As a White person from a small White town living in White America, I’m telling us, all White people, that we should not be critiquing how and when oppressed people react to centuries of state-sanctioned violence.
As “A Memo to Black Lives Matter” does, let’s call upon the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. Dr. King stated in a 1968 speech at Grosse Pointe High School entitled “The Other America”: “Riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of White society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
The opinion article published on Jan. 28 entitled “A Memo to Black Lives Matter” encompasses exactly what Dr. King was invoking: many of us White people are more concerned with passivity, non-violence and respectability in the face of highly publicized Black suffering and death. “A Memo To Black Lives Matter” and White people more broadly expect oppressed people to engage with the process of respectability politics. As White people, by encouraging respectability politics, we are saying, “We will only care for your cause if you do it my way.” We are saying, “I know your people are dying, I know you are living through constant state-sponsored violence, but because you will not protest in a way I deem respectable, I can no longer support your cause.” White people should not and do not have the power to fashion themselves as allies to Black people when their allyship is dependent on Black people protesting their own experiences with violence in a manner White people deem respectable and worthy of attention. . And let us White people not forget that even during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, where non-violence was a primary practice, that non-violence was still not good enough for us. We did not deem the Civil Rights Movement and its
commitment to non-violence respectable because it disrupted our White worlds, and we believe that the Black Lives Matter movement is not respectable now because it, too, disrupts our White worlds.
This reductive representation of the Civil Rights Movement further harms not only our understanding of history and the significance of the movement, but also the legacy of the very activists who fought for liberation by any means possible. The fight is far from over, and solely highlighting figures whose stories have been watered down to align with a narrow understanding of liberation movements does a disservice to those who organized within their communities and departed from White supremacist, capitalist modes of living, such as many members of the Black Panther Party and other revolutionaries. The idealization of nonviolent direct action overlooks the work that activists carry out today, as countless scholars and activists have dedicated their lives to decarceration and other forms of overcoming anti-Black violence that pervades all aspects of American life. To overlook the inherent violence that Black people face is to blatantly disregard those who work tirelessly to dismantle the institutions that enact violence upon Black people day in and day out, from housing to healthcare, from unemployment to mass incarceration.
Xavier is not immune to racism. It is not immune to White supremacy. It is not immune to the violence of anti-Blackness. Racism at Xavier is not always as overt as White supremacist calling cards on light posts and the vandalizing of banners supporting Black lives. It is often covert; it is often missed by the White students on campus but never missed by the Black students. Sometimes it’s comments in the classroom, sometimes it’s opinion pieces in the student newspaper. Building a better Xavier, an anti-racist Xavier, should be the commitment of all our students. White students should first look introspectively at themselves by interrogating their own anti-Blackness, their own racism, their own bias.
Our efforts as White people, especially at Xavier, would be better served looking toward the work being done on our campus by Black students committing their time and energy to ensure that the institution cares for them in the fight to hold the institution accountable. We would be best served to look towards Black leadership in the Cincinnati community and to follow their lead. We would be best served to not opine on the methods of protesting a system and violence from which we reap the benefits. We would be best served educating ourselves by reading, listening and lending our labor to movements for liberation.