the fire this time: the sham of respectability

an interrogation of class, privilege, and embodied activism in response to #breonnataylor, #georgefloyd, #ahmaudarbery, and #iyonnadior



i don’t have a catchy opening or vignette to hook you into reading this essay.


the only thing i’ve got is the following: the nation is burning (literally and figuratively) and i’m here for it.


what i’m not here for is the continued concern for property over people and faux displays of solidarity as seen by folks clamoring to find pictures of police kneeling with protestors or hugging people who are obviously grieving the countless Black deaths at the hands of unchecked police brutality.


okay, so i lied. i do have a quick story i can tell - that might help elucidate why my spirit has been so vexed lately (i mean beyond the teargas bombs and over-policing happening in downtown little rock, but more on that later).


i was scrolling on social media this week and saw a photo of an inordinate amount of freshly baked cookies that had been delivered to a local police department in my hometown of conway, ar. the caption thanked them for their protection and noted the hope that there would be time to begin working together for solving problems.


seems nice. sweet. innocuous, even. Right?


maybe, for some. but not for me.


while i have nothing against spreading kindness right now when so much of our current context is a dumpster fire, i do have to caution us against a feel good notion that pats on the back and niceties such as this as real steps toward progress.


whats more, without the necessary critical analysis, one can easily overlook how gestures such as these, and others - which i will explain shortly- are part and parcel of the sometimes asymptomatic virus known as white supremacy.


let’s start here. knowing what we know about how Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd’s murders have inflamed the globe with protests demanding #blacklivesmatter, what should we be clear about concerning white supremacy? because, while white supremacy kills, it also coerces. sneaks in like the slave master in the night. and takes things we don’t willingly want to give.


exhibit a is the loud, and distracting, outrage over the loss of property. if you found yourself in the seat of the scornful, annoyed at how property damage was going to work against the actual demands that police just #stopkillingus, then white supremacy may be present in your system. no, i am not saying you are not allowed to be against property damage on the whole. but i am saying that one of the ways white supremacy works is by fooling you into believing that capitalism is a standard by which we should govern ourselves - like its gospel. because, more than likely, it’s easier to be upset about a damn target going up in flames because we love to shop there than it is to be outraged at the systematic property damage that occurred by redlining, disinvestment, and divestment in our local communities. i am going to go out on a limb and say that property damage by dispossession is far more violent than broken windows and stolen goods.


now. i’ll pause here. because i might have lost some of you. or you may simply disagree with my assessment. that’s fair. if so, the rest of this essay. IS. NOT. FOR. YOU.


this is not an apologetics lesson in why we all need to just get along. nope. this is for those who want to have a hard conversation about our own complicity in systems that are literally out here killing Black people. this is for people ready to be honest about class in the Black community and white privilege with white folks who are ready to brave the smoke. this is about getting us free of the insanely entangled web of white supremacy. so, if you wanna keep going, continue with this in mind.


exhibit b is a nuanced continuation of misplaced outrage over property damage discussed above. and, that is unchecked detachment or distance from the source of the pain. in plain english, it's simply the privilege that comes from not having to face the worst manifestations of systemic devaluing of black lives. this is easier to see with white people - who are still looking tone deaf as ever for loudly and wrongly asserting all lives matter or policing how black people decided to show up and demand to be seen. but this is also a conversation we need to be having in our well-to-do, quasi bourgeoisie Black circles too. to have room and time, afforded most noticeably by access to resources/wealth, sometimes renders the recipient duped. duped into an amnesia of the inherent dangers of white supremacy simply because your individual situation is stable. safe and/or secure. this is a class issue. an offshoot of the dogged individualism that permeates the american ethos and fools droves of people into believing the myth of bootstrap narrative. as long as you’ve made it out - out of the trap, out of the crosshairs of bad credit, low wage jobs, and other systemic potholes, then there is no stopping anyone else from smooth sailing their way on outta oppression. see how nonsensical that sounds?


yet, and still, far too many of our aunties, mommas, daddies and cousins have been decrying protesters for their method of outcry. whats more is that they have joined the chorus of karens, beckies, bifs, who are so wrapped in entitled privilege that they would #amycooper and call the police to falsely report assault just because a black person has the audacity to ask them to follow the damn rules. that’s the gotcha of exhibit b that asymptomatic white supremacy causes. it breeds an unnatural commonality and allyship with those who covertly and overtly wish us death. which is why we have to do our parts to ensure that our arrival to a so-called good life doesn’t have us falling into an unspoken alliance with white supremacist carriers - who are unmasked and walking around breathing infected breath onto any and all who are unsuspecting.


"that's the gotcha of white supremacy...it breeds an unnatural commonality and allyship with those who covertly and overtly wish us death."


that brings me to exhibit c. politics of respectability - lord help us all. exhibit a and exhibit b both contain the dna of politics of respectability (for a refresher on respectability politics go here and here). but i need to go a step further. when i ran across that photo of 72 fresh-baked cookies, packaged all nicely with a note to the conway police department - i was pained. pained that we have to resort to saying “here’s a cookie for you and a cookie for you...” when white supremacy has continually said “here’s a lynching for you and some ashy patriarchy for you and a mass incarceration for you and a knee on your neck for you.” politics of respectability contorts us into a perpetual posturing of “i finished in the fields, now can i have a lil’ rest, massa?” it tricks us into putting disclaimers on our righteous and holy indignation. it makes us edit ourselves into more palpable and vanilla versions of everything our ancestors were. it invites us to reshape ourselves into an image of whiteness that was created over and against the fullness of Black orneriness - as if the imago dei wasn’t good enough. it pulls us into a crucifixion of our souls, so that our sacrifice might redeem folks who have historically never given a damn about us. long story short, respectability politics are a sham and justice will not come by them.


so. if all these things are true about white supremacy - which i know within this Black body to be as real as the air i breathe - what, then, are we to do?


because this essay is much longer than i anticipated, my goal is to share another piece that outlines what i have been carefully considering in response to the fire this time.


but, i will leave you with these 3 thoughts until then.


  • it’s okay to admit that protesting/activism is not your lane and still participate in the movement. as a matter of fact, it’s better that way. the more we let organizers do what they gone do, supporting their efforts via financial resources and amplifying their voices, we free ourselves to do the work of justice in the various spheres of which we are apart. white supremacy wants us to remain singularly focused on protesting and other forms of public witness because it continues to be such a divisive space. if we remain caught up trying to overpopulate or over-critique the institution of public protest, then less of us are thinking of ways to ally, partner with, or create other solutions. it’s advantageous for the cause for everyone to find their lane and occupy it fully.

  • some of the most egregious perpetrators of unmasked, asymptomatic white supremacy are pastors and faith leaders - of all colors and creeds. please be willing to interrogate the doctrine, preaching, and theology you are hearing in the pulpits of your churches. chances are if the messages you are receiving are about racism as a sin issue and Jesus as the peacemaking lover of everyone without regard to color, then you are absorbing covert (and overt) white supremacist messaging. messages like these reduce white supremacy to its lowest common denominator which is individual racism and a few bad actors i.e. rogue police officers. and, it’s a lie from the pit of hell.

  • for all my Black brethren, sistren, and kindred, give yourself the permission - matter of fact, give yourself the gall to stop the disclaimers. i’ve noticed far too many of us damn near doubling our word count trying to ensure that white fragility isn’t aggravated by the things we want to say. we could learn a thing or two from the fires that have ravaged commercial areas in cities across this nation. their flames were indiscriminate, unyielding, and untamed. may our tongues be also. i am tired of assimilating my slick mouth for fear of white retribution or tears. you should be too. so, i invite you to stop accommodating the ignorance and start disclaiming the disclaimers. (maybe, that should be a new hashtag: #disclaimthedisclaimers). as my 90 year old grandmother reminded me, our truth-telling is our birthright and it will do all the upsetting it needs to without us worrying about how to package it in a nice bow. if you need help knowing what i mean by unbridling your tongue - check out this wonderfully prophetic piece by the homie.sister.friend, Crystal C. Mercer entitled “An Arrest Is Not Enough.” it will get you all the way right.


so. yeah, this essay is now extra long (and i didn't even talk about gender & patriarchy yet - so that's coming soon, too). but i had time and it was past time for me to speak on these things. i pray that it helps you get free as it has helped me name the wrestling that i continue to do. because more than anything, #blacklivesmatters when we all get free.


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