Last week during our weekly reflection, our group watched the harrowing documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” The film is an interpretation of the 1979 letter by famed African-American author James Baldwin explaining his next literary project, “Remember This House.” In it, he hoped to shine a light on the intertwined paths of three civil rights leaders: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. Indeed, Director Raoul Peck masterfully connects the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s to modern manifestations of institutionalized racism like redlining, police brutality, and mass incarceration.
It’s hard to sit through the entire film and leave unconvinced of the realities of racism in America, past and present. The similarities between hosing nonviolent protestors in the streets of Birmingham in 1968 and images of SWAT teams using tear gas on African-Americans in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown only three years ago are hard to ignore. And it’s impossible to deny how moving Baldwin’s lectures about the plight of African-Americans were – and how relevant those sentiments still are today.
Yet, even with amazing literature, art, films, and music being released every day, there is still a contingent of Americans who deny the presence of racism in modern America. And even for those who do acknowledge it, they believe it’s much ado about nothing – or worse, not worth doing anything about.
How can this be?
For one, the people who most need to watch movies like “I Am Not Your Negro” (namely deniers of racial privilege and systemic inequities) are overwhelmingly unlikely to do so. Imagine that you have grown tired of the race debate, the ‘constant division of our country’, and simply want to be left alone. Would you really take two hours out of your day to watch something with such a provocative and uncomfortable title? I would guess probably not. Often times, people can perceive these brutally honest narratives as holier-than-thou or a result of liberal elitism. Though Peck’s film in particular does not strike this tone, attempts to replicate its message sometimes do.
It’s no secret that we are living in a world with two different Americas. Even if one America is right about racism and the other is wrong, moral superiority is probably not very persuasive. The types of rhetoric that rally your ‘base’ are not the same ones that will change minds.
The point of this blog is not to discount the importance of these types of narratives. They are an unequivocally important part of revealing the truth of injustice underpinning America’s hypocritical past. Moreover, if they reach even one person, they have succeeded.
Rather, my point is that when it comes to effective rhetoric, moral and ideological purity can be dangerous. Without a doubt, context dictates the way both Americas perceive social issues, racial or otherwise. And increasingly, both are content to live in an intellectual vacuum. In this vacuum, we often consider those who disagree with us politically to be unworthy of our friendship or conversation. However, backgrounds geographically or racially different than your own are not necessarily invalid. When it comes to revealing racial injustice to all, we must come from a place of love and common humanity.
Admittedly, what this looks like in practice is difficult to say. All I can say for certain is we must be careful of prioritizing the perfect over the good. Social change (especially the type that our current race relations demand) very rarely happens all at once. Before we can hope to change racially-prejudiced or apathetic minds, we have to understand the contexts that inform those beliefs. And frustrating as it is, the process of truly understanding those contexts is a slow one.
So, no. “I Am Not Your Negro”, though compelling and important, will not heal the racial divide or ignorance of privilege alone. Like it or not, the progressive movement will have to contend with ‘white fragility’ for the foreseeable future. Turning up our nose at the nuance and context that creates it because we are ‘woke’ accomplishes very little.