I Ain’t Your Uncle Tom

“If you don't understand my record, you don't understand me, so this is not for you.'" — Master P, A Seat At The Table

Black Harvard

There's been a concerning trend of white people thinking their feelings matter.

To be more precise: there’s been a concerning trend of white people believing that their emotional reality is a morally relevant catalyst for racial liberation.

This trend is nothing new. It’s been around for as long as black bodies have been fighting for freedom. It looks something like this:

I’m a young black college student, and I’m talking to another college student—they’re white. The conversation meanders into race—the effect of racialized beauty standards on black youth, let’s say. I state my claim: “White supremacy has forced black people to hate the way they look. This must end.”

This white student vehemently disagrees. They say something to the effect of “Nothing like what you describe exists or has such an effect on black people. There is nothing to end.”

We’ve clearly dug ourselves into a standoff due to standpoint. They acknowledge this; they say “I suppose if I were black, I would feel these effects you speak of.” Then they say this: “Here, why don’t you help me truly feel what it’s like to be black and experience these effects! I’ll put myself in your shoes. And then, once I understand what you mean, I’ll do what I can to help!”

This may not seem like a very extraordinary statement. Our modern social justice movement is rooted in this sentiment. “Walk a mile in their shoes”, we’re told. “Understand.” And the unspoken threat, the “or else”: “Or else you cannot help them.”

Anyone who’s studied standpoint theory can tell you that they—standpoints—don’t change that easily. One can’t just wish one’s way to understanding what it means to be black, or femme, or undocumented. A white person can’t just watch “Precious”, cry, and suddenly identify with their black friends.

Try this: Take your white friend to watch “Twelve Years A Slave. After, sit them down. Look them dead in the eye. Then say, “You are a n***er.” They’ll feel uncomfortable, sure. Maybe even shaken. But now imagine if that same white person walked past you on the street and reminded you: “You are a n***er.”

See, oppression is something that happens to you. One can’t, through sheer force of will, recreate the experience of being black in a white supremacist world. So it doesn’t matter how many times a white person reads "The Fire Next Time” or how many black friends they have. They will never feel the sting of “n***er” etched into their forehead.

But what if they could? What if there was a way to, if not manufacture the direct experience, create an approximation that does the job? In fact, one might point to Jane Elliot, the Iowan schoolteacher who created the famous “blue-eye/brown-eye” experiment. In 1968, after the murder of Dr. King, Elliot decided to teach her students about racism by establishing a mini-hierarchy in the classroom. Students with blue eyes were given special privileges and rights, and those with brown were treated as second-class. The result? The white students gained a “new understanding” of how “awful” racism was, and thus, the assumption goes, became allies and supporters of black liberation.

This sounds like the answer to all our problems. But there’s an even deeper problem, one that the empathy approach fails to address. Elliot tried to help her students understand what it meant to be black by making them suffer as though they were black. In other words, she gave her students ownership of the black struggle. To convince her students that white supremacy was bad, she made them part of the ethical conundrum—not as bystanders or perpetrators, but as victims.

What does this mean? It means that modern-day progressivism is rooted in a egotistical belief that white people should only be expected to care about something when it affects them. Social progress has become the project of the oppressors, not the oppressed. It’s not enough for us to express our suffering. For anyone to give a damn, we have to make our suffering theirs. We have to allow white people to regain their place at the center of the moral universe.

We’ve abandoned any semblance of caring about others. Claims on our universality, claims on our humanness, have become a sly tactic by those in power to reappropriate social struggle. Unless it is about me, white people say, I won’t care. The impetus for liberation is no longer the wretched of the earth crying out for freedom. It is the sluggish, self-satisfied empathy of the privileged.

No, I ain’t your Uncle Tom. I will not scrape and dance and twist narratives so that you can assert yourself in the moral gymnastics our generation struggles through. I will not hand you the reins. I will present reality as it is. And you will step aside and let me have the liberation I, and millions like me, need to survive. If you can’t see why that matters, if you can’t divorce yourself from justice, then you’re part of the problem.

Nicholas P. Whittaker ’19 is a Philosophy concentrator living in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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