WaterCoolerConvos

The #ReclaimMLK effort pushes back against the whitening of Dr. King’s legacy

Martin-luther-kingThere were always two events while growing up that reminded me that blackness was an invisible thing to most White people. The first was the weird ways they addressed me during Black History Month like I was somehow uniquely qualified to comment on the celebratory period. The second was the annual reinvention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. each January in observance of his birthday on January 15th, 1929. So, when his birth and life turned into a “National Day of Service,” I was both perplexed and confused given the knowledge I had of King’s actual life.

An imperfect man who was once considered a “thug” and ‘un-American” by many at the time, King has now entered a place of revelry for many White people who would rather make his story their own than research what his work was truly about.

Now, I can’t say that Dr. King wouldn’t want Americans to support and perform community service in his name. In fact, this initiative is based on one of his most famous quotes where he states, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” But, the way many describe Dr. King and his federally recognized day suggests that this was all his life and activism were about.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service’s about page,

“Dr. King believed in a nation of freedom and justice for all, and encouraged all citizens to live up to the purpose and potential of America by applying the principles of nonviolence to make this country a better place to live—creating the Beloved Community. The MLK Day of Service is a way to transform Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and teachings into community action that helps solve social problems. That service may meet a tangible need, or it may meet a need of the spirit. On this day, Americans of every age and background celebrate Dr. King through service projects that strengthen communities, empower individuals, bridge barriers, and create solutions.”

This description leaves out that Dr. King was nonviolently fighting against White Supremacy and racial segregation in the South and pay inequity and poor working conditions in the North. It ignores that he engaged with the US government to ensure equal access to the ballot box for disenfranchised Black voters. It conveniently misses the point that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s work was critically animated by the ongoing White racsim and violence against Blacks in the United States.

I even performed a search on the page for the words “Black” and “Racism.” Each returned zero results. When I searched for “White,” I only had one hit. It was for the White House.

This type of colorblind description of Dr. King’s work makes it terribly convenient for Whites to never actually engage with their own racism and biases but feel like they are honoring Dr. King anyway. It enables many people who prefer not to interrogate their own complicity in ongoing racism in the United States to simply paint something or pick up trash or serve soup until they feel better about themselves.

We saw a similar effort to sterilize the legacies of Black leaders in 2013 when the Republican Party claimed that Rosa Parks “ended racism” when she chose not to vacate her seat in 1955. Rather than acknowledging that Parks’ work was seen as criminal, rowdy, and disruptive to whiteness, they attempted to appropriate her actions in ways which diluted her actual intentions while glossing over their very real commitment to racial hierarchy in the United States.

The efforts to sanitize these freedom fighters’ work into narratives that ease White guilt and erase the long historical arc of anti-blackness in this country are exactly why young organizers and activists have been working to make this day about Dr. King’s real contributions rather than the ones that have been hijacked for political or ideological reasons. The Chicago chapter of BYP100 spent the entire weekend organizing peaceful demostrations encouraging the city to disinvest from the police and invest instead in Black futures. Other chapters, including those in Washington DC and New York City, have similar actions planned in an effort to reclaim Dr. King’s legacy.

Frankly, I couldn’t be more pleased at the efforts to take back Dr. King’s day from those seeking to exploit it for their own devices. As a mother, I want more for my children than the isolating experiences I had on this day growing up.

More importantly though, I think we owe our Black leaders more than watching their hard fought accomplishments go quietly into the night of White Supremacy.

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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

  • Miceandstuff

    We were taught both the negative and the positive that happened to MLK in my school.
    We try to forget, move on, move up, and make light out of negative situations, and still there is pushback.
    I just don’t understand, Do you want to be equal and the world colorblind, or do you want to be someone who is obviously a different color and I should see you that way?
    I dont want to see the color of your skin, but you force me to.
    I’ve done plenty of historical research and I know about the amazing positive things that came about from the negative things that had to happen to get there.
    Why do I have to focus on the negative?
    Why do I have to see your skin color as anything other that a completely natural thing based on thousands of years evolution, just like animals have different patterns on their bodies due to their location?

    There are still so many issues that need touched on, so many issues that are important in order to create a true equality.
    Racism is the number one big one. If someone is judging you by the color of your skin, get mad. You have every right to.
    But this avid hate for people who aren’t even alive anymore pushed onto EVERYONE who is not black is something that is going to keep this kind of movement from really creating a difference in the world, and instead stay as a hashtag on social media.

    Sometimes I feel We are never going to all get along, because too many people want to have arguments rather than have peace between each other.

    Shall we always be judged by the acts of our forefathers, or should we as a younger generation, look passed the bigoted ways of our ancestors and instead join together as one?

    It feels like this world will never have the peace it desires.
    Man will be the worlds downfall.

    • Viky

      I’ll be interested to hear Jenn’s response to your question. My understanding and belief is that equal and color-blind are two entirely different things. In fact, there are many who argue that color-blindness is a significant form of racism and the reason our country is experiencing such racial division. If you’re interested in helping shape a world that knows peace, there are lots of great resources available. Two of the ones that were very helpful for me include:

      “Colorblindness: The New Racism”
      http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/number-36-fall-2009/feature/colorblindness-new-racism

      and

      “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”
      https://www.deanza.edu/faculty/lewisjulie/White%20Priviledge%20Unpacking%20the%20Invisible%20Knapsack.pdf

      • Michael Fox

        ..

      • Michael Fox

        Viky Well said as matter if fact perfect. I was struggling with how exactly to say just what you said. And then suddenly I could breath again.

      • BobFromDistrict9

        Being color blind doesn’t work when the variations are black, white, and in between. Real color blindness applies to red and blue and green and yellow, not shades of brown.

        The point is not being color blind, but pretending to be color blind. It’s never about seeing color, but seeing something wrong with some color.

        You wrote a very good response, I just wanted to add a few words I use often.

        • Viky

          I like your addition, thank you … my hope is to move past seeing color to celebrating color.

    • harlemjd

      Why don’t you want to see the color of her skin? Why is it an either/or deal for you – “do you want to be equal or do you want to be someone of an obviously different color”? How about seeing that some people are black and still thinking of them as human beings with equal dignity and worth?

    • Colorblindness is not equality. That is a common misconception. What colorblindness actually is an effort to minimize the ongoing struggles many marginalized people experience because of White Supremacy.

      Not seeing someone’s race is a secondary form of oppression. Not seeing race implies that we all experience systemic racial violence similarly which is clearly not true. Not seeing race allows for people to feel as though we have overcome systemic oppression even while it continues to marginally impact Black and Brown people. Racial biases in employment, lending, criminal justice, education, housing, and a host of other aspects of life in the United States requires that we “see” race and work actively to dismantle the systems which use racial minority status as a justification for negative treatment.

      What we should be striving for is seeing people’s race as a part of a structural environment which leads to certain advantages and disadvantages. Seeing race helps us advocate for those among us who have less privilege and are therefore less able to enjoy social freedom,.

      The old adage is “no one is free and until everyone is free.” This requires that we see race and racism as central concepts in daily life.

      • Viky

        No one is free until everyone is free … thank you … that’s what I was searching for.

      • BobFromDistrict9

        “Not seeing race implies that we all experience systemic racial violence similarly which is clearly not true.”

        I believe this is a fairly complicated concept that would take quite a bit of work to explain clearly. Yet it is also important. Much like worrying about black on black violence, but not white white violence. Yes, by percentages black on blcak is worse than white on white, but do we suffer by percentages? If black people are experiencing violence by 10% compared to whites at 5%, does that mean every black person suffers 10% and every white person suffers 5%?

        If you are truly color blind, or even trying to be, you should not even see black on black or white on white, or inter-racial as a factor at all. Everyone’s suffering should affect you equally.

        And even that just scratches the surface. Hmmm… you looking for an advanced degree? I sense a graduate thesis here.

      • Miceandstuff

        Ah, I think I must not mean the correct kind of colorblindness, and compare it too closely to it’s traditional meaning. When I think of colorblind, I think that someone is not able to interpret a color in the way that many do. You are able to distinguish shades of color, but do not automatically jump to conclusions, such as “apples are red, just like this fire truck”. To someone colorblind, it’s obvious that these shades are different from others, but they are not able to group things together in a stereotype manner. From your explanation, at least how I understand it to be, is the true meaning of colorblind in terms of race is negating race all together, which is not something I would ever want to see happen.

        It is important to see that people are different and it’s okay. It’s important to allow others to wear their cultural attire and live their lives in ways that they so desire without anyone telling them otherwise just because they don’t like or understand it.

        Mostly, I feel like even though I learn, I try to understand (although I cant ever fully), and even when I see the same things over and over… I still don’t understand what it is what I as a white 24 year old girl can do. I see issues, I hate the issues, I try to fight for change with the peers in my local environment… but I still feel like I can’t do anything.

        What can I actually do to help?

  • Jason

    o do you want white people to call him a thug and un-american? Perhaps, white people have evolved and are, as a whole, less racist than when Dr. King was thought of as a thug and un-american. I am a child of the 80s who grew up in the 90s and I was always taught to and always have revered Dr. King for his work related to civil rights. He also had skeletons but I won’t get into that. Because I appreciate what he did, I guess that means I am trying to whiten Dr. King?

    • Viky

      I think we — in our country — have moved from overt racism to covert racism (aka color-blindness) and that is harder to fight because it’s become such a part of our institutions. Appreciating what Dr. King did for civil rights, including fighting against white supremacy, is not the same as turning MLK day into a “day of service” that allows people to feel that they’ve honored him with “community service” that does nothing to forward his dream of racial equality. I believe we as white people can best honor Dr. King’s memory by evaluating our own white privilege, examining where we might still allow racism to exist in our lives, and working as advocates for equality for all of our brothers and sisters. Engaging in conversations like this with an open mind and heart is a great start. I’m grateful to gifted writers like Jenn Jackson for sharing a perspective that may not be obvious to all of us. I welcome every opportunity to have my eyes opened.

      • BobFromDistrict9

        You are right, but the cover is thin to a great extent.

        • Viky

          Agree — it looks pretty overt when you open your eyes.

  • Snowqueen627

    This is exactly it. Thank you. I was just listening to NPR do a feel-good piece on community service for MLK Day, and I thought, “Doesn’t this miss the point?”

  • Derek Roberts

    Using the term “whitening” is very indicative that the author has a racially biased mindset, or worldview.

    Racism – the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
    https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=define%20racism

    How can the author believe that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr has been “whitened” unless the author believes that white people have characteristics which are specific to white people that no other race possesses?

    Is this “color blind” attribute that the author suggests white people have injected into the life works of Dr MLK Jr one of those characteristics that white people possess which other races do not? It doesn’t seem like this black author can accept the fact that white and black people are inherently no different. It isn’t possible to “whiten” someone.

    • ^^ Here is someone who has fixated on the title of the article instead of the substance of the article.

      Hey, look! It’s a parallel to MLK’s teachings!

    • BobFromDistrict9

      Other than the fact that the author does NOT have to believe that at all, your post was pretty well completely wrong in everything except the definition of racism.

      It is possible to “whiten” someone’s image. All that is necessary is to alter it to the point where it becomes more acceptable in the white community. Rather, more invisible, fitting in so well as to not be noticed.

      Dr MLK was not invisible. Nor should he be.

      Actually, all that is necessary is to believe the white race possesses characteristics that distinguish it from black. Since those are the only two races under discussion, and since the three generally recognized races are white, black and Asian, the distinctive characteristics are generally valid.

      That there is a lot of mixing throughout history may confuse things, but do NOT invalidate the comparisons.

  • JB

    “This type of colorblind description of Dr. King’s work makes it terribly convenient for Whites to never actually engage with their own racism and biases but feel like they are honoring Dr. King anyway. . . . The efforts to sanitize these freedom fighters’ work into narratives that ease White guilt and erase the long historical arc of anti-blackness. . .”

    I am not racist, and it’s really frustrating to be told repeatedly that I am racist just because I’m white. I attended a MLK Day Civil Rights Rally at my university a few years ago, and the entire thing was a preacher talking about how evil white people are. I was humiliated, and it was a slap in the face. I was there to support ongoing civil rights efforts, yet I was told over and over again that I was part of the problem simply based on the color of my skin. And every year, there’s some article or another bemoaning the fact that “the Whites” are still racists. Lumping us all into one group of distasteful human beings. Ignoring the fact that many of us–I dare say most of us–want to see real equality.

    How is this mudslinging not also racism?

    Please remember that Dr. King’s famous speech included the following: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” And “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” And “I have a dream that one day. . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

    Brothers and sisters don’t treat the good intentions of their siblings with contempt. They don’t say, “You’re not doing enough,” or “You’re doing it wrong” or “Your skin is a different color than mine, so you just don’t get it.” They say, “Thank you for trying to help. We still have a long way to go. Let’s work together to make positive changes.”

    No one wants to be judged based on the color of their skin–not even “the Whites.”

    • whitey

      i had a similar experience, but the speaker was khalid muhammad so it was less about ‘the whites’, more about ‘the devils’. you could say i was uncomfortable. even the friend i came with, the friend i was sharing a room with, was looking at me sideways. at least it felt like that to me. but, really? i grew up not being afraid of cops. i could play at the park without fear or thought of being killed by the police who should protect and serve us. along with a million other privileges i’m still not aware of. so i can deal with being uncomfortable. especially since i’m the one who wanted to be there. nobody asked me to come. nobody asked me to help them. so if i insert myself into a black space and feel uncomfortable, i need to deal. not try to turn it into someone else’s problem. of course, that’s IF i truly came to help. if i came just to make me feel better about myself (SEE! I’M not racist!) then i’ll need black people to hold my hand and reassure me. if you need that, you’re not helping. it is not the responsibility of black people who are fighting white privilege to make white people feel comfortable. if you can’t deal, go work with white people. that’s where the education needs to happen, and most white people won’t hear it if it’s not coming from another white person anyway. white privilege is a white problem.

      • BobFromDistrict9

        Well said.

      • JB

        Okay, first of all, I never said White Privilege wasn’t a thing. That is exactly why I was attending a civil rights rally–because it IS a thing and I want to do my part to fight against it. This isn’t to “make me feel better about myself.” It’s because the system is broken and unjust and I’m the sort of person who hates injustice. I don’t need anyone to hold my hand and make me feel comfortable, but I also don’t need someone I’m trying to help throwing it back in my face and telling me that I’m racist just because I’m white. I don’t need anyone’s gratitude, but don’t expect me to stick around if you’re going to treat me with contempt. We will never learn to work together if we don’t stop blaming each other and start treating each other with kindness. Dr. King also said, “Hate cannot drive out hate.”

    • I see you know a lot about racism, and stuff.. I hear a lot about white privilege, and I have yet to receive mine.. Any word on where they are handing it out?

    • There is nowhere in this article where anyone refers to anyone else as “the Whites.” Feel free to take your White guilt elsewhere.

      • BobFromDistrict9

        My dear Ms Jackson, I was about to point out that I refered to “The Whites”, but then I realized it was in the comment after yours.

        Though he should not take his white guilt somewhere else, this is where he belongs, this is where he might just learn something. Just because he doesn’t get it the first time doesn’t mean it won’t make some small chink in his armor that may someday just split it open. It took a lot of hammering to knock down a small piece of the Berlin wall, and it was standing a lot shorter time.

        Think how much more good it would do if you just walked up to him and wrapped your arms around him and whispered, “I forgive you”. Or drive him crazy, whatever.

        • JB

          “He” is a “she,” thank you very much. And I have learned–quite a bit, actually. I’ve learned that I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. If I don’t do anything to fight racism, I’m a racist. And if I do the best I can to fight racism, I’m STILL a racist. That’s not really the best way to find a chink in anyone’s armor…

          And what do I need to be forgiven of? For being white? I can no more choose my skin color than the author can choose hers. If that’s a sin, then I am guilty as charged.

      • JB

        Oh my gosh, so I used a “the” where you didn’t. Also, as I explained to Bob, it’s an implied pronoun. Furthermore, I wasn’t only referencing this article, but to the rally I mentioned in my original comment and the countless articles I’ve read about racism, white privilege and the like.

        I don’t have any white guilt. I’m doing my part to try to fight against white privilege, but big ships turn slowly and I am no miracle worker. I’m just one person, trying to be kind to everyone, and just getting a little sick of people blaming me and my friends for a system that we didn’t start but we’re doing our best to fight against.

        Your article and your offhand dismissal of my comments without addressing any of my concerns are pretty telling. “Feel free to take your White guilt elsewhere” reeks of segregation–excluding me and my opinion simply because my skin is a different color than yours. You might as well hang up a sign that says, “No Whites Allowed.”

        I don’t think I’M the one that’s missing the point of Martin Luther King’s life’s work, nor do I think I’m the one who’s feeling guilty.

    • BobFromDistrict9

      “I am not racist, and it’s really frustrating to be told repeatedly that I am racist just because I’m white.”

      Saying that is the first sign you may well be one.

      “Please remember that Dr. King’s famous speech included the following:
      “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of
      former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit
      down together at the table of brotherhood.” And “I have a dream that my
      four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not
      be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their
      character.” And “I have a dream that one day. . . little black boys and
      black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white
      girls as sisters and brothers.

      “Brothers and sisters don’t treat the good intentions of their siblings with contempt.”

      One day hasn’t come yet. The fact that some speaker said all that and you didn’t get up and walk out suggests you suspect he might be right. *IF* that was what he said. Or maybe it was what you heard.

      “They say, “Thank you for trying to help. We still have a long way to go. Let’s work together to make positive changes.””

      They? Why do you think “they” owe you thanks? If you are one with them, then you would expect to help with expecting thanks. If you think “they” should thank you for helping “them” then it seems you see it as you and “them. Or maybe it’s “us” and “them”.

      And that speaks of white privilege, that you can expect thanks for doing the right thing.

      “No one wants to be judged based on the color of their skin–not even “the Whites.””

      And “They Whites” are people who say “The Blacks” as if they are monolithic groups. After Obama was elected a lot of commentators went out of their way to point out that he is bi-racial. Few black people were impressed, most black people in this country are racially mixed to some extent.

      Which didn’t do them any good, because bi-racial never meant anything to white America until it was to the advantage of white America, no matter how small. And denying that Obama is black was pretty damn small.

      • JB

        Saying I’m not racist is a statement of fact. I am not a racist. The belief that anyone who says that is lying is unfounded and irrational. If you can show me one thing that I’ve done or said in my life that is racist and I’ll eat crow, but good luck. I may be an unfortunate byproduct of a racist system, but that does not inherently make me racist anymore than you expressing an opinion contrary to mine me makes you an internet troll.

        “The fact that some speaker said all that and you didn’t get up and walk out suggests you suspect he might be right. *IF* that was what he said. Or maybe it was what you heard.”

        I’m not following you here. Are you referring to Dr. King’s speech–which you quoted–or to the speaker at the rally I attended? If it’s the latter, then I’m not sure what makes you think my staying put means I suspected he might be right. I didn’t get up and walk out because that’s rude and my mother taught me better than that. I listen to people when they’re talking, even if I don’t like/don’t agree with what they’re saying. As for “maybe it was what you heard”–why would I ever want to hear someone classifying an entire race of people as evil? I tend to see the good in people, even when they don’t deserve it. For me to have heard him preaching about my wickedness would mean that he was preaching about my wickedness pretty dang vehemently.

        And NO, I don’t think anyone owes me thanks. I don’t go to rallies because I want anyone’s gratitude. I go to rallies because White privilege exists and it’s wrong and I want to fight against it. And when people work together, they thank each other for helping. If someone throws a picnic, you thank them for the food. If someone gives you a birthday present, you thank them for it. If someone volunteers their time when they need to be studying to go out and march with you instead, you thank them for coming. Not because you owe it to them or because they’re great or magnanimous or whatever, but because it’s polite.

        Also, the article does refer to us several times as Whites. Sure, the author may not have used “the” before “Whites,” but it’s an implied pronoun. Furthermore, I wasn’t only referencing this article, but to the rally I mentioned and the countless articles I’ve read about racism, White privilege and the like. Referring to us as Whites is just as marginalizing as you claim “the Blacks” is.