I was an inquisitive child. My grandmother called me nosy, but I like to think I had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. I would often ask questions that were answered with, “It’s none of your business.”
“Why did he never marry?”
“It’s none of your business.”
“Why does she have so many friends?”
“It’s none of your business.”
Sometimes, when my questions became too invasive, she would end those conversations with a simple statement: “Stay out of grown folks’ business.”
I knew then that I needed to fall back. The use of that phraseology informed me that I’d overstepped my boundaries by venturing into an area off-limits for someone with my limited experience. It said I was ill-equipped to comment on the subject at hand.
This is a lesson some white folks need to learn. Their socialization in a culture permeated by white supremacy makes many think they have the right to participate in conversations where they do not. A recent example of this is when Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams referred to Stephen Curry and other players for the Golden State Warriors as “little monkeys.” Instead of allowing those who might be offended to voice their concern and lead the discussion, many felt the need to jump into the conversation and defend Adams by referencing his New Zealand heritage—as if white supremacy is only an American phenomenon. It's not.
Bell hooks prefers the term “white supremacy” to “racism,” as do I. In a public lecture for the Media Education Foundation (pdf), she says:
[R]acism in and of itself did not really allow for a discourse of colonization and decolonization, the recognition of the internalized racism within people of color and it was always in a sense keeping things at the level at which whiteness and white people remained at the center of the discussion. … In my classroom I might say to students that you know that when we use the term white supremacy it doesn’t just evoke white people, it evokes a political world that we can all frame ourselves in relationship to …
White supremacy is no indictment of any one person but, rather, an indictment of a system that permeates life in the West. It is as ubiquitous and invisible as the air we breathe. In fact, many white folks are so accustomed to this system that they notice its existence only when it is not prioritized. Statements like “Muhammad Ali transcended race” are but linguistic expressions of this notion. The unspoken premise is that blackness is something to overcome—something of which one should be ashamed.
When Beyoncé released the song “Formation,” many white folks lost their minds. They could not understand the cultural references embedded in the song. They did not understand why she would release a song that was just so damn black. “Think about the white people,” one could almost hear some say. When she performed the song during the Super Bowl halftime show while paying homage to the Black Panthers, the message became clear: White people, this is not for you.
This message was further cemented when she released Lemonade. The sonics of the album and visuals are a musical tour through black music and culture. The arguably biggest pop star in the world made an album that forces those who listen to come to terms with the fact that the woman they’ve tried to say transcended race is, in fact, black. This frustrated pundits like Piers Morgan, but again, this music is not made for him. If he appreciates it, fine; yet to try to understand the album while centered in whiteness is to miss the point.
Beyoncé made the conscious choice to decenter white expectations and center blackness unapologetically. The fact that she does this while remaining brilliant and relevant frustrates many, but it is time that those invested in white supremacy come to terms with the fact that things will never go back to the way they were. Beyoncé and other artists like Kendrick Lamar have shown us that one can make music that centers a black aesthetic while still achieving commercial success.
Things are changing. Black folks are beginning to no longer center whiteness in their dress, speech and lifestyle choices. We are not biting our tongues when we disagree with our white cohorts. From protests against police brutality to sit-ins about curriculums taught at universities, black millennials are forcing those in power to address their concerns—and the backlash has been vocal and violent.
The rise of Donald Trump represents an unapologetic white supremacist response to movements like #BlackLivesMatter and the presidency of Barack Obama. The frustration that many white men and women feel with the declining significance of whiteness is what compels so many to subscribe to his brand of nationalism. Yet that is not the only place where white supremacy rears its ugly head. Even in progressive circles, the specter of white supremacy is present.
Bernie Sanders supporters engage in behavior rooted in white supremacy when black folks do not vote the way they would prefer, and Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of BLM protesters, her record in Haiti and her support for the death penalty show that she is firmly centered in white privilege. Yet despite these unappealing choices, millennial black activists continue to agitate for change instead of politely asking those in power to address their concerns.
Many white folks are displeased with this agitation. They want the vocalizations of protests to be polite and cordial. They want those fighting against a violent system to do so with peaceable words and temperate actions. My response? Who the hell asked you what you wanted? You’re not the ones dying in the streets or being jailed for being a voice for the voiceless. The time has come for white folks, ally or not, to understand that some of the conversations happening in the black community, some of the music coming out of the black community and the behavior of black folks are simply not your concern.
My grandmother had to put me in my place. She taught me the invaluable lesson that there are some things about which I just need to be quiet. In the same way that cisgender conservative Christians might need to slow their roll when they feel the need to say things like, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner” in response to the tragic mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., some white folks also need to fall back when black folks debate what is best for our community.
Lawrence Ware is a progressive writer in a conservative state. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Dissent magazine, he is also a contributing editor of NewBlackMan (in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been featured in the New York Times and discussed race and politics on HuffPost Live, NPR and Public Radio International. Ware’s book on the life and thought of C.L.R. James will be published by Verso Books in the fall of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.