Dear white people who “celebrate” MLK day,
Please do not ask me to hold hands with you while we all get teary eyed singing “We Shall Overcome” unless we can at least agree that a big part of what WE need to overcome lies in US. (Even then, we may not want to engage in this ritual but let’s at least start here.) Ever since MLK day became a holiday white America (and yes there is a white America and yes it does differ from non-white America) has been busy watering down and trivializing his legacy. We hear small clips from “I Have A Dream” and love the part about being judged by the “content of our character” and not the “color of our skin” because, when you listen to that all by itself, you can almost convince yourself that MLK himself would endorse our “colorblind” fantasies of race being a thing of the past and all we have to do is hold hands and sing “We Shall Overcome” once a year and it’s all good (which, btw, is why we maybe shouldn’t). But then there’s the rest of the speech, like the part about check marked “insufficient funds.” Can we talk about that? Even if it means we might have to fund it? Just asking.
Can we read the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” along with its indictment of white people and churches and even liberals and face the facts that even those of us who make a big deal out of being “good people” have failed to be just in a most fundamental way when it really counted?
How about this quote? “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”
So, when we, as white people, say WE shall overcome, what is it we are overcoming if not our own ignorance, our own internalized privilege, and our own sense of superiority?
I know this is an uncomfortable conversation to have. Part of the reason is, I think, so many of us think admitting to white privilege means saying we are bad people (and let’s not even get started on what admitting to a legacy of white supremacy might do!) I keep pondering the reasons why overcoming racism is so hard for us as white people and I think it all boils down to shame. Deep down we know something is wrong, but we are too ashamed to admit it. It threatens our sense of goodness and even our deeper sense of self worth.
So let’s look at that. Does admitting to the racial ignorance and sense of superiority MLK accused us of having mean we are bad or worthless as people? Actually, I would say the opposite is true. I think being willing to admit these things, and then WORK to OVERCOME them is a sign of recognizing one’s own true worth.
James Weldon Johnson said “in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.” I believe my own soul is worth saving. That is why I choose to do the work and invite you to join me. So, instead of holding hands one more time and singing that song one more time, how about we REALLY try to overcome something, starting with ourselves?