It’s been over five hundred years since the first enslaved Blacks arrived in the United States. I wish I could say that I expect this society to recognize Black humanity, but I know better. It’s been a long time since those first enslaved Blacks arrived in South Carolina, but as much as things have changed some things have painfully stayed the same.
The topic of Black humanity has been on my mind for some time now. I want to address what I feel is one of the covert forms of white supremacist thinking operating in our society today. The sentiment in question isn’t the kind of white supremacist thinking that many of us have been trained to spot. Unlike the sentiment that “all Blacks are criminals,” it doesn’t announce it’s arrival. What I am talking about is a sentiment that is sadly supported by Black and non-Black alike. The sentiment that Blacks “should know better” when it comes to prejudice against other groups. It is this sentiment that I want to examine in this essay, and hopefully show how it is a product of white supremacist thinking.
The line of thinking usually goes something like this, “Blacks should know better than to oppress ______ because Blacks have been oppressed.” This refrain is a favorite of white supremacist and the uncritical Blacks who parrot their thinking. Most people might see this as an innocent reminder that Blacks have been oppressed, and should automatically lend their support to other oppressed groups, but I disagree. I think this thinking is actually a window into the way we view Black people in a white supremacist society.
White supremacy has never allowed Blacks to simply be, or be seen as, human. Within a system of white supremacy, Blacks are forced to occupy only one end of the limiting spectrum of humanity. We are either seen as super-human or subhuman. The view that Blacks are subhuman is cited by white supremacists to explain Blacks supposed “cognitive deficiency.” A white supremacist “scholar” by the name of James D. Watson claimed that Black intelligence is not the same (inferiority implied) as White intelligence, and cited “tests” as his proof. It would be comforting to think that James D. Watson is alone in his beliefs, but there are countless examples of White supremacist “scholars” making claims about Blacks seeming lack of humanity. Conditions such as poverty have also been used to support the idea that Blacks are subhuman. Harvard professor Evelynn Hammond has spoken publicly about the degree to which white supremacists went to justify that Blacks were subhuman. When discussing with PBS the history of white supremacy in science she remarked,
“they find differences in sizes of chests, breadth of chests, length of limbs, capacity of lungs, these kinds of things. And, of course, they read those differences through the lens of race. So they read them to say that all African Americans can be categorized as having lesser lung capacity than all whites or whites of various ethnicities. So that’s how they analyzed that data.”
Her remarks are a clear reminder of the lengths that white supremacist s went to in order to enshrine the notion that Blacks are subhuman.
As I stated earlier, white supremacy pushes Blacks into limiting either/or categories of subhuman and superhuman. The view of Blacks as superhuman allowed for white supremacists slave owners to see Blacks as superhuman workers. An enslaved Black could then be expected to work from sunup to sundown without break or water. An enslaved Black could be expected to endure any amount of indignity without complaint or critique. The superhuman view of Blacks allows white supremacists to express shock at Black vulnerability and fragility. Blacks alone are expected to “get over” the past. When talk of slavery occurs white supremacists act as if Blacks should heal overnight. The message being that our superhuman like quality to endure should have surely resulted in us forgiving and forgetting in an instant. One of the most covert examples of Blacks being viewed as superhuman is the idea equally white supremacist and patriarchy idea that Black women are the strongest women on earth. This sentiment is trotted out by white supremacists of all races to justify the misuse and abuse of Black women. Black women are saddled with superhuman strength, and not allowed to be seen as anything else. She is singled out as strong, and her fragility, vulnerability, and insecurity is ignored. She literally becomes a “freak of nature.” A Black superhuman expected to bare any number of indignities.
Many will remember May 9, 2012 as the day that President Obama announced his support of same-sex marriage. I will remember that, certainly, but I will always remember something else. I will remember seeing people, Black people, promote the white supremacist sentiment that Blacks should better understand the plight of gays in our society. That Blacks should know better than to be homophobic. As a Black gay person, I find this sentiment to be disgusting. I have to admit that is one cultural narrative that I am incredibly tired of seeing. The view that Blacks should “know better” forces Blacks yet again into the position of having to be superhuman. Never mind that many groups have experienced oppression throughout history, it is Blacks alone who must shoulder the burden of “knowing better.” It isn’t coincidence that I never see any other groups saddled with the “you should know better” narrative. Why isn’t it that Whites are thought to “know better?” Did White people not flee Europe because they were suffering under religious and class oppression at the hands of other Whites? Have the disabled in our society not been marginalized? Have women not been enslaved by men? Why is it that these groups do not have to “know better” despite suffering in this world?
White supremacy is why. Black people should not contribute to the oppression of another group, but this isn’t because we have “went through things.” What group on earth hasn’t? I refuse to allow my race to be turned into the poster oppressed. Black people should be seen as human. We should not be given the superhuman tasks of “knowing better” simply because we have went through things. We’re not superhuman and we’re not subhuman, we are human. The tendency for Blacks to expect themselves to be superhuman is one of the unnoticed and under-noticed aspects of white supremacy. Proclaiming that Blacks should know better denies us humanity. Like all people, we are a people with faults.
Black people should not know better when it comes to supporting the full rights and dignity of other groups of people. Like all humans, our support for equality should come from many sources, not just the fact that we have also been oppressed. Respecting other groups isn’t something that you are born with, but something one must work at. It can be attained simply by having been through hard times. We must still make a choice to live our lives with respect for all groups of people. Being Black doesn’t imbue us with special powers to automatically understand someone else’s plight, nor should anyone think it does.
When it comes to Black people, the following needs to be understood: not superhuman, not subhuman, but human.