Being Black & Principled in white America
Every Black person navigating white America knows there’s always the opportunity to betray the Black community and your own principles in exchange for the perceived benefits of being the chosen Negro, or in Brando Starkey’s better words, a coon. "A Black person who puts on a specific performance for white people — a performance whereby a Black person says things or performs acts to ingratiate himself or herself in exchange for the social rewards white folk can grant. It’s a quid pro quo.”
It’s always a mistake to put on that performance.
The first thing you need to understand and always keep in mind about racism is that it is without merit. There is no compelling explanation that legitimizes or mitigates it or how it came to be. Racism is about creating and maintaining power through the social, legal, and economic subjugation of non-white people. To do that, the people doing the subjugating must dehumanize, demean, and vilify the people they’re subjugating in order to absolve themselves and convince those people that they are deserving and responsible for their own suffering so that the system may persist. If you remember that, you’ll know to dismiss respectability politics, “black-on-black crime,” and every other fictitious moving of the goalpost that’s been offered through time to defend evils like slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. The enslavers did not know Africans when they chose to enslave them, just as today they still don’t know us, but choose to imprison us. Calling Africans uncivilized and every other false, dehumanizing thing they’ve plastered through the works of fiction they misrepresent as history, was a means of trying to justify something evil they were doing simply because it benefited them.
If you remember that, you’ll know that you cannot educate your way out of the racism extended to your Blackness, you cannot successful business your way out of it, you cannot marry your way out of it, and you can neither shuck nor jive your way out of it.
In Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well, he describes this phenomenon as the third rule of racial standing:
Few Blacks avoid diminishment of racial standing, most of their statements about racial conditions being diluted and their recommendations of other Blacks taken with a grain of salt. The usual exception to this rule is the Black person who publicly disparages or criticizes other Blacks who are speaking or acting in ways that upset whites. Instantly, such statements are granted “enhanced standing” even when the speaker has no special expertise or experience in the subject he or she is criticizing.
The problem with that “enhanced standing” isn’t just that it’s at the expense of your people, it’s that it’s not real. As a Black person who chooses to speak against the interests of the Black community and Black people, you must always remember that the white people you think are tokenizing and validating you, are simply using you to legitimize their power over you and for that reason alone, you are being allowed to speak. In their eyes, you are no less negro, you are no less inferior, and you are no more deserving. You are a tool, and should you misspeak, should you cease to be useful, you will be discarded. That’s why white police officers kill Black people every day and avoid charges even when thousands of people march and demand them, but Black police who do the same find themselves quickly fired and prosecuted. It’s why Stacey Dash finds herself exiled from the Republicans with no community to return to. It’s why the Black person participating in the January 6 insurrection, Mark Ponder, received the longest sentence of anyone involved. He was sentenced to 63 months imprisonment whilst some of his white counterparts won’t face a day. You can choose to align yourself with your oppressors and help them oppress your community, they won’t stop you—they’ll even welcome you—but they will not protect you. People who believe you’re their inferior will never truly stand in solidarity with you.
My father always stressed the importance of education, because as he put it, no one can take your education away from you.
I moved to America alone when I was 14 years old, after finally convincing my parents that if I wanted to be a lawyer in America one day, it would benefit me to enter the American school and immigration systems earlier because of the significant immigration constraints I’d have to face and how few international students are admitted to American law schools.
I went to high school in Wheeling, West Virginia and I was the only Black girl in my entire senior class. From there, I went to college in Athens, Ohio. These environments were probably even less welcoming to an outspoken, Black girl with a Bahamian accent and a Nigerian name as you’d expect them to be. There’s no room I have ever entered that someone didn’t try to mistreat me out of. There is no award or opportunity I have ever received that I wasn’t first passed up for. But as the adage goes, as a Black person, you must work twice as hard and be twice as good to get half of what they have—I persisted. By the time my college graduation rolled around, I’d been accepted to all 11 law schools I’d applied to, received 3 full scholarship offers, presented essays at national conferences, published a departmental honors thesis, been invited to Phi Beta Kappa, and won more awards and honors than I can remember. Notably, the law school professor who reviewed my application, extended me my full scholarship offer at the law school they convinced me to attend, told me I had the best writing statements in my admitted class.
While attending that law school, like most 1Ls, I participated in the writing competition to get selected for a journal. Despite having the grades and doing the assignment in the presence of white peers I knew did not have the requisite grades and I saw fail to even complete the writing assignment, they all received journal offers and I didn’t receive a single one. When I went to talk to the very professor who knew my academic record and previously recognized me as one of the best writers in the class, about the fact that I didn’t get a single journal offer while my white peers I’d outperformed had, they looked me dead in my eyes and asked me “How do you know you’re a good writer? How do you know all your teachers didn’t just lie and give you good grades because they liked you?”
That experience was much like each time a white classmate told me I should be grateful affirmative action got me into our law school that I’d chosen as a safety school.
My father’s rationale behind “no one can take your education away from you” was two-fold. First, it was about security. He believed that by becoming a lawyer, even if I lost a job, I’d still always be a lawyer who could practice law. No one could simply take a job and leave me with nothing. Second, it meant that if you achieved certain undisputable credentials, no one could discredit you—someone could not say I wasn’t educated when it is but a fact that I am—But my father doesn’t live in America, and that premise doesn’t account for my Blackness and the fact that racism doesn’t respect facts, truth, merit, or any objective rubric or system for evaluation—even if they created it. That premise rests on the idea that there’s anything you could achieve as a Black person that would render someone who believes you are inherently inferior, unable to question it; that if by achieving the things they said were objective measures of your talent, they wouldn’t simply move the goal post and gaslight you until you questioned your own abilities.
That reality is why Ketanji Brown Jackson, despite being a Harvard educated lawyer who served as the editor of the Law, went on to receive three prestigious clerkships including one with U.S Supreme Court Justice Breyer, became a federal circuit court judge, received a unanimous “well-qualified” rating from the ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, and was the most qualified Supreme Court Justice nominee in recent history, had to endure Republicans who’d previously appointed two of the most wildly unqualified people to the bench, relentlessly insist she was undeserving.
It’s a mistake to think you can beat racists at their own game because even if you did, they would simply change the rules or play an entirely new game altogether; because racism is without merit and racists are unprincipled. That’s why it’s always a mistake to perform for white people at the expense of your own principles and community, because the perceived benefits, that “enhanced standing”—it’s not real—and when it stops serving them to engage the fantasy, you will be discarded with no community to return to.
Being unprincipled is as morally bankrupt as it is unsustainable. Failing to understand that is to fundamentally misunderstand the game they’ve constructed and the role you’re playing; and to do so at the expense of your own sanity, sense of self, and how you come to view other people who look like you.
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