The endless appropriation of MLK and white supremacy’s need to rewrite historical narratives
White supremacy specializes in ahistoricizing history.
Barely a month has passed since I wrote about appropriation and the vampiric nature of whiteness, specifically as it pertains to Black art and aesthetic. My focus was white artists and their simultaneous disavowal and infiltration of rap and hip-hop, and my purpose was to illustrate the pattern of how white society appropriates Black art by attempting to expel Blackness from it to make it suitable for their own consumption.
“When the dominant culture is presented with philosophies that do not align with its accepted, comfortable ideologies, it will always react in a way that centers its own need to maintain the status quo and assure its power.
This means that the mainstream will reject the philosophy entirely, or it will reject it and then accept it only after it has been sanitized. Only after it has been neutralized can it be rendered safe for consumption by those invested in maintaining the status quo.”
In this piece, I wrote a single sentence about white liberal extolment of Martin Luther King, Jr. only after they have neutralized his character and only after they have erased his radical politics, and now I find that I have the need to write more.
Coincidentally, it was not long before writing the words quoted above that I ruminated on the very white assumption and insistence that whiteness is inherently impartial and unbiased, and that this contributes to the phenomenon of white men especially regarding themselves as the rightful arbiters of quality and legitimacy in art. White folks continually deem themselves brilliant, objective critics of everything under the sun, regardless of whether or not they are qualified to speak on any given subject.
This, of course, extends far beyond the matters of art, and this was recently demonstrated by Joe Biden surrogate, Hilary Rosen, when she attempted to whitesplain MLK’s words about white moderates to Nina Turner. Rosen insisted that MLK was only speaking about the “silence” of the white moderate in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” When Turner pushed back, Rosen told Turner that she had “no standing” to invoke MLK in an “attack” against Biden.
The quote in question is as follows:
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.'”
Rosen was absolutely fucking wrong in her interpretation of the quote, first and foremost. The goddamn audacity—nay, caucasity—it requires to tell a Black woman how to engage with MLK’s words and to gaslight her in order to defend a white man, especially Joe Biden, is beyond me. This is yet another instance in which I find myself completely unsurprised but still very exasperated by white nonsense. But I know all too well why Rosen felt so entitled to do so—on national television, no less—and why she did it with such ease and indignation.
White people don’t just glorify a carefully revised MLK. They go so far as to attempt to lay claim to him as their own figurehead for whiteness, to utilize as they see fit and promote the Post-racial/Post-racism America myth. Remembering him properly, accurately, truthfully would not only burst their self-righteous bubbles, but would also require them to admit to their own continued investment in the deeply ingrained anti-Blackness and white supremacy that killed him.
This appropriation of MLK is yet another way for them to disidentify with the violences of whiteness—and the centuries of devastation white folks have caused in the name of it—without relinquishing whiteness itself. Because whiteness is a property, as much as they don’t want to admit it. They hold tight to it because they know what it affords them, what it permits them to do, and how it operates so that they can deploy it against others in endlessly violent ways.
One of the primary ways white people maintain their false supremacy and actual racial-colonial terrorism is through the reframing and revisionism of historical narrative and fact. White supremacy specializes in ahistoricizing history.
To state it even more plainly: white people tell lies and expect the rest of us to simply go along with their fallacies, then become indignant when we refuse to oblige them, respond with evidence of the truth, and assert our right to be authorities over our own stories, experiences, history, people, and communities. This, too, is an integral part of the appropriation game.
As I have previously written, appropriation is about more than theft of intellectual and creative property. White appropriation is the active promotion of and attempt to enact the expulsion of Blackness—Black thought, Black politics, Black philosophies—and replace it with white mythologies. This is perfectly demonstrated in how white people continue to engage with MLK’s words, especially on the political stage.
This is why I see appropriation itself as a form of white knowledge production, one of its many incarnations. Others being colonial projects like the anthropological exploration of “exotic” lands, scientific and medical racism, constructing manufactured inequities through systems that rely on and perpetuate harmful stereotypes about Black, brown, and Indigenous peoples, and a whole host of other grotesque forms of white violence.
All of these forms of knowledge, of knowing and understanding and writing onto/into the world—illegitimate as they are—are interconnected and work towards the same end: to legitimize whiteness and white thought over all else, so as to maintain the status quo of a system that always benefits white people over others and constructs them as superior in their own imaginations.
The consequences of white knowledge production, however, exist outside of the imagination and create a lasting, tangible impact on the lives of Black, brown, and Indigenous folks. This is why it’s so necessary for us to keep pushing back against their revisionism and illegitimate ways of knowing, so that the truth is kept for those who come after us.
A long time ago, white people convinced themselves that they are the most insightful and disciplined thinkers in existence and they haven’t let go of that delusion since. Year after year, they remind us that this delusion is so strong that they actually think that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. belongs to them. Only white people could make this shit up.