The White People in the Comments
According to writer Gyles Brandreth, the average person speaks around 860,341,500 words during their lifetime. If you start talking at one and live to be 80, that’s about 30,000 words a day.
Most will be forgotten by everybody, including you, as soon as they’re out of your mouth. Others will stick around for a few weeks before drifting into obscurity. But now and then, someone says something we’ll remember for years or even generations afterward. Their words express just the right idea, in just the right way, at just the right time.
If you ask me, there’s no better example of this than Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Nearly everyone knows this speech. Black people know it. White people know it. Racists know it. Even if you don’t have it memorised, it’s almost impossible to hear the words “I have a dream” and not mentally add some version of the next 98:
“…that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification,” one day right there in Alabama little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little White boys and White girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.”
Almost 58 years after Dr. King spoke these words, I hear his voice in my head when I read them. While segregation and Jim Crow weaponised his own skin against him, he gave us his dream of a better future.
Thirty-thousand words every day. How many have ever been better used than that?
Misguided anti-racism already makes genuine anti-racism look ridiculous.
Last month, I devoted a thousand far less remarkable words to an article about anti-racism. The response was overwhelmingly positive, which is always nice, but it made a few people surprisingly angry. Nearly all of them, Black and White, began their criticism with some version of the following:
“The White people in the comments seem to agree with you, but…”
I understand what they’re worried about, at least in theory. It’s easy to imagine how pointing out the flaws in modern anti-racism could encourage some people to ridicule the valuable work that’s being done along with it.
What’s not so easy to imagine is that people aren’t already doing this. Misguided anti-racism already makes genuine anti-racism look ridiculous.
But there’s a far more serious flaw in this line of “reasoning.” If we’re ever going to live in a world where we stop judging each other by the colour of our skin, WE’RE GOING TO HAVE TO STOP JUDGING EACH OTHER BY THE COLOUR OF OUR SKIN.
The implicit assumption in these comments is that if White people agree with the message, there must be something wrong with it. Unsurprisingly, these commenters overlooked the uppity Black people who agreed — including the one who wrote the article.
After all, it’s believed we should elevate Black voices, but only when they support the right narrative. Our lived experiences should be heard, but only when they portray Blackness as endless suffering. Our opinions matter, but only when we affirm the belief that all Black people think the same. When we remind the world that we’re whole human beings — capable of reasoning, nuance, and making mistakes — suddenly our thoughts seem nonessential to these people.
Articles about race should enforce the belief that to be Black is to live in a constant state of fear and oppression. They should make Black people feel angry, helpless, and victimised. Or ideally, some combination of the three. We’re getting so used to this idea that some see any other message as anti-Black. But what does this achieve? Does it bring us closer to Dr. King’s dream? Does it improve the life of even a single Black person? Does it heal any of the harm done?
I’m not interested in adding to that body of work. Anyone looking for those feelings can, unfortunately, find them all over the internet.
When I write about racism, I only really have two questions in mind. What does a world without this ridiculous prejudice look like? And how do we get there as quickly and painlessly as possible?
If your first instinct when hearing an idea is to figure out the skin colour of the people who agree, I’d encourage you to ask yourself the same questions.
We should look at racists as crackpots, as people so dangerously confused that they believe that the amount of melanin in a person’s skin says something about their character. Dr. King explained how senseless this was 58 years ago. Yet we still behave as if the antidote to racism is to lean further into that same confusion.
Are we closer to a world without racism now that Booker Prize-winning author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was pressured into refusing to translate Amanda Gorman’s poetry (even though Gorman made the selection herself) because “a White translator shouldn’t translate a Black writer?”
Will little Black boys and little Black girls see themselves as equal when they’re taught that their skin colour makes it harder for them to “show their work” or focus on “getting the right answer?”
Will we leave racism in the past if enough multinational corporations run “anti-racism” trainings in which they ask employees to “try to be less White?”
Dr. King’s speech isn’t memorable only because it’s poignant, beautiful, and inspiring (though it is all of those things). It’s noteworthy because it’s a blueprint. It gives us a simple, actionable goal. It doesn’t hedge; it doesn’t allow for exceptions. It doesn’t use our skin to divide us into friends and foes.
When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, our ancestors didn’t refuse freedom because he was White. When Clyde Green fought the corrupt contracts that robbed Black people of their homes in the ’60s, he didn’t refuse Jack Macnamara’s help. When free Black people helped hundreds of slaves escape on the Underground Railroad, they didn’t reject the White abolitionists who risked their lives and freedom alongside them.
The enemy of anti-racism is racism. Period. Whoever practices it, whatever their skin colour, however they justify it. I will gladly join hands, as sisters and brothers, with anybody who opposes it. Countless words have already been used to explain this concept; I have a dream that one day it stops being necessary to do so.