Two years ago, I wrote and published this article guided by the motivation I drew from the successful execution of the Black led blockbuster, Black Panther starring Chadwick Boseman. I wrote it as an exposition in my own way, on racism in America. At the time I wrote this, it was not yet fashionable to talk of systemic racism. Today, Black Lives Matter has reached iconic status, and mainstream America identifies with their goals. There is a groundswell of public opinion even reverberating around our globe, against the apparent bigotry of the Trump administration. This is an election year and with continuous mass protests and civil unrest in the wake of constant police and vigilante killings of unarmed Black men, it is appropriate for me to revisit my thoughts on the trajectory of race matters in America. More so, following the untimely death of Chadwick Boseman yesterday, on August 28, 2020. The celebrated star of numerous films of iconic Black male role models passed away following an unpublicized four-year battle with colon cancer. He persevered courageously, exhibiting his gift and uncommon professionalism as an actor, without a hint to the public of the personal struggles he overcame every day. And he did it looking like royalty. The actor was 43.
Blacks have a moment to celebrate their achievements around the globe and to leverage the moment, to confront intolerance in all its ramifications, to make black dignity a permanent reality. We should be outraged by intolerance and racism towards kids and should remember that in our struggle to achieve equality, we have allies among non-Blacks, too.
Adulation keeps flowing in, after the release of Black Panther, Marvel’s black superhero movie that features many black firsts: the all black star-studded cast, led by a black superhero, and his black love interest, and also directed by a black man. According to Hollywood star, Will Smith, Black Panther, which stars Mexican-Kenyan, Academy Award winner, Lupita Nyong’o alongside Chadwick Boseman, as King T’Challa/Black Panther, has shattered many Hollywood myths. Financially, the movie equally broke records, earning the highest debut ever for a February film, raking in $192 million for the weekend, in its U.S. domestic market, as reported by Disney, Marvel’s parent company. It has the second biggest five-day total ever, after Star Wars: The Force Awakens, raking in $263.219 million in five days, in its North American market alone. Worldwide, Black Panther has already surpassed its $200 million budget, earning over $400 million in its first week.
Instead of a transmogrified dystopian Black-African world, the movie plot evinces a counterpoint to dysfunction, in the fictional country of Wakanda, which showcases an edifying, united and transcendent black community. It was a welcome moment, given the deluge of intolerance that blacks came up against in America, in 2017. But blacks want this world in which their dignity as human beings remains celebrated, beyond the two-hour movie length. While the movie has been uplifting for black kids as well, most people of African descent worry that their children are not insulated enough from an intolerant world, which perennially scorches their dignity.
So, I am going to get personal here. First, let me state that every culture has elements of ethnocentrism which may feed racism. Some, however, are worse than others and rather than seek comity with other nationalities, some cultures seek to exercise supremacy, and use stereotypes, misrepresentation, fear and racism as tools of essentialism. Second, America being the most culturally diverse place on earth (you can find a person from virtually every culture in the world living in America), has an opportunity to eradicate racism—and enable every citizen to achieve the identity and value of being American. But living with a view of zero-sum opportunities, which is a false and expedient theory, makes the perpetrator of racism justify racist acts for assumed collective preservation, thinking that ethnic preservation guarantees individual self-preservation. It should not be for an American.
My ex and I had many personal experiences with racism. Unfortunately, our most outrageous experiences came from minorities. As very educated and successful minorities, we often found well-adjusted whites eager to embrace us. But my ex, who went from her family home straight into my home as an adult, and became quickly successful, would experience constant prejudice from blacks – both Africans and African Americans alike. I am not suggesting blacks are just pathologically conditioned to hate on each other—certainly not. I point this out because most blacks and other minorities are too familiar, with what it means to be on the receiving end of racism. Consequently, blacks do not need to add fuel to the oppression their fellow blacks are often forced to navigate their lives around. We can restrain our anger and be kind to each other, even though the racist is not. And we will be just fine.
I recall an event after my ex had graduated from law school, and then had a job at a white shoe law firm (one of the most prestigious law firms in the world). She had been given a list of hairstyles not to don: no Afro, no dreadlocks, etc. She complied and, so she fixed her weaves, to look professional and acceptable to the firm giving her an opportunity of a lifetime. On her first week, she overheard one of the few black women in the firm, talking derisively about her weaves: “Girl, if you’re going to put on a weave, must it be the cheap ones?” My ex had been very sheltered and well-raised. Neither combative, nor callous. (But racists, both internal and external, soon hardened her. We all must restrain tendencies to be abusive, as abused people, soon wear the badges of villainy).
She was immediately on the phone with me, crying about the incident, and how she had to take out the weaves immediately. She was young and impressionable, and this other girl, who was black like her and who should have celebrated her as a sister, was just a bully. I knew the importance of confidence. I was fortunate to have somehow been raised to be confident, no matter my circumstance. Should I lose my confidence, then know that something is deeply wrong. As my ex navigated this new terrain, I felt it was my duty to do all I could to ensure my partner became confident. She wanted to get the more expensive weaves, so the bully sister, would not continue to ridicule her. I agreed, and she returned home and got more expensive weaves done, within a week of fixing the abandoned one.
In the Black Panther movie, there is a fight scene in a casino, where money is being made – just like in corporate America – and the Wakandan female warrior, Okoye, donning a stylish red dress, is sporting a weave. Once a fight ensues, Okoye (a Nigerian name) contemptuously hurls the wig in the face of her white assailant, revealing a natural look, she prefers – her bald head. When will corporate America cease to oppress Black women’s dignity, and respect their natural hair? But not to digress…
Another incident, which left my ex frazzled, occurred as we drove out of the parking lot of a five-star hotel, from a reception we had attended – one of those posh events for attorneys. My ex was elegantly dressed in her dinner gown. But she had spotted a sign on our way out encouraging customers to donate their coins for a good cause. Ever the cooperative and civic-minded American millennial, she had been gathering all her stacks of coins to present them neatly in a fine pile, wrapped up in a plastic bag, for the cashier at the exit of the garage. The attendant handled the stacks of coins, opened the plastic bag and emptied its content on her counter, before suddenly barking at my ex:
“What the hell is this? What do you want me to do with it? Do you think I am begging for money?” She clearly misunderstood my ex’s motives.
My ex had initially flashed her shy, pleasant smile, and tried to explain that she was helping in observation of the sign in the garage, which requested coins as donations. However, the disgruntled older attendant threw all the coins she had removed from the plastic bag in my ex’s face, spilling the coins all over the car. My ex then stuttered a feeble attempt at an explanation, shocked, confused and now in tears, removing her glasses, as a coin had become trapped in her spectacles and was plastered to her eyelid. The inexplicably irate attendant kept screaming at her to get out of the lot with her coins. As she sobbed, I encouraged her to leave it alone. The abusive attendant was an African woman, and so we could not even consider reporting the incident—we did not wish to be connected with the retrenchment of a black woman, who probably had a family to support.
After a few months, we got a place in Manhattan. We had been out to see a movie. But at the end of it, we exited to a tempestuous storm, as it rained cats and dogs in New York city. We huddled together for elusive warmth, under the torrential downpour, trying to hail a cab home. No cab stopped. They just drove by. It is nearly impossible for a black person alone, to successfully get a cab to stop for him or her in New York city at about 11 pm. It didn’t matter that we were dressed up and our clothes may have signaled that we were trying to go into midtown, to a $7,000 a month apartment building—New York City cabdrivers often don’t care, if it’s written on your forehead that you have money to pay, so long as you’re black.
Again, she cried, since she was cold and drenched. But repeatedly cabs would stop for white couples, positioned a few steps from us, after they passed us; my ex went wild. She waded through the torrent and tried to run to a cab that had just passed us but had stopped for a white couple after us. She screamed.
“We were here first. He just passed us.”
They looked at us, and the turbaned cab driver with a beard, gesticulated to them, to ignore her and get in the cab.
She cried again, asking me, “why are they doing this?” I do not drive partly because I know it eliminates the risk of being confronted by rogue cops. But nobody drives in Manhattan. We hail cabs. We waded through the deluge along Manhattan, and walked home in the pouring rain on that cold, windy night. She did not stop crying. I have never seen a white man drive a cab in New York. At least ten cabs driven by minorities, ignored us and drove past on that stormy night.
Racism is dehumanising, no matter who the perpetrator is. It soon co-opts new racists, who perhaps would not typically have been prejudiced to normalize racist acts. Her single dark-skinned friends at her Ivy League school, had decided they did not want kids with dark skin. To that end, they would marry light skinned men. Some were willing to marry even non-Black men that were significantly less credentialed, just so they could have light skinned kids, they declared. I didn’t pay attention then. My ex was starting to attend meetings with her black friends, and they were telling her disturbing things that revealed they were traumatised by their experience with prejudice, despite their success.
One day, during Black History month, as she watched a documentary highlighting the dehumanisation of indigent black kids, and I was studying as usual, I heard her sniffling. She had been eating, and I was not paying attention, as I was buried deep in my books; we loved spicy meals, so I’d assumed it was the regular spiciness over-stimulating her nasal cavity. Then suddenly I heard:
“They shouldn’t make more black babies.”
It was resolute. I looked up from my book, and I finally saw the tears streaming down her face, blocking her nostrils, and the reason she had been sniffling. They finally broke her. She who had loved kids—black and white, and every other colour, as this didn’t matter to her—was finally broken and saw a coloured world in which black kids, were unloved, unprotected and could not survive. As a future mother of black kids, she could only see pain and suffering for them. If she had not been able to protect herself, how could she protect them? I was still observing and strategising on how to make it work. But she was done, and had given in. I remember seeing her play with kids—my cousins. She was so thrilled and was like a baby herself when she played with them.
Many successful minorities, who will always face new morphed forms of racism, no matter how high in economic status their achievements may take them, soon arrive at the painful conclusion that privilege or security in America is inextricably linked to skin complexion. And when armed with money, they often proceed to lighten their bloodline, in anticipation of softening the blows that would be dealt by racism in America, to their future progeny. She told me of a black friend of hers, who dated an openly gay white male and planned on having a child with him. Successful black women now wish to lighten up their kids by any means even at the sacrifice of true love, it seems.
I am a proponent of interracial marriages, but not for these reasons. Love should transcend arbitrary colour barriers and racism. There are racist underpinnings in the notion of seeking lighter skinned offspring. All children, regardless of colour have equal value. Relationships predicated on the wrong motives devalue innocent black kids.
We can all save the future of our children, when we confront institutionalised racism, by reporting it—even hints of it, called microaggression—to the appropriate authorities and calling attention to it. We should not be complicit, by being silent, with the false belief that our silence and calm would soften the racist’s heart. Or that our compliance with oppression and abuse, will enable us to thrive and succeed in a fundamentally flawed system that is morally bankrupt.
Abusers hope for your silence. But understand that, when you are silent, you are no longer simply being passive—you are now complicit in the destruction of innocent black lives and kids. Your silence is now supporting bigotry against the black kids. Oppression invariably seeks to co-opt silence as an accomplice.
I have seen racism break a good person. But you can be strong and resist to the very end. You are not alone. You have non-black allies against racism, too, even among whites. I recall taking a course at Columbia University and I was the only male in that class. One of my classmates had done her research on the effects of discrimination against black males and the invidious process of stigmatising and ostracising them, at an early age in school. She concluded that the study showed that black female teachers were also now starting to discriminate against the young black male students, in socially destructive patterns, instead of standing as a bulwark protecting the kids against racism from rogue white teachers. The presenter was a white female millennial.
Many years ago, a cousin of mine, who had been a distinguished professor at a prominent university here in the United States, traded his Green Card for a Canadian passport. My older brother did something similar, trading his job and prospects at a great University in America, for a stay in South Africa and the Netherlands. Astonished, I asked why they would relinquish the opportunities to live and work, and be citizens of the greatest country in the world. My philosopher brother asked me to explain what I meant by the “greatest country” in the world, and what it amounted to for a black man or how it neutralised the adverse effects of it being the most racist country in the world.
I had never thought of it that deeply. Instead I chose to challenge his premise that, “America was the most racist country in the world,” although there was racism. Instead, he encouraged me to travel and see other parts of the world. My brother loves to travel and is by far more traveled than I am. After I spent time in the United Kingdom, I saw what he meant. England was clearly not like America in terms of its race relations. Neither was Wales. Neither was Iceland. Neither was Germany, nor Italy.
A young African American female friend that had been visiting Europe as well, declared that she was going to ask her employer to transfer her to London, because she loved the way she had been treated there. London currently has a Muslim Mayor, who is the son of Pakistani immigrants. And even the British Royal Family is welcoming a black royal or person of mixed racial heritage into its clique to be wife of Prince Harry, who is fifth in line to the throne of England. Black women in America have been thrilled about the American soon-to-be a British citizen and royal, Meghan Markle, engaged to Prince Harry—the second son of late Diana, Princess of Wales.
However, celebrating the dignity of blacks every day does not have to be mutually exclusive with blacks living with non-blacks as a comity of variegated races, nationalities and ethnicities. Black self-ostracism is not necessary to achieve the black dignity and transcendence that exists in Wakanda.
Director Ryan Coogler, cultivates an inspiring and empowering image of black women, with the army of smart, loyal, and adept warrior females that protect (and are loved by) King T’Challa.
It is unnecessary for black women to find their dignity and strength by emigrating overseas—to more nurturing and appreciative lands. Millennials can make race relations in America even far better than what has been achieved in cosmopolitan London and Milan, by refusing to tolerate the last gasps of racism, intolerance, misogyny and bigotry from all the fringe elements coming out of the woodwork in this last salvo.
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