June 24, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Don’t Stand With Me! Stand In Your Lane and Do Right!

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The global fury unleashed against police brutality and anti-Black racism in the United States is unabated. As Gil Scott-Heron once said, “America is once again in shock! America leads the world in shocks. Unfortunately, America does not lead the world in deciphering the causes of shocks.” The country has been forced, once again, to do some soul-searching intended, presumably, to decipher the cause of this shock. It is unlikely that this search is deep. One reason that our country does not seek to probe too deeply into its soul is a deep-seated fear of what it knows is waiting there: What it has done to its black citizens from when it defined them as three-fifths of a human at its founding to the killing of George Floyd four weeks ago constitutes a pattern in which blacks continue to be denied full citizenship in America’s space.

This reluctance to search deep is on display again. Now, I focus on my colleagues in academia and what I take to be our enactment of this reluctance as we eagerly proclaim our solidarity with Black people in the wake of Floyd’s killing.

This is for my white, liberal, progressive, conservative and whatchamacallit colleagues. In your response to the ongoing protests and the immediate killing of a Black man by state agents that triggered it, please, for the sake of common decency and humanity that we all share, stop telling me you “stand with me,” or “stand with our African American community,” or “stand with the Black communities” or whatever variant of those responses you are inclined to share with me in person or at any of those meetings we hold now to comfort one another and which you, our institutions, even our corporations, take advantage of to proclaim how you are “standing with me.”

I beg of you: Don’t stand with me! Stand in your lane and stand with humanity. George Floyd ‘s death is a loss for his family first, his friends and associates next and, ultimately, for humanity.  How he died makes his death an indictment of the society that, by its contempt for Black humanity, brokered it. You are a part of that society and when you act as if you need “my stories” of “my being profiled by the police” or otherwise being at the receiving end of the anti-black racism that is woven into the fabric of American life to realize that Black life does not mean squat in this society, it is bad faith, par excellence.

Let me bring it closer to home. If you are in a department that, in this day and age, still behaves as if no Black person is qualified to be on its faculty, please work to correct that rather than gawk at my stories. If your department always looks to twist your Dean’s arm to get a “Target of Opportunity” position, a.k.a. “Affirmative Action” hires, please show that your black prospects are worth a regular position that counts against your future lines and treat them as the qualified hires that they are.  Don’t stand with us when you give us the impression that one is too many!

Do your children go to schools where Black teachers are a rarity and often caught in a revolving door of entry and exit, because of a hostile atmosphere beginning with isolation and fed by being the lone representative in a large staff? Please, stay in your lane and change that situation. Your sympathies do not do anything to change that situation. Teachers of color  that show students that Black teachers are not “special” might make future graduates think routinely of Blacks as humans, as messed up across the entire spectrum as all humanity and not special cases.

Stand in your lane and get your family members, friends and associates, to spare a moment to ask themselves why there is still so much room for dubious “Black firsts” in our country. Did Black people suddenly start getting smarter or more competent in sundry areas of life recently? If someone told you that since 1787, only two Black men have had the brains to sit on the Supreme Court, would you seriously consider the claim? Stay in your lane and get your folks — they have the power — to stop thinking that Blacks must be exceptional to be considered for what are otherwise routine remits.

As we say in my original homeland, sharing is no fun when one side brings nothing to the table. Work to ensure that we all bring something to the table and let us celebrate our shared humanity and its good, bad and ugly.  Stand with humanity by ensuring that segments of it are not permanently beggared as the rest of us assuage our guilt by gawking at their stories in the name of standing with them.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò is a professor at the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the summer.