Phillips: Stop patting yourselves on the back, ‘woke’ white people

Ruby Phillips, Op-Ed Contributor

In October, I sat in a packed room in Harris Hall listening to Barbara Ransby, the Allison Davis Lecture Series speaker. I was excited to see so many white students in the audience, but I felt a twinge of frustration as I wondered how many of them still sing the n-word in Kanye West’s songs, as I have witnessed at countless frat parties, or gloss over historic racism with the reductive phrases such as “we are all human” or “we’re living in a post-racial society.”

Ransby’s lecture pinpointed the platform, methods, goals, benefits and problems with the Movement for Black Lives, putting it in a larger historical context of other social movements. Unlike the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which is romanticized in history textbooks, the Movement for Black Lives is constantly changing, which is one of its greatest strengths. While some of the most overblown criticisms have come from the right, calling black lives matter a “murder movement” and a “hate group,” there is another problematic segment of commentators: self-congratulatory, if well-meaning, white liberals. These supposed allies, common if not abundant on our campus, often stick to hashtags instead of truly showing up for black lives. They don’t call out friends who make offensive comments or jokes, and rarely participate in the movement. They do not realize the value and power of the movement’s radical, intersectional call for self-love.

In the wake of the election, I have heard people express desire for a new organization for social change, a group that can start a revolution. But the Movement for Black Lives has been doing this and will continue to do so under Trump’s presidency. If white people weren’t so blinded by misconceptions of the movement on the right or slacktivism on the left, they could recognize that not only does the Movement for Black Lives affect and benefit those they love, but it also reignites a new political discourse that centers on institutional inequality and self-love. This is the movement we have all been waiting for.

This movement goes far beyond police brutality and mass incarceration. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Movement for Black Lives stands for so much more than just black people: It fights for the rights of women and immigrants and those who are queer, trans, gender-nonconforming, Muslim, formerly and currently incarcerated, cash poor and working class, disabled and undocumented. It recognizes intersectionality between class, race, gender and sexuality. But beyond this, the movement represents a cry for the appreciation of black people and black excellence. The Movement for Black Lives and hashtag #blacklivesmatter encourage a reclamation of the black identity in mass media. Even the title itself refers to how the movement was born out of love for black people.

The impact of #blacklivesmatter on political rhetoric is obvious: Expressions like “systemic racism” have entered the political rhetoric of presidential candidates during prime-time debates. Without this movement, it wouldn’t be cool to be “woke” or socially conscious. Yet it is still far too easy for liberal white people to write the hashtag after another black man is brutally murdered by the police and then continue to go about their days. Hopefully it will soon become just as cool to actually show up for black lives beyond just a hashtag or show of social solidarity.

As a person of color, watching the country fill up with red states on election night made me feel despondent. It is the feeling that shows me that this country wasn’t built for me. It was the same feeling I had when I watched Eric Garner get the life squeezed out of him. It was the same feeling I had when George Zimmerman was acquitted. It made me want to rip all of my hair out, fall on the floor and scream. Every person of color has probably felt this way at least once. But black people didn’t need to see a man die on television to know that institutionalized racism exists or see Trump get elected to realize that racism and bigotry prevail in this country.

Swallowing our anger and masking our frustration has become a routine throughout history. But the Movement for Black Lives is unapologetic. It doesn’t condemn black rage, nor does it pander to uncomfortable white people, liberal or conservative. The movement allows the very real frustration that should come with oppression –– no respectability politics allowed. It doesn’t depict only cis-black men in suits walking on a bridge and holding hands. Today’s movement is not the one of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, even though white liberals may be more comfortable talking about sit-ins and Freedom Rides. I have heard plenty of liberal white supporters of the movement criticize how, where and when protests take place. If we are to truly support the Movement for Black Lives, many white students must let go of the idea that all protests should and do look the same.

Black people are resilient and prosperous even after having been cast aside, appropriated, ghettoized and demeaned. I am grateful for the Movement for Black Lives because it gives black people something to believe in. I love being black; it is the best thing to be in the whole world. I will still love being black under a Trump presidency. I don’t know whether I could have said that unapologetically and in unison with millions of other voices before #blacklivesmatter.

Ruby Phillips is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.