Before I even get into this: If Black followers would like to comment on internalized oppression or POC practicing whiteness, then I wholeheartedly welcome it. I, however, as a white person do not have the right, reason, need, or lived experience to speak on such matters. Personally, I see a crucial distinction between acknowledging this phenomenon and actively battling it. I’m not taking Morgan Freeman to task directly because this is not my battle and it is not my job, nor is it the job of any white person to school POC on their ideas of race. I cringe every time I see Tim Wise on twitter going after POC for practicing white supremacy, because, quite frankly, he just comes off as racist. I firmly believe these specific discussions and confrontations belong in the communities they directly involve.
A dear Brazilian friend of mine who I met through political organizing last year messaged me this morning and told me this video of Morgan Freeman’s comments was going around on Brazilian facebook pages in response to a “Black Consciousness Week” held at the end of November in Brazil. Aside from making some excellent criticisms about the white middle class reception to this video, he also said he’d like to see a discussion on this topic engaged on the blog. I was inclined to agree, but I was more so skeptical and cautious as to how I would approach this issue. I personally believe silence is not a solution to race and racism, but I can only speak to this belief through my experience of white privilege. These comments have been circulating for some time, and as much as I think they serve as one good example of exactly what happens when people refuse to talk about race, I think there is more danger in terms of white folks righteously savoring the reflection of their own ideas in the spoken words of POC.
Everyone knows Morgan Freeman is not the only Black person on the planet, right? More importantly, everyone knows that he isn’t the only person of color on the planet, nor was he unanimously appointed to speak for all Black people… right?
I think whites might want to hesitate before we uphold the idea that dialogues on race and racism should stop because a single individual says they should, especially if we think this then gives us the license to say “a Black person said it should stop. SO THERE.” As my friend put it, there is no reason for whites (wherever they are) to defend this kind of argument as being universally valid simply because it was “authorized” by a single Black person. Racism is not an issue that is limited to Black vs white. When there are numerous and diverse ethnic identities that contend with numerous and diverse racial oppressions, whites need to take a long look at our “I don’t see race” mantles and the token POC we may have stacked there as our personal opinion trophies. I sense a double standard of whiteness at work when Morgan Freeman’s comments are privileged as incontrovertible truth, but the words of Malcolm X are dismissed as extremist ramblings that pose a “threat to homeland security.” Why would whites have either the interest or the investment in one position over the other? Because one position works to our advantage and reinforces our privilege while the other does not.
I have no disrespect for Mr. Freeman, but with the undeniable reality that I would still be a dumb white motherfucker had I not been exposed to discourses on race and racism, I have to respectfully disagree. I cannot discuss why this kind of thinking might be damaging to POC because I am not a person of color. What I can do, is use my stories to explain why this kind of thinking is ultimately beneficial to and in the interest of white supremacy.
I vividly remember what I’m going to call the ‘white awakening’ I had my first quarter of college in the Ethnic Studies department. Prompts for our midterm papers were being handed around in class, and I was sitting comfortably with my usual expectations of academic exercises. In other words, I was going to breeze through whatever 5-6 pages this would be while remaining as neutral as I’d always been as a student. This white arrogance had no idea what the fuck to do with itself once I actually read the prompt. “Tell your personal migration narratives of contact with the United States and explain how this has shaped your ethnic identity.” I am still perfectly ignorant of many things, but in this particular context, this is how ignorant I was at the time: I went home in crisis. I had a self-indulgent meltdown where I unleashed white panic and stared at the prompt for who knows what amount of time. This isn’t an assignment for white people, I kept telling myself, how unfair. My first serious paper, and the first one ever that had asked me to examine my own ethnic identity, left me dumbfounded, directionless, and questioning my major.
It shocked me when, the next day in class, our TA revealed that my fellow desperate white students in crisis had collectively and immediately crowded her office to say to her what I wouldn’t say out loud. I will never forget what she said to the *entire class,* how she said it, and how this changed my thinking forever:
“I have news for you, white folks. YOU HAVE RACE. Understand that white is a race too and it’s socially constructed too. Yall are related to European immigrants, so don’t give me this shit about how you can’t talk about your migration patterns and ethnic identities.”
For me, this was the single card an important person pulled to bring the whole house of cards down. I have made mistakes and I have been wrong, I will continue to make mistakes and I will continue to be wrong. But had this moment not happened, had the radical power of words not existed, I would have remained locked into the great white ignorance that still controls this country and most of the planet. This state of mind would not have been good just for me; it’s good for whites in general.
At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I would say it’s not really Morgan Freeman who whites are agreeing with. When we use comments like these to defend colorblind thinking while we simultaneously reject or attack the ideas of radical POC, we are ultimately validating our own ideas and agreeing with ourselves. When we are at this point, it doesn’t matter that Morgan Freeman is Black; what matters is that his words are not threatening to our whiteness, while the words of Malcolm X or Angela Davis are perceived as highly threatening in this regard. The suggestion that we stop talking about race and racism prevents us from staring white supremacy in the eye behind its white hood, which means we must stare into a mirror, rather than look away and assume we were right all along. It is always easier to never speak of something again than it is to face its ugliness every day.