WaterCoolerConvos

On Common, Colorblindness, and Extending a “Hand in Love” to White People

Common_Comedy_Central_CaptureThere is this misconception in colorblind, post-racial society that racism ended (formally) on January 1st, 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation ending the institution of chattel slavery in the United States. Even stars, like rapper and actor Common, who seem well-acquainted with the vestiges of slavery use language suggesting that America’s racist history only affects the past. Sadly, this misinformed, misguided, and narrow conception of racial hierarchy in America is a fundamental reason why racialized systems of control manage to hang on.

Last week, Common appeared on the Daily Show with John Stewart to discuss his new film. Having just won an Oscar for his song “Glory” with John Legend (and the theme song from the Ava DuVernay film Selma), the conversation quickly turned to race and racism in America.

In the clip, Stewart notes that there has been an effort to shift the focus back to Whites in the “dominant culture” when it comes to issues of racism. He says, “There’s a real anger. A real vein of anger where they’re like, ‘Hey man! I didn’t have any slaves.’ But, you’re like, no, no, no. They’re not talking about that. They’re talking about a power structure.”

Then Common says, “We all know there’s been some bad history in our country. We know that racism exists. I’m saying ‘hey y’all, I’m extending a hand.’ And, I’m hoping a lot of the generations in different cultures are saying, ‘hey, we want to get past this. We’ve been bullied. We’ve been beat down. But we don’t want it anymore and we’re not extending a fist. We’re not saying, hey, you did this, you did us wrong.’ It’s more like, ‘hey, I’m extending my hand in love. Let’s forget about the past as much as we can. And, let’s move from where we are now. How can we help each other? Can you try to help us cause we’re going to help ourselves too.’ That’s really where we are right now.”

The audience, of course, erupts in cheers and applause. Agreeing with Common, Stewart notes that these types of issues might be better handled if Whites acknowledge the “injury” caused to Blacks.

In response, Common says, “I mean, we know that that existed. I don’t even have to keep bringing that up. It’s like being in a relationship and continuing to bring up the person’s issues.”

There are many fundamental problems with the language these two men deployed in this interview. First, all of the transgressions wrapped up in institutional racism are discussed in the past tense. Common emphasizes that racism is linked to “history” rather than a present state wherein Black boys are 21 more times more likely to be killed by police than White boys or where White fear is codified in the perpetual lack of indictments for civilian and non-civilian actors who harm Black Americans. Common’s language suggests that our “injury” is past racism not present racism. This is the folly of colorblindness.

How does colorblindness and post-racialism help to perpetuate racism? It suppresses the fact that it took another 100 years to “defeat” de facto (informal, in fact) and de jure (formal, legal processes) racism and discrimination like Jim Crow segregation, redlining and housing discrimination, “separate but equal” educational accommodations, and a host of other remnants of an institutional racial caste system designed to reproduce a racial order wherein Whites were firmly placed on top and Blacks as far down as physically possible. Not only that, it convinces many Whites that they no longer have to work against institutional racism. In essence, they begin to feel as though they can get off “scott-free.” This is the same mechanism which makes the SAE frat boys out to be a “few bad apples” rather than microcosmic examples of interpersonal animus that stems from a long history and present reproduction of racist, anti-Black ideals.

Second, Common suggesting that people of color extend a “hand of love” rather than a “fist” implies that our hands have ever done anything to mitigate White racism. Has there ever been a point in the history of this country where the “hands of love” of people of color were met with the dismantling of institutional racism? Even the Brown v. Board of Education decision didn’t make an attempt to disassemble the informal systems of segregation which remained after the legal end of slavery. Hell, Martin Luther King, Jr was killed for extending his loving hand to liberal Whites who (purportedly) supported his goals. Surely Common knows that.

Lastly, Common suggests that historic racism in America is like the baggage some folks bring into relationships; it’s something we should just stop “bringing up.” Condolezza Rice once said something similar. Suggesting that the only way to achieve harmony in civil society is for people of color to simply forget (or, better yet, erase) the centuries of sociopolitical, economic, and environmental predation on Black and brown individuals denotes a desire to never truly hold Whites accountable to the privilege they (still) receive from these processes. And, what kind of civil society does that create when only certain groups receive the full benefits of citizenship while others are silenced into submission?

In all, Common’s words are problematic for understanding how to best remedy institutional racism in the United States. His method is the Band-aid many Americans desperately want so they won’t have to endure the arduous process of actually dismantling White supremacy and privilege. But, it’s no solution. Common should truly never speak about racism in the United States again. At least not until he examines his own privilege and the downstream effects of his colorblind ideology.

 

Photo credit: Comedy Central

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Jenn M. Jackson

Co-Founder/Editor-in-Chief
Jenn M. Jackson is one half of the Water Cooler Convos team. She is a native of Oakland, CA, resided in sunny SoCal for a decade, and now lives in the Chicago suburbs. Bringing the bourgie and good measure of the nerdy, she fearlessly writes about politics, pop culture, and whatever other topics in black America have firmly planted a bee in her bonnet.

Comments

comments

  • Mary Burrell

    Does becoming a so called “new black’ make these celebrities stupid? Common is too old to be making these stupid statements

  • Mary Burrell

    Maybe when one is black in Hollywood they can’t rock the boat and have to use politically correct language

  • Cubert

    “We all know there’s been some bad history in our country. We know that racism exists. I’m saying ‘hey y’all, I’m extending a hand.’ And, I’m hoping a lot of the generations in different cultures are saying, ‘hey, we want to get past this. We’ve been bullied. We’ve been beat down. But we don’t want it anymore and we’re not extending a fist. We’re not saying, hey, you did this, you did us wrong.’ It’s more like, ‘hey, I’m extending my hand in love. Let’s forget about the past as much as we can. And, let’s move from where we are now. How can we help each other? Can you try to help us cause we’re going to help ourselves too.’ That’s really where we are right now.”

    I don’t see how any rational person can disagree with this. Don’t forget the past, but let’s move on.

    • I think he had good intentions, but what he said was problematic. “How can we help each other? Can you try to help us cause we’re going to help ourselves too.” This statement alone implies that Common on some level believes that Black people have not been helping themselves and been lazy basically. That’s saddening because that’s a stereotype put onto the community by the media. And also it implies that White people shouldn’t help Black people at all unless they are willing to pick themselves up by their bootstraps. Even though White dominant culture was largely the perpetuator of slavery, Jim Crow, prison industrial complex etc… And Common does use the words ‘move on,’ but then he also says ‘let’s forget the past as much as possible.’ That also something I have issue with. You shouldn’t forget your past. Rather, it should give you perspective and guide your future decisions in a more positive, constructive way. I think he wanted to say that the past shouldn’t keep dictating how Black and White people approach one another in a negative way, but it just came out completely differently.

  • I was sort of stunned at Common’s comment. I talked about this on my blog because I was so frustrated that he said this and I think it’s absurd that anyone tell anyone to forget their past. No one should ever forget their history or their past period. And like you said the way Common spoke about it is as if Black people are to blame for this history of oppression and it’s by the goodness of White people for them to want to help the Black community. It reminds me of Chris Rock’s critique that people talk about Black people and their ‘progress’ as if whatever happened to them was their fault to begin with.