Anti-Blackness, False Allyship, and other Traits of The Modern POC
Last summer a Korean woman in her late twenties walked into my place of work and said nigga to me twice. I had never seen this person before and there she was, quoting Kanye while looking me, a black man and complete stranger to her, dead in the eye as she recited lyrics that she thought gave her permission to say nigga to me twice. Where did she find the comfort or confidence? What was her motive? Was she eager to display her rudimentary knowledge of recent West lyrics to the nearest black person? Was she probing me for a reaction — imposing on me the figurative feeling of hearing a white person say “dance, boy dance” while they smile and wait for you to do as told? Was she smiling because she felt empowered by her boldness, or was this more likely a matter of ignorance? Silently baffled, I settled on the belief that she was expecting me to reply with some form of racial solidarity due to our shared existence as people of color. I settled on this because the smile on her face wasn’t malicious. However, I expressed nothing of the sort — I just stared at her until she changed the subject. For months I questioned the situation before I was eventually able to ask her for an explanation: “I think I just felt comfortable with you.” This made sense. A majority of my life has been spent living in and observing the various ways in which non-black people of color (POC) express their unearned familiarity with black people and the black existence while also asserting their historic and personal alignment with white supremacy. The simple desire to acquire social equity in liberal circles through non-white status, ignorance of the perversities of white supremacy and the anti-blackness it fosters, and a hurried desire to move forward as a unified collective force in opposition to white supremacy without first checking their own present, and historic, complicity within it is what concerns me about many of the non-black people that comprise the POC community.
Gens de couleur, or “people of color”, is a term French colonists created approximately 221 years ago to differentiate African slaves they called “black” or “negro” from freed lighter skinned Africans they considered “mixed race” or “mulatto”. Needless to say, the term POC is drenched in historic anti-blackness and racial ambiguity. Now the racial ambiguity comes in the form of those who are clearly not black, but have the ability to move smoothly between black and white circles. Arguably, this type of racial ambiguity belongs to all non-black, less than dark-skinned, people of color. Within this particularly large group of people I often come into contact with two types. In one there are those who have identified as white their entire lives but have recently abandoned their white identity (usually in the name of racial solidarity sans white supremacy) without first checking their longstanding existence in it. While the other is full of those who are clearly not white, but constantly liken their existence as a POC to that of black people. They’re trying on my oppression, adding it to their own, as trend. A lot of these people are the ones that make me feel tokenized as a kind of oppression champion or companion. These are the people who prioritize their real or perceived oppression over others as if they are seeking to win the nonexistent game of disenfranchisement where the goal is to prove “who has experienced it most”. We seem to exist in a time where non-black people of color are quick to align their struggle with the black existence and pledge their allegiance to the fact that black lives matter without first unpacking the ever present anti-blackness within them and their communities. Instead the desire to obtain social equity from simply not being white is priority for many rather than taking necessary action to dismantle white supremacy. This is what I call appropriated, or romanticized, oppression. These are the people wanting to recreate and sit at the “POC table” only they can walk away from. To experience that which is not their own — to be relevant in a way they never have been. This want for oppression is hunger for social equity in certain liberal circles. Other times it’s simply hunger for monetary equity. Take for example my friend Yusuf, an Arab man who once told me he thought it was unfortunate he isn’t considered a minority because he “missed out on all the minority programs” he could have used to further his career. As a black person, this was a repulsive statement to hear from someone who considers their self an ally. This middle class white passing friend of mine felt comfortable expressing what he sees as a lost of opportunity to extend his life of privilege into various programs meant to aid the genuinely disadvantaged. These words were said and I heard someone expressing a desire to remove their whiteness not for the purpose of denying white supremacy to reign over his own identity, but for gain that could not be shared with those in actual need. In the moment, I understood this to be intended as a joke, but the truth in it was evident.
Growing up in Washington, D.C. throughout the nineties and early aughts, populated mostly by low income black people, I had my first experiences of being angrily called a nigger. The culprit was a thirty-something Latinx male no less frightening to my ten year-old self than a white person would have been in similar context. Fast forward five years and you have my first experience witnessing a group of Latinx teenagers playfully calling each other nigga in conversation while waiting for the Metro. Honestly, this experience was more confusing to me than the man who called me nigger years prior — I had somewhat of an understanding of how hate functions, but I was completely unfamiliar with the concept of others usurping an identity not belonging to them because they like it or find it relatable. Until that moment I had only heard friends and family members use that word that way; until that moment I thought only black people used that word that way. I was wrong. (It should be noted that no non-black person should ever feel comfortable using any version of nigger. Whether or not you shared communities with us or your immediate circle of black friends tell you it’s okay is irrelevant. Osmosis is not the road to blackness. And singing along to whatever song doesn’t give you a pass to say “nigga” either.) Those kids dressed like us, walked like us, talked like us then went home to racists parents that hated us. They were too familiar. It seemed to me that simply being neighbors with black people was enough to give many the right to playfully use a word their peers, parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts use to aggressively distance themselves from blackness and black people. Despite those with major platforms rarely calling attention to the longstanding anti-blackness in Latinx communities, the fact reminds that it does in fact exist. Luckily, every so often we have an actor or comedian call attention to what they know to be true. Personally, I’ve had at least three Cuban friends talk to me at length about racism in their own families directed specifically at black people (which of course includes black latinx),and all non-Cuban Latinx. Regardless of how it may seem at this moment, I have no interest in picking on any particular racial group for their anti-black ways, anti-blackness exists in every community — even mine. That’s how white supremacy works; it infects everyone to feed itself.
Now, let’s take two white passing friends of mine who often talk about not being white while never referencing any personal hardships regarding their race whatsoever. We laugh at the comments they make at the expense of white people in general and they extend their POC umbrella over the three of us as if we share some sort of mutual understanding of the hardships that come with existing in a world that loves “white people” and hates “us”. Honestly, I consider them both to be white as they primarily occupy spaces in which they are perceived and treated as white; so every time this happens I’m usually listening with loose attention (or I’m laughing with them because something funny was said). These friends of mine are Palestinian and Persian, both white passing and both technically considered white in America. Although that has not always been true, and there has been a clear increase in tension, violence, and general hardship for those who can be identified as Middle Eastern since 2001, the fact that many fought to be a part of whiteness to provide a safer living for their families and selves and are now fighting to distance themselves from it is questionable. On the one hand, I applaud the attempt to reclaim one’s own identity from the cancer that is whiteness, while on the other I’m weary of the intension for reasons mirroring my conversation with Yusuf.
During one of our conversations about race I interrupted my friend Angie, who is Persian, in the middle of her rant about white people to ask, “most people just think you’re Italian, right?” Unsurprisingly, her response was “yes”. These POC friends of mine, not dissimilar to what feels like most non-black people who use the term, exist in a new world where all non-black liberals are desperate to absolve themselves of daily and historic complicity with white supremacy by distancing themselves from whiteness by way of false racial oppression. As opposed to figuring out how to disempower white supremacy by acknowledging the true complexities within it and themselves. This is identity politics trying on a new shoe.
However, recently identifying as POC after being assigned whiteness from birth isn’t always the effort of dubious people seeking status from their fellow leftist. Some people want only to reclaim their identity by denying the one that was forced on them by those who colonized their ancestors. Although, to be honest, it is difficult for me as a black person, someone who cannot racially reassign, to differentiate between the two. Often times what some see as a genuine attempt to reclaim self, I see as forced allegiance coupled with the prioritization of personal oppression over acknowledgment of the country’s systemic abuse of black people. This is where I see black erasure and covert perpetuation of white supremacy that cannot be tolerated.
How can I trust someone who has been white their entire life, or socially blends as white, but now brandishes their existence as POC as if it were a trophy they always cherished? Is this newly discovered pride or some awful attempt to stand next to black people for unearned kinship? Who exactly are these people who seem to be trying on some form of oppression as their new aesthetic? So far they seem to be your everyday self-proclaimed ally hoping to be seen as good in the eyes of friends and fellow progressives. But why do I feel tokenized when they collectively refer to us both as POC? This is not what solidarity is supposed to feel like. Why are so many of my fellow POC still benefiting from a system that literally wants me dead? This feels like erasure. They are centering themselves in an existence that is literally not their own. So the question must be asked: are we entering a state of anti-blackness through homogenization of minorities as trend? Possibly. From where I stand the most popular way to exist as a non-black liberal in 2017 is to suddenly transform into a person of color to absolve one’s self of all past and present participation within the framework of white supremacy while simultaneously likening their lives to the black experience — falsely sympathizing with us rather than genuinely empathizing. Some of these people actually are people of color, others are white people latching on to a time in which their great grandparents and beyond were not yet considered to be white. To all of you, please stop trying to sell me on some storied past of oppression entirely detached from anything you have ever personally experienced. Despite what you all may have told yourself, this is not solidarity, this is you, once again, putting yourself ahead of those you say you stand beside. This is desperation to be included while innocent. I say all of this not to deny the necessity of unity, but to say practicing this unity while ignoring one’s own existence and culpability within white supremacy is nothing short of detrimental to us all. If left unchecked, false progression will function as nothing less than a chink in our armor.