Swimming in a Sea of Whitenesss Makes It Hard to Breathe

A Perspective on Black History Month

On April 5, 1968, educator and anti-racism activist Jane Elliott did an experiment with her third grade elementary class. Disturbed by the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she wanted to do more than just talk about his death and the violence and injustice experienced by Negros. In her experiment she separated her all-white class by eye instead of skin color. She placed the blue eyes in one group and the brown eyes in another. The brown eyes were given special privileges while the blue eyes had their privileges removed and were looked down upon. Elliott was amazed how quickly her normally sweet brown eyes turn to ugly oppressors and how quickly the blue eyes started internalizing the labels placed upon them. What Elliott exposed in her simple experiment was how arbitrary racism is and how prevalent White Supremacy is in the lives of both Black and non-Black people. This exercise was only for a few hours. Can you imagine what a lifetime of being a brown eye would do?

It is difficult to understand what it feels like to be Black and an LGBTQ person. If you are not, however, here is my stab at it.

Being Black in America, a nation that rose to its meteoric heights by stealing Black bodies from Africa and around the world for free labor, is like having the oxygen needed for strong life diminished. We definitely have other groups who were exploited, such as all immigrant and ethnic minority groups. However, no other group was stripped of their homelands, stripped of their language, stripped of their culture, stripped of their religion and any remembrances of their ancestral power. Black people were also the only group who were considered not fully human. No other group in our country has experienced the same systemic levels of church-and-state sanctioned violence and depravity.

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Being Black and LGBTQ is like swimming in an ocean without the benefit of breathing equipment, buoys to rest at or welcoming shores. It is like being in rough waters without the benefit of Aquaman’s gills or the Greek god Poseidon’s trident to fight off enemies. Before you go there and suggest that Black people face challenges like everyone else, I ask you to consider these thoughts:

Being white in the sea that is America is like getting a set of gills handed to you at birth. You did not have to work for them; all you needed was the right complexion. Being white is like having safe havens provided for you that help ensure that when you have need, you will more readily be extended a lifeline. These lines come in the form of quality education, legal protections, access to opportunities, relationships that benefit you, inheritances of homes, businesses, money and other resources that came through the free labor we provided. Imagine what was lost through Black family separations during slavery, Jim Crow and yes, even today.  Poor families who may get a little help through welfare, are often denied the right of having the father in the home. Then imagine that your skin color gave other travelers the right to burden you with their trash, like heavy jail sentences for minor infractions, denial of good employment opportunities, poor access to quality healthcare and the burden of knowing your country does not prioritize you or your needs.

What is most offensive to me are those “well-meaning people” who suggest the reason Black people are not further ahead is because we are lazy, poorly educated by choice, angry all the time and always making excuses for why we are not further along in life. A more appropriate question might be, “How did any of them survive?  How did my Black colleagues, community partners, classmates, service providers and friends make it as far as they have with the burden of their Blackness ever present?” In the sea of White Supremacy that prevails in America, and particularly in our beloved North Carolina, think twice before you assume you know what it is to be Black in America.

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I close with a message to Black folks broadly. I believe now, these 402 years since we were ripped from our homelands, it is our time. We were brought to build a nation that repaid us by denying us much of the wealth and benefits it holds. Now is the time to break free. Whatever benefits we have, we had to fight for. Whatever privileges we enjoy, our skin did not help us attain them. I believe now is the time for Black people to reimagine a future that centers us on land and not in the sea of White Supremacy. It looks like building our own institutions. Establishing our own systems of education for our children. It looks like reading Holy Text that does not center a White Jesus with blue eyes instead one who looks like the man of color he actually was.

I am proud of the contributions my people have made to this great nation.  Now is our time to unapologetically claim what is ours as free people. To those who feel reparations to the ancestors of slaves is too much to ask, we must say, “return every benefit you gained from our ancestors, and we won’t ask for any payment for what our ancestors did to make those benefits possible.” Now is our time to name and embrace new narratives, not about who we are not, but about what we can be. We will swim on our own terms, and when we do, we will be well-equipped for the journey.

Bishop Tonyia M. Rawls is founder of The Freedom Center for Social Justice, pastor of Sacred Souls United Church of Christ and inaugural chair of the NC NAACP’s Executive Board LGBTQ Committee.

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