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Dr. David J. Leonard Headshot

An Open Letter to White America, Particularly White Youth

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This is not the first time I have written an open letter to you, and clearly my previous letters have not had the necessary impact. Despite history lesson after history lesson, from a myriad of people, certain sh*t continues. Despite reminders that Blackface is never funny, the "N-Word" should never be uttered in any context, and making jokes about racial violence, domestic violence, or sexual violence is never okay. They are all forms of violence that continue to be perpetuated and celebrated each and every day. While the racism, sexism, and homophobia evident in these social spaces and at GOP political rallies are nothing new, the justification, the denial, and the overall societal complacency about racism (and sexism) because our president is black, speaks to a broader issue confronting America.

I know how hard conversations about race can be, and how invariably these conversations lead to claims about the "race card" or it being "just a joke," and I know the defensiveness that ensues, but if not now, when? Today I read about a horrible and disheartening example of American racism. At a pep rally at Waverly High School, which is located in Upstate New York and is 97% white, three white students decided to put on a skit involving blackface, simulation of domestic violence, and a disgusting level of callousness. The sight of students in blackface, as if that makes them look like Chris Brown and Rihanna as opposed to Al Jolson and Shirley Temple, is yet another reminder that we have a long way to go with race. And when I say "we," I mean white America. The sight of a skit designed to mock and find humor in domestic violence is evidence of a misogynistic culture that sanctions and promotes violence against women. Within the United States, a woman is assaulted or beaten every 9 seconds; "Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women." In fact, 1 in 5 teenage girls reports having a boyfriend who threatened violence at the prospects of a breakup. So spare me "it's just a joke" or "relax" responses. It isn't funny; is reprehensible, sickening, and should be condemned nationwide. And while "it" is the skit and the response (yes, those in the comments section), it is also a racist and sexist culture that perpetuates these daily examples of violence. I am angry and wonder why you aren't similarly outraged, so I am going to make it plain.

There is no acceptable reason to ever don Blackface. It's not a joke, it ain't funny, and it's not some creative license that adds to the value of your artistic endeavors. Blackface has a long tradition that is part and parcel with white supremacy. It is part of a history of dehumanization, of denied citizenship, and efforts to rationalize, excuse, and justify state violence. From lynchings or mass incarceration, white supremacy has utilized dehumanization as part of its moral and legal justification for violence. Spare me your reference to "White Chicks," the Chappelle Show. Stop with your references to satire. Spare me your dismissive arguments about intent and not being racially motivated. Blackface is part of the violent history of white supremacy. If you don't know, now you know, and if you still don't know, go here or here.

While we are on the subject, there is no place for racist costumes that dehumanize and demean, that mock and ridicule, that stereotype and otherwise reenact a larger history of racism. As the students at Ohio University reminded us this year, they "are a culture, not a costume." Were you not listening or just don't care? The costumes have to go along with those theme parties. I am talking about "ghetto parties, "cowboy and Indian parties," "pimp and ho parties," "South of the Border parties or any number of gatherings that see humor in mocking and demeaning others. If dressing up "as janitors, female gangsters and pregnant women" for Cinco de Mayo is in your plans or a Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration includes a "gangsta party," or Black History month is celebrated with the most disturbing stereotypes, it's time to reevaluate. Just say no!

Can you also please stop with the impressions of "black people"? The racist caricatures and the imitations of Flava Flav (stop saying "kicking ballistics, boy") are not cool--the sideways hats or saggin pants. Lets wipe the slate clean of "colored people," "jungle fever," "super-awesome afro," and "one of my best friends is black."

Tim Wise notes that talking about privilege is like asking a fish about water. White privilege surrounds us and is yet unconsidered by whites. It is evident in the ease of donning blackface, with the comfort of mocking black people and other communities of color, and with the professed ignorance about black history and culture. It isn't that we don't know, it is the pride in not knowing that embodies an attitude of disrespect and devaluing. White privilege is the acceptance of racist jokes and the perpetuation of false ideas about race. It is the sitting in a crowd while whites in blackface mock and dehumanize, while white youth find power and pleasure in reacting to the violence felt by a young woman of color. Why is their pleasure in becoming "the violent black man"? Why is their pleasure in watching a skit that reacts the abuse of a black woman? What sort of privilege allows one to find pleasure in this spectacle, to sit on one hands and ultimately actively defend this atrocity?

While I have your attention, I think I should say that there is never a time where "jokes" are okay about domestic or sexual violence. While I don't buy that this is a JOKE, I don't really care because of the cost and consequences. To defend this skit, or the decision from male student(s) at Miami of Ohio to create a "Top Ten Ways to Get Away with Rape" with references to intent is pure and simple denial and defense. This is about white privilege; it's about male privilege; it's about power--the power to dehumanize, disrespect, and devalue. It's about the power and pleasure garnered from mocking and perpetuating a society of violence.

White privilege (and male privilege) doesn't have to enable blackface, dehumanizing impressions and commercialization of the Other. It can be resistance, refusal to be silent, and an unwillingness to sit idly by amid a culture of disrespect and violence. So, the next time you hear a racist joke or think about donning Blackface, or have friends who are planning some SMH event, do something. The next time you hear a "rape joke" or see someone finding pleasure in the sight of domestic violence, speak up. The next time you see discrimination or read about inequalities within our health care system, housing, employment or prisons, just say no. That sh*t ain't funny and it ain't just a joke.

Just so you don't leave all mad shouting he is "calling me a racist." I ain't playing that game. This isn't a "what you are conversation" but better "what you did conversation." So, if what I am writing about here doesn't connect with you, because you have never said or heard a racist joke, because you haven't accepted a stereotype, because you haven't dressed up or been at a party with racist costumes, or sat idly by, I guess I am not writing to you. But I have a hard time believing you haven't participated or enabled racism, sexism, or homophobia. Ignorance is not a defense. The ability to be ignorant, to be unaware of the history and consequences of racial bigotry, and misogyny, to simply do as one pleases, is a quintessential element of privilege. The ability to disparage, to demonize, to ridicule, and to engage in racially hurtful practices from the comfort of one's segregated neighborhoods and racially homogeneous schools reflects both privilege and power. The ability to blame others for being oversensitive, for playing the race card, or for making much ado about nothing are privileges codified structurally and culturally. Blackface or jokes about domestic violence or rape are never a neutral form of entertainment, but loaded sites for the production of damaging stereotypes and violent images...the same stereotypes that undergird individual and state violence, American racism, and a centuries worth of injustice.

Seriously, I am tired of that conversation hoping it is time for the "what can we do conversation" and "maybe we should start listening conversation," 'cause the conversations we are having are getting tiresome, but not as much as the daily reminders that we are closer to Newt's moon colony than to a post-racial America

This piece includes parts of a previously published piece from Urban Cusp as well as a piece from Huffington Post