Thu 21 October 2021

Continuing Byline Times’ series dedicated to giving a platform to new voices of colour, S Dorothy Smith from Virginia argues symbolic gestures alone won’t improve the lives of African Americans

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In recent weeks, thousands of (white) protesters have assembled in small towns in support of Black Lives Matter, in reaction to the George Floyd murder. Frankly, as an African American woman, I want to see more.

I am old enough to remember as a young child seeing Ku Klux Klan members patrolling my Maryland neighbourhood in the late 1960s.

The sad truth is that white people have been enjoying white privilege in this country since it began. The majority never protested. For the most part, they hid behind their comfortable white picket fences in their comfortable homes and never said a word, while years and years of systemic racism through political redlining (the denial of services to African Americans), terrorism by white supremacist groups, gentrification, and discrimination played out in society.

I am old enough to remember as a young child seeing Ku Klux Klan members patrolling my Maryland neighbourhood in the late 1960s. I recall they even burned down our neighbourhood church. These were not imagined oversights or the over-exaggerations of a troubled youth. They actually happened, time and again, and the majority of Americans remained silent and thus complicit. Perhaps I’m just jaded, but I doubt that the recent national protests will result in much more than lip service to change.

White reaction is like a yawn. First, the foreign world reacts, and it thus raises the collective consciousness back at home. People might react out of human decency, or simply the desire not to be shamed. Or could it just be that after months of self-quarantine, they simply want an excuse to assemble (peacefully) outside?

Regardless, all this marching has at the very least raised the collective consciousness towards the blatantly unequal treatment of African Americans. The question then naturally becomes: what will come of all this marching and consciousness raising? Is this just another “Me, Too” movement, or will it generate real, immediate change? Despite brands associated with America’s racist past changing their names, historic Confederate monuments coming down, and constant news coverage, how will the lives of African Americans actually improve?

After the dust settles, will people still avoid me on the bus? Will people invite my (black) children over to their (white) sleepovers? Will I be offered the same salary as a white man, even though I might have the same qualifications? Will the police give me the same benefit of the doubt that they give to a white man or woman? Will I stop being automatically assumed a thief if I shop in an expensive store? Will I ever stop being followed around in stores for no apparent reason other than the color of my skin?

All this marching is a start, I must admit, but real change, I feel, will only happen when (white) parents begin to teach their (white) children to not avoid little black boys and girls in public, in the same way they would teach them to treat a physically challenged person with respect.

Often, messages are communicated to children through body language. Does a (white) parent involuntarily shirk in fear when he or she crosses a solitary black man on the street? Actions speak volumes to children. They learn through our actions.

Just like the person who shouts the loudest that he has given X amount of money to charity, he must examine his motives for the gift. Does he really want to help the poor or does he just want praise for his altruism?

Real change will come when Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream is realised: when people are judged by the content of their character and not by the colour of their skin. That dream, in 2020, is still a way off.

Sadly, it’s not enough to talk (or to march). You must act.


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