I am NOT Black, You are NOT White. That is the title of a video that has been making rounds on the internet and it easily caught my attention. In it, a man by the name of Prince Ea begins the video with his head bowed and raises his head slowly as the shadow in front of him begins to fade. He has dark skin and Afro textured hair yet he says in a gentle staccato, “I…am not…black. I mean…that’s what the world calls me.” He continues on about how labels like “black” have been “force fed” to us and that we never question them. And with the poetic flair that his videos are known for, he asserts that the problem with issues like racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and “all the other -isms” is so basic that we have missed it: it is the labels. And to bring the point home, he holds the hands of the racially and culturally diverse participants at the end of his video and says that we are all one.
It really does not need to be explained why the video is viral. With the emotionally stirring music, his poetry, his message of oneness, and his endorsement of the popular idea that labels are negative things, it has made millions feel warm and fuzzy on the inside. It has successfully given the euphoric high of imagining humans from all nationalities, ethnicities, and races as capable of not only coexisting with one another but loving one another. It suggests that labels are the singular reason for the aforementioned societal ills. And it purports that simply removing them from the cultural landscape will establish oneness throughout the world.
This is the seduction of Kumbaya advocacy: the recitation of phrases like “we are one” coupled with very simple solutions to complex societal issues.
It successfully paints any hint of cultural pride as unproductive. It believes that any activism for the equal treatment of a specific demographic is divisive. It demands oneness immediately without any discomfort. It is an example of putting the cart before the horse, desiring peace without any hard work to get there. It is the ultimate fantasy for the idealist who would rather spout out niceties of being one human race without addressing the real problems that affect those who feel the brunt of injustice.
With Kumbaya advocacy, highly nuanced identities are flattened into mere “labels” that can be tossed by the wayside. “White,” “Black,” “Irish,” and any such similar identities are the hindrances to human progress according to Prince Ea. Labels are insinuated to be naturally negative things as opposed to neutral concepts that humans can make good or bad; labels bear the responsibility instead of what we have done with them. And by making labels responsible and successfully painting them as negative things, we can actually end up creating more damage.
How Kumbaya Advocacy Hurts Me
Let us look at the label “black.” After all, I have been black all of my life. And for much of my childhood, I was shown through the overrepresentation of white people in the media and the underrepresentation of girls like me that white is best. With white people shown all over programing growing up, their roles could literally be anything. Meanwhile, the few black girls I saw were usually stereotypes in motion. It is one huge part of why I detested calling myself black. Instead, I clung to my African label as means of othering myself from Black Americans. However, it did not stop me from noticing the diverse roles white people played; their various roles taught me that white people could literally be anything they wanted to be. I also wanted to be anything so I aspired for white approval while detesting my blackness; I perceived it to be limiting. That is no longer the case and I have not one iota of shame in being black. Blackness is literally everywhere and experiencing and hearing stories of it being lived out in various cultural contexts provides thought-provoking fodder for discussion.
But that is a problem with Kumbaya advocacy. It does not give me the chance to reclaim my black identity that I have dragged through the mud; it does not let me dust it off. It does not let me explore its crevices. It does not let me admire its beauty.
It does not give me the chance to turn to the people who helped me drag that part of my identity and tell them, “That is not right.” It does not give me the ability to see the goodness in this part of myself that has historically and presently been used to demonize people who look like me. It does not provide a moment for healing when it is so desperately needed, an opportunity to examine my dark skin, my coarse jet black hair, my full lips, my broad nose, and the very life I lead as wonderful creations. It is far too unfortunate that Prince Ea sees removing the black label from himself as helpful, as if being black is a bad thing instead of how people have treated black people as less than because of their race. And it is in these realizations that Kumbaya advocacy quickly becomes everything but seductive to me.
#AllLivesMatter as a Form of Kumbaya advocacy
Several upon a times, people have told me ‘All Lives Matter.’ But in one incident when someone mentioned that phrase to me, I asked him to refer me to the All Lives Matter organization. I told him to show me where and how they have advocated for people of various backgrounds, including black people. Unsurprisingly, there was no response; no such organization exists after all. And it is highly bothersome that people recite such a statement not because of what it says, but because of how it functions in the larger scope of race dynamics: ‘All Lives Matter’ is only said is when people say that Black Lives Matter.
With countless organizations that are demographic-specific, Black Lives Matter is the organization that gets the ‘All Lives Matter’ treatment. Obviously, the phrase is not said out of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. And that is precisely one of the reasons why this phrase is so ironic.
When ridding “All Lives Matter” of the context in which it is normally used, it literally means every single life means something and as such, a movement that advocates for black lives should not be the antithesis to ‘All Lives Matter’; naturally, they should work in tandem. But ‘All Lives Matter’ is a grotesque refutation against Black Lives Matter. It is the vandalizing of Sandra Bland’s mural, an artistic tribute dedicated to a black woman whose mysterious death did not make sense to her family and others. And when ‘All Lives Matter’ is mentioned in conversation, it used to silence a movement for black people who are rightfully demanding to be treated equally by a law enforcement system that is sworn to protect.
What is mind-boggling to me about people who do not like the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ is that they behave as if the specificity in the name of any movement is brand new concept. ‘Free Palestine’ does not advocate for all countries; it advocates for Palestine. ‘Save the Whales’ does not vouch for all marine animals; it vouches for whales. People speaking out in these organizations are not doing so because other countries or other wildlife are meaningless; in fact, by speaking out about the part, you are inevitably helping the whole. But these strong implications randomly vanish into thin air once ‘Black Lives Matter’ comes into play. All of sudden, Black Lives Matter means white lives or police lives don’t matter when that is not the case. And here’s the thing: if 13% of a population ranks as the second to highest of reported police-related deaths when they are unarmed, that means that they are overrepresented in the police-induced death toll. That means that they are being targeted. They are part of a small demographic yet are overrepresented in such a lethal manner. Quite frankly, person has to be devoid of any type of empathy to assume that just because they do not experience institutionalized racism firsthand, it does not exist. And that brings me to my next point:
The irony of Kumbaya advocacy is that it is not advocacy at all.
It is not a profound statement that, at the end of the day, all of us are human beings; it is common knowledge. It is no surprise that despite our differences in social identities and practices, all of us are chasing the basic necessities required for human survival. It can be calming or comforting for some to admit this truth. In fact, it may create sense of unity among some people. But if our desire for unity is at the expense of addressing legitimate structural flaws that are dangerous at worst and lethal at best, it is not advocacy. It is akin to a doctor putting a bandaid on a skin cancer patient whose condition has metastasized. The doctor is part of the problem since they are simply covering the appearance of the issue, failing to address the root of patient’s condition, and refusing to come up with solutions that will best fight the cancer. In our case, the body is American society, the cancer is racism, and the bandaids are “there is only one race–the human race,” “all lives matter,” and any similar phrases said to silence pertinent racial discourse. No matter how pretty those words sound, if we are not taking measures to get rid of the inequality that exists in our governing systems, they mean nothing. They do nothing. They heal nothing. The cancerous issues of racism and other systematic issues that have infected our culture do not magically disappear once people stop talking about them.
The Heart of the Matter
Tackling any form of injustice requires work — hard, uncomfortable, tedious work. Racial injustice is no exception. It requires honest self-evaluation in determining if and/or how you help uphold an unjust system. It requires you to change certain habits that you thought were normal or inoffensive when they are actually microaggressions or demonstrations of covert racism. It also requires you to call out these kinds of actions when you witness them. It requires you to hold America to a higher standard of “liberty of justice for all.” Portraying racial and national identities as labels that need to be removed solves nothing. Colorblindness is no solution either. But actual steps in dismantling oppressive systems? That is a direct response. That is when “all lives matter” actually means something. And though all of the results of our efforts may not be seen within our lifetime, we will see some of the fruits of our labor slowly but surely, setting the next generation up to pick where we leave off.