by Contributor Rebecca Lais
Why is it that those in the privileged majority (predominantly white people) fear the success of people of color? Is it that when the oppressed are empowered and flourishing that we, as the oppressors, fear our loss of power? Or perhaps it’s that people of color can only be successful, only be leaders, only have a voice if they operate within the status quo. Or that people of color are simply pawns, meant to be silent and never intended to disrupt our white normativity. Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, says, “…to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects.”
Consider the Tulsa Race Massacre (falsely labeled as a riot) of 1921. A thriving Black Wall Street in the Greenwood Downtown District is set on fire, burned to the ground, lives taken by white supremacists under the guise of a scandal between a black man and white woman (none of which was actually true). The alleged incident was just a distraction from the malicious intent: white people did not want to see black people successful and developing without their assistance. White people feared they would lose business, money, power, prestige because due to the progression of black leadership in society. After all, if those that we enslaved realize their potential, how will we maintain white dominance? And what if black people are just as intelligent if not more intelligent and gifted than us? How then will we rationalize the hateful and evil rhetoric of white elitism and perfection?
There will undoubtedly be the argument, “But look at famous people of color. Look at athletes, actors/actresses, musicians, etc. They have success, power and fame, and we don’t take that away from them.” While there are incredible people of color that have become famous for a myriad of reasons, they do not represent the majority. Not to mention, that once one of our famous celebrities of color speaks out against racism, bigotry, injustice, they’re labeled as “sons of bitches”, “a traitor to their country”, or that they come from “shithole countries.” And of course, we can’t forget the white “victims” who claim they were attacked outside Black Panther screenings because they couldn’t stand the reality that the first film with a Black director and mostly Black cast broke box office records at $25.2 million the first weekend of its release and over $420 million globally.
These are uncomfortable and unpopular questions to ask as white people of privilege. In order to do so, we must actually be willing to admit we are privileged and, whether implicit or explicit, we participate in the oppression of people of color. Daily. And living in a neighborhood with people of color or listening to NPR or seeing Black Panther and calling ourselves “woke” is not enough. If we are not dedicating ourselves to daily reflection and admission of our own biases, if we are not actively seeking wisdom and knowledge from those of color, if we are not standing against those of ignorance and those unwilling to face the present reality, we are merely mannequins for social justice. We dress the part and we look progressive, but we are immobile and inauthentic.
Paulo Freire also says, “The oppressors do not perceive their monopoly on having more as a privilege which dehumanizes others and themselves. They cannot see that, in the egoistic pursuit of having as a possessing class, they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have.” The white majority that refuses to acknowledge first, their own privilege and the inherent opportunities only their skin color has earned, second, their discomfort and fear of the success and power of people of color, and third, their hesitancy and refusal to co-create a world in which there is no longer an oppressed and an oppressor, is suffocating themselves in their own ignorance and hatred. There is no need for an oppressor and an oppressed. There is no need for a few selected individuals to maintain a majority of the wealth and power. It is only this way because we have made it so, and look where it has lead us…destruction and chaos.
No longer and no more. James Baldwin says, “To accept one’s past-one’s history- is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.” America is drowning in our history of oppression and injustice, and until we begin to face the demons inside the assumptions, biases, and lies, we are victims to our own destruction. The status-quo has never worked, is not working now, and never will. The white majority will soon no longer exist in this country. If when we think of this, if when we envision leadership, power and success from all people, especially people of color, we become fearful, we must look inside ourselves and face our truths.
Becca Lais received her undergraduate in Peace Studies, Gender Studies, and Philosophy. She moved to Tulsa as a member of Teach for America, and she taught English for 6th-8th scholars in North Tulsa. She is currently finishing her masters in Social Work at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, and she plans to use her masters to work in advocacy and community practice. She is a proud Feminist, and she is dedicated to fighting for equality and equity. She believes in empowering the youth to use their voice for change and justice in their own lives and in their community.