Every black person has a story about racism. It might be about a chance encounter on holiday or being denied entry to our own home. It might be about the statistically improbable rate at which we’re “randomly selected” for additional screening or those awkward moments when a poorly thought out comment backfires.
If there’s such a thing as “the black experience”, these stories are a part of its oral tradition. A collection of life lessons, clapbacks, and cautionary tales through which we celebrate our victories and vent our frustrations. They’re in-jokes that provide a sense of community and solidarity. They’re touchstones that help us to navigate a world that doesn’t always treat us as it should.
These stories are a perfect example of black people’s ability to create something powerful from something painful. But as with all good things, it’s possible to have too much. And lately, we’ve had way too much.
Instead of being a source of healing, we see desperate attempts to display imagined wounds. Instead of condemning those who judge us by the colour of our skin, we gleefully judge other people by the colour of theirs. Instead of talking about the trials and the triumphs of life as a black person, our stories only seem to have value when they can be shoehorned into a racist narrative.
So when Daunte Wright is tragically killed by a white police officer who mistook her gun for a taser, the diagnosis is racism instead of incompetence. When a white police officer shoots 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, it’s as if we’re reluctant to acknowledge that he saved a black teenager’s life by doing so. And when black people are killed in ways that can’t be blamed on racism, like 13-year-old Nyaira Givens, or 7-year-old Jaslyn Adams, or 11-month-old Dior Harris, well, chances are you haven’t heard about them at all.
The truth is, racism has become an industry. In just eight years, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, one of the founders of BLM, has become a multi-millionaire. Writers like Ibram X Kendi and Robin DiAngelo rake in just as much insisting that racism is the answer to every question. Martin Roe and Trayvon Free just won an Oscar for a short film that was eloquently described as “black trauma porn”.
We’ve gotten so used to seeing black people as caricatures that when we’re portrayed in a way that doesn’t lean into racial stereotypes, the chief of diversity at the BBC claims we “aren’t black enough to be real”.
The books we read, the shows we watch, the lessons our children learn in school, everybody is getting a piece of the action. In fact, the only people who aren’t benefiting from this lopsided view of race are the people whose worldview is being warped by it.
Children like the 11-year-old son of Ndona Muboyayi. Once an aspiring lawyer, he came home from school one day feeling hopeless. “But Mommy,” he said, “there are these systems put in place that prevent black people from accomplishing anything”. Why isn’t his school teaching him about Macon Bolling Allen or Charlotte E. Ray or Thurgood Marshall?
Or young adults like 18-year-old William Clark, a biracial student with a black mother who was threatened with a failing grade in his high school sociology class for refusing to confess to the “white dominance” passed to him by his white father. Would those teachers demand the same of Lisa Bonet or Barack Obama or Bob Marley?
There are the black survey respondents who lost confidence in their ability to control their destiny after reading a single passage describing the black experience through the lens of Critical Race Theory. Why aren’t they reading James Baldwinor Maya Angelou or Thomas Sowell instead?
Focusing on our struggles while ignoring our progress teaches black children that they’re doomed to fail. Blaming them for the sins of their ancestors teaches them to be ashamed of who they are. Insisting that they’re powerless ensures that some number of them will live their lives mistakenly believing that they are.
Seriously, how is there a single person who doesn’t understand this?
To be clear, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t talk about racism. Of course not. I’m saying that racism shouldn’t be all we talk about. I’m saying that our lives should still matter when a white police officer doesn’t pull the trigger. I’m saying that our movies should portray us as more than racial stereotypes. I’m saying that we should be wary of anybody who makes a living by stoking the flames of our outrage.
Yes, every black person has a story about racism, but we have other stories too. We have stories about achieving goals and other-wordly success. We have stories about unconventional families and unlikely friends. We have stories about how we wish we could all get along and about how, with enough time, we can.
We have stories that have nothing to do with pain or oppression or race and these stories are just as much a part of our oral tradition. They’re proof that the world isn’t against us on those days when it feels as if it is. They’re targets for future generations to aim at and surpass. They’re reminders to everybody who might need to be reminded, that black people have the same value and dignity and potential as everybody else.
Because — and this is important — black people are people. Our stories aren’t impossible to understand, our history doesn’t need to be compartmentalised, our character isn’t determined by the colour of our skin. Perhaps, when we all understand that, we’ll finally be done with stories about racism.