The Question About Black Lives That People Should Stop Asking

Words are never “just words.” They are more than a collection of sounds to which we ascribe meaning. They are not just patterns of consonants and vowels that make sense to us. Our lips and tongues do not wrap around them only for those words to be spoken into a vacuum; that is impossible. After all, where there is language, there is civilization. Where there is civilization, there are narratives. And where there are narratives, there are contexts. Vacuums cannot exist where contexts are present.

239 years’ worth of narratives have been compiled in the history of the United States. And those narratives are accompanied by commentaries that give more insight or questions that probe for more information. The stories and experiences that are told about Black Americans are no exception. And with recent discourse surrounding their lives, there is one question in particular that is asked way too often, a question that often serves as a rebuttal to black people’s disdain with the police violence committed against them:

This is question is asked with the assumption that black people do not care about their own people. But, to put it bluntly, this question is completely unnecessary and incredibly racist. It derails a very much needed conversation about police brutality. It also reinforces the very real prejudices the United States has ascribed to black people. And in order to see this at work, we must look at the context in which this question is asked: a country that has and continues to humanize whiteness while it demonizes blackness.

Expanding Our Understanding of White Supremacy Beyond Mainstream Narratives

The mainstream understanding of white supremacy lends itself to be a static concept incapable of evolution. White supremacy is slavery, lynching, cross burning, and white hoods. It is always a conscious decision and overt one at that. And with things like desegregation and other elements of the Civil Rights movement, many people allude to these things as proof that present occurrences of racism are not systematic but random. They believe that since we have made many strides, black people or other people of color who cry “racism” are simply overreacting (i.e. “playing the race card”). However, we must consider how white supremacy is not always explicit as many would think:

The idea that White supremacy has given way to racial equality simply because we managed to violently overthrow its physical manifestation is poorly considered. It is worth noting that White power did not suffer an epiphany — suddenly realising the error of its ways and immediately forsaking its wickedness. We are witnessing a sophisticated evolution from domination by brute force to domination through seemingly colourless ideas and institutions. -Mai Jukwa, The Evolution of White Supremacy

We must also be aware of how white supremacy is more than just a belief system:

It is widely believed that white supremacy is a racist ideology of hatred promoted by marginal extremist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Nations. Often overlooked and neglected in this view are the structural inequalities that ensure the continued supremacy of whites over non-whites in all facets of social life. Also conveniently disregarded are the more subtle, yet frequent and numerous, manifestations of white supremacy that are woven into the fabric of [American] culture. In this sense, white supremacy is just as much of a social reality as it is an ideology. -Anthony Mustacich, White Supremacy: Exploring the Contours of Race and Power in America

It should also be noted that white supremacy is colorblind with regards to who can perpetuate it; it does not require that those who uphold it are white. It just requires that you are a willing participant in reinforcing its system. So when people (white, black, and any other race alike) ask “what about black on black crime,” they are, knowingly or not, aiding in its enforcement.

What you are really saying when you ask “what about black on black crime?”

When someone asks “what about black on black crime” because they feel like black people don’t care about the violence within their community, they have fallen for the oh-so-seductive idea that if they are not seeing it, it is not happening. If this is you, consider this your reminder that you are not omniscient.

When someone asks “what about black on black crime,” they are asking for a performance. They are asking that black people demonstrate grief for them, placing their bets on the idea that black people’s investments against police brutality are at the expense of caring about issues within their community. They see black people as dense, one-dimensional creatures incapable of caring about more than one thing at a time. After all, when white supremacy takes its hold, black people are not allowed nuance. They are not allowed the full recognition of their complex humanity nor the logical assumption that of course they care about their people. Despite the fact that homicides are largely intraracial among all racial groups due to proximity, black people are the ones that should do a song and dance to demonstrate their grief concerning the violence that happens in their community. But when white people murder white people, the disgust at such actions are assumed to be had by white people. This is because white people are allowed full humanity in white supremacist systems. They are allowed complexity and nuance in their identities. They are allowed forgiveness. They are given the benefit of the doubt that they care about the horrible atrocities committed by people of their race. They are not required to demonstrate their upset and the question “what about white-on-white crime” is never asked. In fact, when white people commit murders, the media manages to treat them better than black victims. When white people shoot up movie theaters, they become poster children for mental illness (which ends up stigmatizing those with mental illness). Black people are not afforded such treatment and must parade around to prove we care about our own.

And this right here demonstrates one of the foundational elements of white supremacy: the need for black people to overcompensate in their positive behavior in order to be seen as “good” by the white gaze while the goodness of white people is assumed regardless of their wrongdoings.

When someone asks “what about black on black crime,” they expect the news outlets to do the work for them in understanding the concerns about the black community. The same TV with news outlets that show the very limited concerns about the black community is the same TV that is at its very early stages of diversifying its portrayal of people of color. It is the same TV that endlessly plays the tired, repetitive narrative of Africa as a diseased, slum ridden country. It is the same TV that only recently awarded its first black woman for the “Best Actress” category in the Emmy’s. And these people expect, that by some incredible magic, the TV will serve them the breadth of concerns that are in the at the forefront in the minds of Black Americans. Black people are in the margins. American television is more mainstream than anything else. What they are doing is no different than expecting a soft serve vanilla ice cream machine to all of a sudden start serving them chocolate ice cream.

So what do we do?

To continue with the ice cream machine metaphor, the only way that the ice cream will go from serving vanilla to serving chocolate is if you open its lid, remove the nozzle that contains the vanilla ice cream, and replace it with the chocolate one. In other words, while it is up to media companies to truly diversify its content, it requires work on your part to have a fuller understanding of any marginalized community. It will require you to go outside your comfort zone and it will require you to do research that, fortunately for you, really isn’t that tedious because the information is literally a search engine away. I could go ahead and list the links about the various organizations that are against violence in black neighborhoods but that is not the point of this article. This is not an “a-HA! See? Look at these organizations” post. And such post should not even have to exist because 1) it shouldn’t surprise you that the black community cares about its intraracial violence and 2) if you are surprised, check yourself and really examine why it would be a novel concept that the black community (or any community for that matter) cares about the violence going on among its own people.

#BlackLivesMatter is one organization. It’s goal is to end police brutality against black people since they are targeted and overrepresented in police-related deaths. Someone saying “black on black crime should be their mission” is like saying that ovarian cancer organizations should start fighting against skin cancer; while both diseases are real threats to the body, this person only wants one issue to be fought (which is unproductive). Furthermore, such individual desires to change the original purpose of the organization. If you really think about it, this shows that if the original mission of the organization goes unresolved, this individual is okay with that. Just as there are ovarian cancer organizations, there are skin cancer organizations. Just as there are organizations aiming to end police violence against black people, there are organizations aiming to end violence between black people.

When black people say “what about black on black crime?”

It is one dynamic when a white person or a non-black person of color asks the question. It’s another dynamic when a black person says it (and a tragic one at that). Unless this black individual has completely ostracized himself or herself from the black community, literally all this person has to do is turn around. The movements are there. They have been there, not to mention the impassioned conversations, tears, and actions that are shown in our neighborhoods when these topics come up among black people. So if this is you, the question isn’t “what about black on black crime.” The question is “why have you not been listening?” And if you want the conversations to turn into a movement or demonstration in your specific neighborhood, what is stopping you from starting it? This is precisely what people did when they did not see #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations happening in their cities.

Moving Forward

There is a lot of stepping back that needs to be done here. There needs to be more self-examination and tangible action that leads to less ignorance and less perpetuation zero perpetuation of white supremacy in our speech. There needs to be a patriotism that drives people to hold the U.S. to a much higher standard in the way black people are portrayed and treated. And this can only happen if we take an honest look at the dominant narratives that drive the way black people are perceived. It requires that we get rid of the rose colored lenses and see the language used to talk about different people groups for what it is. It should force us to recognize that the “white on white” question is never asked nor are there demonstrations that advocate the end of white on white violence. It should make us realize that the most prevalent narratives in America about black people are negative. And the awareness of these realities and more should put all “post-racial” or “post-white supremacist” perceptions of the U.S. to rest. The fact that “what about black on black crime” is a question while “what about white on white crime” isn’t is evidence that America’s racism has not been completely purged. America can do better than this. So do better. ✌🏿

How else is racism perpetuated in the narratives that society ascribes for black people and other people of color? Let me know in the comments below.

RELATED: How to be Racist and Have Black Friends at the Same Time.

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