When we were asked, in our April Unpacking Whiteness circles, to talk about the ways in which white supremacy had hurt us (White people) the first thing that came to mind was my favorite NPR shows. I didn’t share that the group, in part because I was determined to let my answer be spontaneous once the circle came round to me and in part because, let’s face it, Capitalism is a more impressive answer than “Joshua Johnson.”
But I love Joshua Johnson. The 1A Friday news roundup has become my favorite news show, because of him. He brings on excellent reporters, from a variety of backgrounds, and they have real discussions about issues that matter to me. What sets it apart are Joshua’s humor and facilitation skills, his incorporation of cultural events, and the fact that he’s Black. A lot of the issues most prominent in my purview today are issues I’d just rather hear broached by a Black journalist (police shootings, reparations, Trump, economic inequality). And honestly, it makes me feel better hearing a Black man calmly discuss and laugh at the insanity of the world than it would a White man. It’s essentially meaningless when a White man laughs at the state of the world, because White men have pretty much always benefitted, whatever the swirling chaos around them. (I’m sure some of you believe we should not allow ourselves to laugh at the world, but I am not engaging with you on this. I get it, but you are not going to seduce me over to your side of the fence.)
But it’s not just Joshua Johnson, or Sam Sanders of It’s Been a Minute, or even the “Barbershop” segment on Weekend All Things Considered, where Michel Martin bounces the news of the week off of knowledgable POCs. It’s also the pure, off the chain joy of Lizzo, the cinematic depth of Jordan Peele, the all-around genius of Donald Glover, the breathtaking, brutal honesty of Claudia Rankine.
We have been fucking ourselves, people.
We’ve been looking at ourselves and our world with one eye closed for so long. The oppression of Black people has deprived all of us of inestimable riches. Some have always managed to claw their way through the muck and shine against all odds, but what would we have been privy too if all odds weren’t against them? What would we be blessed with now if the playing field had been equal?
We can’t just blame those who’ve shamelessly, openly worked to keep Black people down, whether through racial covenants, incarceration, strict White social standards, general dehumanization, etc. The “see no color” philosophy that was a big part of my childhood culture implicitly excused the exclusion of Black voices because we were “all the same.” You could have (and some definitely have) done the same with race theory: concluding that since race is a construct (true), drawing distinctions between races or calling attention to race as it exists today is meaningless (not true). Hell, everything we know is a construct. From the Buddhist perspective, there is no difference between me and the chair I’m sitting on. We draw distinctions because we need them to function (if I am the food, can I eat the food?) and we draw more and more complex identities in order to function in a human society. And the final, most visible glaze in that creation is the identities that society imposes upon us. They may not be permanent, but they are absolutely real.
My background is in theatre & literature, but I have never thought arts & culture so important as I see them today. So much of that is because of the way life as a Black person, particularly a Black person within a Black culture embedded in a White country, is being artistically expressed today, and particularly in popular media. What might have changed if Atlanta, Insecure, Blackish, and Empire (created by Black people) were all on TV when I was a kid, instead of just Sanford & Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons (created by White people)?
William Faulkner wrote this in a piece on desegregation in 1956:
The white man knows that only ninety years ago not one percent of the Negro race could own a deed to land, let alone read that deed; yet in only ninety years, although his only contact with a county courthouse is the window through which he pays the taxes for which he has no representation, he can own his land and farm it with inferior stock and worn-out tools and gear — equipment which any white man would starve with — and raise children and feed and clothe them and send them North where they can have equal scholastic opportunity, and end his life holding his head up because he owes no man, with even enough over to pay for his coffin and funeral.
That’s what the white man in the South is afraid of: that the Negro, who has done so much with no chance, might do so much more with an equal one that he might take the white man’s economy away from him, the Negro now the banker or the merchant or the planter and the white man the sharecropper or the tenant.
Segregation, racist policies, and the history of slavery are still defining features of the United States, and POC are still thriving in spite of it. It’s hard to imagine how much farther along we might be as a country and a species if we had extended full citizenship to everyone, ever. That’s the funny thing about white supremacists. If they really believe in the superiority of the “White Race,” they should be the biggest advocates for levelling the playing field, in order to prove their point. I don’t see a whole lot of that going on.