Submitted to the AFRO by Marlyn Thomas
In the vein of being politically correct while trying to fight against white privilege by leveling the playing field, the new civil rights element of 2018 became white people using their privilege to help people of color by speaking for us.
We saw this earlier in the year when the salary of Octavia Spencer, a superb actress, was increased due to a joint negotiation and contract with Jessica Chastain, who worked with Spencer in 2011’s The Help. Although these women worked together in the voyage to get Spencer higher pay, the narrative quickly morphed that Chastain used her privilege and spoke “for” Spencer. Taking this as a model, the new catchphrase for liberal white America became to speak out “for” their minority group friends by “using privilege.” This model of activism was lauded during the entire year as allies to various groups who are discriminated against vowed to use their voices to speak for marginalized communities. This method became mainstream, but for me is a point of contention. I found at times, these allies were offended when I, as a Black woman, was not, yet they were speaking for me. But how authentic is it for one person even in a gesture of goodwill to speak for another?
If we really want equality, we have to ask critical questions and have the difficult conversations about how privilege works even when a person does not want it or doesn’t believe he or she uses or benefits from it. After hearing a coworker say that she has educated her son about how he might have to use his privilege to speak for his Black friends if they are ever pulled over by the police, I was further disenchanted with the concept of white allies speaking for Black people. Yes, we know that privilege allows the same actions and words to be interpreted differently based on who does or says them, effectively altering the aftermath. However, instead of advocating that people with privilege speak for those who don’t have it, should not our call to action be that privilege itself be eradicated instead of trying to use the devil’s tools to tear down his own house? If I relinquish my right to speak for myself and eventually what is said on my behalf to supposedly assist me is not to my liking or benefit who is to blame? What degree of indebtedness is produced from this ventriloquist culture?
What we should teach the upcoming generation is not that white people should speak for Black people as this is an infantilizing view of Black people that has historical roots and generational consequences. Our allies should want us to reach the same level of legal, financial, and political actualization that they have reached without the prerequisite of our silence. The conundrum of settling for a metaphorical seat at the table without being able to enter the conversation already diminishes our ability to be equal partners. Standing with me is not the same as speaking for me. The latter attempts to debunk white privilege by using it and all the while operating in its confines. And sometimes, this misguided advocacy might win because privilege recognizes privilege.
At what point will Black children be encouraged to use their own voices versus being persuaded that because someone else is willing to activate their privilege, it is best to be spoken for? This mirrors the power dynamic of beneficent master/good slave that while not as brutal as some paradigms of power is just as emotionally and intellectually degrading and dehumanizing. In 2019, we have the opportunity to change the discourse. Inclusion of all viewpoints should be the goal. There are things that minorities can do to help ourselves, specifically when it comes to our children. Because of our brokenness, I often see us ushering children into a code of silence and fear while white children are quite verbal about their feelings even as toddlers. If any of us thinks that the slap in the mouth threat of childhood is not connected to relinquishing one’s voice, we fool ourselves. We cannot raise fearful children and expect fearlessness from them as adults.
A few days ago, Viola Davis, whose catalog of roles boasts twenty years of film, television, and stage, gave a speech as the recipient of the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award. Her message was that in regards to Black women, Hollywood should “stop taming us,” going on to explain, “…it’s just so hard to find the people who have the courage with these narratives to just trust that you can sit with our [psychological] pathology…[to have] the courage to write a narrative where people just want to sit with you…we want what you want.” But when we allow others to speak on our behalf, and acquiesce to the premium of what it costs for them to render the service of being an ally, we continue to serve in the capacity of servant at the table of white privilege.
Marlyn Thomas is an Instructor of English at Alabama A&M University who focuses on African American culture and the Diasporan experience.
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