To white Northwestern:
“I understand that I will never understand; however, I stand” is a quote that I often see splattered on Instagram stories and Target T-shirts. I know that after seeing the atrocities committed against Black America, your emotional and mental capacities to respond might be lacking. However, I’ve seen this and quotes like it copied and pasted so many times that I beg the question:
Why can’t you understand?
There is nothing that cannot be fully understood and rationalized – especially at a school like Northwestern. We boast some of the smartest students in the country, many of which will make lasting impacts in the media, politics and tech. I’m tired of the thoughts-and-prayers approach to remedying racism. I also know that, while there are resources for becoming more anti-racist on the Internet, there is not much that tries to outright explain the dedication to Blackness that may seem unwarranted to you.
So, in this letter, I am seeking to rationalize my Blackness to you.
Blackness can be understood the same way that calculus, history, the humanities or any other scholarly discipline can be rationalized. It may be difficult at first, but you have to come in with open ears and dedicate time and practice to the craft. It will obviously take more than just this letter alone, but if I succeed in communicating this, you will at least have a much better understanding of why I am the way that I am and why I fight for the things that I do.
What does it mean to be Black? In America? In Chicago? At Northwestern? I cannot rationalize the Black race to you with analogies of the white race, because – to be honest – the white race does not exist. Whiteness stands in as a placeholder for the oppressor. To be white means nothing to you. You don’t get your culture or history fed to you as a history of actions being done to you. Rather, your history is of the choices and thoughts of individuals who seek out to actively do something, rather than having something done to them. White history, or what most consider to be just history, is a narrative of triumph and individualism, and the vast majority of its characters are European. Black history, on the other hand, is usually taught as the collection of struggles thrust upon a race of people, with the Black race having little agency.
You cannot be uniquely white in the same way that I am uniquely Black. There is nothing specific that you provide to whiteness other than the pliability of your body toward oppression and your ability to cause harm to Black bodies. Just by virtue of you being born in this time period with your skin tone in the United States, you are – as Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me – a “man enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.” There is nothing unique to the evilness that you bring to me, and in a way, it almost has nothing to do with you and everything to do with this country. In a way, your whiteness brings evil and harm to me, no matter what you do, arguably to the same extent that a police officer, professor or even a Karen can bring evil and harm to me. There is no difference in the wicked actions caused by white police officers than in the action of you taking up space in this institution. And this isn’t your fault, but that doesn’t mean that I forgive you. You have to work to redeem yourself as a white person to me, just as I have worked through my interactions to prove my humanity. Part of that work begins here, in understanding my explanation of being Black.
Blackness can be explained in two ways. I am racialized as black, meaning that I struggle with state-endorsed oppression and constantly have to prove my humanity to white Americans. Being racialized as black is not a choice but rather a label that has been branded onto me as a consequence of being born at this time in history with my dark skin color. To be racialized as black is to go extra miles to arrive at the same destination as you.
However, I am also Black. This is to say that I, alongside a nation of people in the United States, have taken the oppression thrust upon me and synthesized it into a culture and understanding that is fundamental to my Blackness. To be Black is to be the birthplace of rich culture, heritage and history. We create our own genres of music, books and film. We synthesize joy out of struggle in an almost evolutionary adaptation to the environments to which we have been subjected in history. To be Black is to find joy along the paths that we forge from nothingness.
I, as a racialized and gendered “black woman” at Northwestern, have to go through struggles that are as imperceptible to you as the oxygen that you breathe. It is there, but you have to comprehend that it is there before you can truly perceive it. I, also as a Black nonbinary lesbian at this university, can see connections to people that are intangible. If I walk into a room and see an afro, it is as if the person with the afro and I are inextricably linked through a ribbon – invisible to you, but plainly obvious to us – and we will then connect through our shared Blackness. To you, this would be almost as if white people had status bars above their heads that shared their heritage, birth nations, etc.
In rationalizing Blackness, like many other scholarly subjects, there are different schools of thought to be understood, as well as some main voices in the field which many people listen to and abide by. I often find myself looking to founding scholars of Blackness such as Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois. It’s like learning about American history – however tainted – from Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and others. There is also an inexhaustible and steady supply of new founders of fundamental notions, as Blackness as a concept changes every day. I also look to newer authors such as Coates to rationalize my own Blackness.
Continuing on this crash course-esque route that I’m taking you through, there is a series of quotes that I feel are mostly encompassing of the Black experience in the U.S., starting with Coates.
“In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live – specifically, how do I live free in this black body? … The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
This is a big one. Coates is addressing these words to his own son, whom America only sees as a vessel to thrust harm onto. He brings up this question which encompasses the day-to-day struggles that Black people face in simply trying to live in the U.S. How do I live free in this Black body? This is to ask, how do I evade the struggles thrown my way by white America, by people like you who are not uniquely evil, but collectively evil.
And he’s right; there is no answer to this question. But that makes no difference because this question still governs the way I live and the steps I take. Black liberation is not futile. We are striving towards something, even if we don’t know what that something is. If anything, that something is a world without the collective evil of whiteness.
“Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment … We are called upon to prove that we are men!” – Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
Frederick Douglass is one of the founding fathers of the concept of rationalizing Blackness. He used his status as an educated man to uplift other Black folk. This was not to prove our humanity to white people but to prove to our own that education is the barrier that has blocked Black people in America from prosperity. Douglass made it his life’s mission to further the prosperity of Black Americans, and he succeeded. To this day, part of this quote – “Oppression makes a wise man mad” – encompasses the rage of modern-day reactions to racism in the U.S. It encompasses the rage that may seem unwarranted from me, as well as every other Black person in America who is angry at a collective.
“I’m not a Democrat. I’m not a Republican, and I don’t even consider myself an American. If you and I were Americans, there’d be no problem.” – Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet”
Of the many quotes from Malcolm X that I could’ve chosen, this is the one that I wish for you to internalize the most. My resistance against the American government and the white collective is nothing like the resistance of leftists, libertarians or even socialists. They can fight for America to become better as Americans, whereas I have to fight to prove myself American to begin with. I would even go further than Malcolm X to say that the problem is not that Black people are not considered to be Americans, but rather that Black people are not considered to be people at all! If you all considered me to be human, only then would there be no problem.
“It is white people across this country who are incapable of allowing me to live where I want to live. You need a civil rights bill, not me! I know I can live where I want to live.” – Stokely Carmichael, 1966 speech
With this quote from Carmichael, I want you to understand one notion: the burden is on you. It is your responsibility to reverse the damage caused by your whiteness. It is your responsibility to consider me a human being, to consider me an American. It should be your burden to fight to recognize my humanity, not mine. Take this with you everywhere you go, as I take on the question of how I can live free in my Black body. Ask yourself, How can I be uniquely good in this white body? rather than part of a collective evil.
And now that you know the basics, the ball is in your court.