I am a provocateur.
I like art and ideas that stir the heart, mind, and soul. I like being moved.
When I watched Beyonce’s video, Formation, last weekend, I was stirred. It was, at once, a celebration and a call to action. It was loving, hopeful, defiant, and angry, and it said get your shit together. In short, it was art, and it was provocative.
The educator and artist in me loves that Beyonce has inspired and stirred so many. Engaging racism, sexism, classism, and systematized oppression is a complicated, messy endeavor. The activist in me loves that so many white people are unsettled and uncomfortable with the images and words in her video—we don’t change if we aren’t uncomfortable.
I am hopeful that this is another opportunity for us to have deeper, more engaged conversations on racism. But the collective response reminds me that we, in particular white people, haven’t accepted our painful, ugly historical legacies of systematic oppression. Sadly we aren’t yet ready for this kind of conversation, and we are struggling to collectively hold that pain, find healing, make meaning from it all, and make change.
Most of us are co-conspirators in the system without fully understanding how or why. It is hard for me to truly appreciate how I contributed to the murders of Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, or Sandra Bland (or many many others), how I was a part of the dereliction of duty in New Orleans, and how I continue to perpetuate inequality in our educational system and in health outcomes. While that is hard for me to reconcile at my individual level, I deeply understand that my whiteness, my maleness, and my socioeconomic standing all have defined and still shape operation of the system. I benefit deeply and cumulatively from my group-level identities (race, class, gender, orientation, etc.) in this system that values my life (and those like me) over many others.
I appreciate the struggle for white people, including me, to make meaning of it all and embrace the art and the imagery in Formation. I appreciate the struggle to reconcile our past and our present, to both want to lean in to the pain and run away. It is difficult to accept responsibility for one’s place in the system, to reconcile one’s individual worth with one’s collective participation in a system that kills.
As I have been taking in the dialogue this week, I am disappointed with our lack of engagement in the messy, painful complexity. We are missing an opportunity to show up in the hard stuff. Much of what I am reading from white voices can be summed up as this: stand on the sidelines and cheer, don’t join in, don’t find your place in the formation, go work on yourself, or just shut up and cheer. To a great degree, I appreciate the evolution of the dialogue—we whites have a tendency to co-opt ideas, traditions, and imagery that doesn’t belong to us.
I agree that we should celebrate self-authorship in all stories—this hasn’t always been the case. Yet, while the collective stories of african-americans, latinos/as, native people, asian-american, pacific islanders, and southeast asian people are unknowable to us, our people’s stories are. Many of our ancestors have played significant, active, and painful parts in other’s narratives, and our stories are interwoven.
Suggesting that we cheer and celebrate without also suggesting that we continue in our own movements (or joining a movement) perpetuates systemic oppression. The field is where the action is and cheerleaders are never on the field. Cheerleading without connecting the movements is irresponsible.
Not every movement is one I can be a part of, and not every effort has a place for me, nor should it. In those cases, I do cheer and I am on the sidelines. But if I don’t simultaneously link my movement and my work to the ones happening around me, if I don’t systematically support other movements, then I am using my privilege to maintain the way things are.
Our privilege as white people allows us to be on the sidelines and stay there. Our privilege allows us to witness and not engage. Our privilege allows us to remain individuals in the collective. Our privilege allows us to cheer but not connect our movement with the one in front of us.
We need to get in the game. We need to show up. We need to leverage our courage to overcome our fear. Systemic oppression won’t change unless we challenge it, refuse the benefits within it, and help create the solution.
We need to acknowledge that our pasts are interwoven and so is our present. Owning our stories and working for change is how we heal. And we need to do this in all places big and small: our work, our home, our schools, our communities, and our country. Write. Teach. Protest. Talk to anyone who will listen.
Be a provocateur.