Belated Reflections on MLK Day

19 Jan

*Author’s note: This was written by a white person of privilege, living in a society of institutionalized racism and white supremacy. As a white member of this culture, I receive material, emotional, and psychological benefits from this unjust arrangement of power, and have undoubtedly internalized this racism. For me to speak on race is to speak from an undeserved position of white privilege; despite my efforts, I do not believe that I can fully disentangle myself from that privilege when speaking about it.

The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. means many different things to many different people. We evoke his name when speaking about everything from civil disobedience and direct action to racial inequality and oppression. He is rightly regarded and remembered as a hero for his dedication to justice and for his courage.

However, the celebration of MLK and his legacy is often twisted and subtly reformed by white members of this culture. Rather than remembering the oppression (at the white, bloodstained hands of this culture) against people of color and their strength in working to overcome it, the white-constructed narratives surrounding the Civil Rights movement and MLK often attempt to define our modern world as a “post-racial” one.

The result is MLK celebrations dominated by white speakers. The result is discussion of the Civil Rights movement and MLK as strictly historical figures, rather than as contemporary issues and struggles applicable and relevant to ongoing white supremacy within this culture. The result is a sense―among whites, as I can only speak from the white experience―of “whew! Thank goodness Dr. King came along and fixed all that discrimination stuff!”

Don’t get me wrong; that’s not to say that we shouldn’t celebrate or remember Dr. King. We should. And that’s not to say that we shouldn’t study and discuss the Civil Rights movement; we should. And of course it’s wonderful that Dr. King made great strides against oppression by the dominant white culture; what was being done was beyond awful.

My point is that as white people, we all too often pretend (or try to pretend) that Dr. King’s was the last chapter in the story of racial oppression against people of color. And this narrative, the narrative that “things are better now”, is nothing new. Just as more than 90% of white folks now believe that racial discrimination is NOT a serious issue in the United States, 80% of white people asked in 1963 said people of color were treated fairly.

A recent survey found that white folks are TWICE as likely to believe that Elvis Presley might still be alive than they (we) are to believe that racial discrimination is still a significant problem. In the words of Tim Wise, “That is denial so profound as to boggle the mind. But there it is.”

This denial by whites of white privilege–the unjust advantage we receive at birth for no other reason than that we are born white–is in itself an agent of the perpetuation of white supremacy. For a insightful and elegantly concise examination of this, check out the harshbrowns blog.

Good White Person Certificate--reposted from

Pretending that racism isn’t woven deeply into our society isn’t just dishonest, it actively perpetuates and countenances the further oppression of people of color. As harshbrowns writes, denying racism on the personal (and I would add cultural) level actively denies the experiences of those who experience racism. In her words, “How could you NOT be racist? We have all been raised in a white supremacy and we have all internalized racism. We are all racist.”
In this context, justice is much more than muttered acknowledgements that wrongs were committed in the past. Justice is doing what is necessary to write those wrongs, and in the case of our culture of white supremacy and internalized racism, justice means dismantling that culture and deconstructing those internalized narratives.
For many of those of us who are white, the idea of this alone is enough to bring on whimperings of discomfort. Why wouldn’t it? One of the core tenets of white privilege is the privilege to not discuss your privilege. But justice means doing what’s right, especially when it isn’t comfortable; in the words of Dr. King,

“Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.”

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