibly radical. He was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, considering him a Communist sympathizer and one of the biggest threats to our nation’s security. Robert F. Kennedy had him under FBI surveillance for years, and now, the FBI tweets sanitized quotes as if they weren’t his biggest adversary. MLK was anti-war, anti-poverty, anti-capitalism. If he were around today, the same journalists who “honor” him would tear him to pieces. Can you even imagine the sensationalized headlines?
Anyway, I guess I’m just venting out of embarrassment. We white people commemorate heroes like Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, MLK, and even Gandhi as if we weren’t the ones enslaving, murdering, and colonizing them, forcing them into poverty, keeping them illiterate, dehumanizing them at every turn. We pretend to have a dream, but then get viciously angry when someone takes a knee at a sports event. And we continue to protect the murderers of innocent people, every single day, because we think white cops have the right to kill Black people, no matter the circumstances.
If you’re white, instead of praising yourself for quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. without giving it a second thought, please actually reflect instead. Think about why he had to do the things he did, why he said the things he said. Ask yourself who caused the injustices he faced, and think about whether or not those people would have considered themselves hateful. Are you being hateful without realizing it? Let go of any defensiveness and truly consider it.
And then when you realize you are furthering white supremacy (we all are, often unintentionally, every single day), start listening. Stop speaking over Black people. Honor their *actual* legacies.
I promise I’m trying, too. I’m not perfect on this soap box. But I want to be better.