I just left a very lively, engaging conversation with a very prominent legal scholar whose brilliant work has greatly influenced how scholars discuss identity. During this occasion, however, the young people in attendance expressed what has become, for me at least, this boring, misguided approach to inhabiting racially diverse spaces and encountering hostile identity based interactions. Their entry point into questions about civic life assumes that everyone in the room shares the same ideas about a definition of “success” and the substantive qualities that make for a good life, and thereby face the same quandary over the obstacles we confront in realizing common goals. For the young people of color who I routinely interact with, their chief question about unburdening themselves of racism is, “how do I explain to X why I belong here or that I deserve to be here.” Instead of the expected showing of sympathy and support, irritation and near disgust best describe what must be the look on my face. Rather than “how” being the most urgent question, I don’t understand the dismissal of “who” and “why” as important ones: Who are you to ask me about where I belong? Why do you assume that I have a responsibility to answer your questions? It’s the other person’s question so they should be the one doing the work of answering it–but the answer can’t be found in putting me to work; calling for my subjection to your authority. It is incredibly presumptuous to make someone else your research assistant or student. I don’t have a single peer who I defer to for the purpose of dignifying my humanity or in justifying my efforts to define and live out my version of what it means to live well. When I was growing up, I didn’t know many people who weren’t as peeved as I was about this very thing.
I think it’s in Jonathan Rieder’s book, The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr., where he recounts King’s response to a journalist who questions his right or preparedness to denounce the Vietnam War. “I’m sorry,” King replied, “you don’t know me.” King’s response emerges from both critical consciousness and a sense of respect for the value and validity of his work. If King’s response was one that could be uttered within the context of the apartheid conditions that the United States called itself moving away from, why are young people of color, nearly fifty years beyond the passage of the voting rights act, asking “how” they should be going about explaining themselves to white people? These same young people are also the loudest proponents of how far this nation has come with respect to racism. If that were true, they wouldn’t assume the burden of teaching people that they are not a character from The Wire or a stripper doing her thing on a pole in a strip club like you see in any number of hip hop videos. From this perspective, such recognition would prepare these young people to recognize how systems of domination currently assert power through the guise of “innocent questions.”
The last time I was confronted with this same kind of problematic assumption that my personhood was tied to some tired stereotype of who I was supposed to be, I was livid–but prepared. A colleague assumed that my rank silenced me, but much unlike these young people of color who I work with, I didn’t feel responsible for teaching my colleague that she was not Justice Taney and that I was not Dred Scott. Since I did not regard her remark as an innocent one that took place beyond a history of racist identity politics, my response was to fight back. In the end, I got just what I wanted: her departure from my office. Unlike so many young people, I have absolutely no interest in being in community with people who think, like Justice Taney did, that I “[have] no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.” I am by no means as polite or as eloquent as Dr. King, but his response to that journalist was a model one: “you don’t know me.” No explanation of who you are, what you know, or where you belong is owed to people who assume their dominance or mastery over you. Racist assumptions should not be met with explanations, but with resistance. King demonstrates that resistance comes in many forms and knowing your own name and claiming it count as work against this notion that docility (as one of my readers pointed out) engenders social change.