When White People Consume Blackness For Personal Gain
Yesterday I woke up ready to talk about that curly-haired former boy band goofball who pulled an “all lives matter” on Twitter. I was so fired up that I spent much of the day thinking about it, doing research and mentally formulating a critique of popular culture and how it nourishes itself through cannibalism of Black people.
Jesse Williams alluded to it. bell hooks intellectualized it. And Black people have lived with it for hundreds of years. It’s morphed some; it’s no longer just the physical consumption of our Black bodies. Now it is the intellectual cannibalism of our thoughts, innovations, and inventions. It’s the political consumption of our fight against injustice and inequality. It’s the absorbing of our ideology as we fight for the protection of our Black bodies. It’s the devouring and erasure of our creative contributions to the arts. White people have practiced cultural cannibalism in their colonization of the world. So much so that they have no identity except in their whiteness and the power they built around it, and even that is evaporating before their eyes.
Cultural cannibalism. Jesse Williams described it at the BET awards as “mining Black gold.” bell hooks called it “eating the other.” At one time, cannibalism was the literal ingesting of another’s heart in an attempt to absorb their strength and knowledge. In America, it’s colonialism, oppression, and white, hetero, cis, male supremacy. It is the utter and complete destruction of a culture that is then picked over for the tastiest morsels that is then shared among the destroyer with the rest being deemed useless and discarded.
To practice cultural cannibalism, the enactor must be so vicious, so savage, and so convinced of their superiority, that the culture they attack, consume, and destroy has to be dehumanized. Seeing yourself in those you destroy is the first thing that must be muted; otherwise the psychological damage would be overwhelming. It is why we work so hard to categorize our differences — it makes it easier to use them to create distance in our humanity. It is how we justify treating people unfairly. It makes it easier to use terrible violence to assert our superiority.
That violence is intrinsic to cultural cannibalism. How can you consume the heart of a culture if that culture isn’t decimated? How can vultures feed if their food can fight back? So you take their tools: their language, their spirituality, their education, their children, their will. You preemptively savage their bodies to demand obedience. You remove limbs, sever spines, mutilate faces, feet, hands. You limit care. You deprive sleep. Provide minimal food. You physically terrorize them until you are the boogeyman they fear. You are the savage you accuse them of being and you tell yourself it doesn’t matter because they are different. They are not like you.
You attack them mentally. You make them dependent on you. Deny them language and education. You separate them. Break their families. Deny them livelihood. Deny them community. And you do this for years upon years upon years in hopes that you break them beyond fighting.
That savagery is never far away. It often surfaces when a Black person dares to assert their freedom, think they belong, demand justice. When they say, “Look at me, I am doing everything you are doing and often I’m doing it better than you.” It surfaces when Black people dare to demonstrate that we are intelligent and capable. It surfaces when we dare to be seen, when we deviate from the scripted narrative, when we dare to think we are as protected as white people.
I think back to the 2016 Oscars when Chris Rock gave his opening monologue. That monologue was problematic on numerous levels, but the one thing it effectively demonstrated was the eagerness to ridicule and dismiss Black people who demanded to be recognized and how thin the layer of civility is for white people. The crowd laughed heartily at Chris’ ridicule of Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith’s boycott of the Oscars — even as he used America’s violent history of lynching to do it. He used the imagery of a murdered Black grandmother and the audience laughed. The predominantly white, rich, creative, sensitive, liberal, genteel, civilized audience laughed at a comment featuring a Black American grandmother who’d been murdered by lynching.
I wasn’t prepared for that. In fact, I remember being furious with Chris Rock for providing that imagery as a joke. Now I see it for what it was — the stripping away of the veneer of white civility as they engaged in the ritual cannibalization of Blackness.
Hollywood is too enlightened to literally hang someone for entertainment these days, right? At least, not with a televised, live audience. But it is an act they engage in with clichéd regularity in other popular mediums. Movies, television shows, comics . . . in all these mediums, they limit the visibility of Black people, murder them, and justify it as necessary for the advancement of the white characters. Sophisticated savagery. Pageant cannibalism. Cannibalism they claim isn’t that because Black bodies are different from white bodies so it’s not the same.
White people consume everything about Black people — from our slang to our quips, to our hair, to our looks. They condemn us for how we speak, then laud some white artist as edgy and cool for speaking the same way. They practice our dance moves and believe that no one will realize where they originated. They practice “blaccents,” get butt implants, call themselves rapper artists, and win awards for that bullshit. They call our features ugly, describe Black women as the least desirable women in the country, then co-op the parts of us they’ve exotified and reject the rest.
They mine YouTube, mock our speech patterns, and make songs out of them that they sell on iTunes. They consume our work and repackage it for a white audience that pays them for it. There is a proven market in cannibalizing Blackness. The repackaging is done so they can maintain their distance. They are not like us. They are not us. They find us interesting in a way they cannot create themselves . . . but still, they tell us that we do not matter.
They tell themselves as they eat us alive that this is “right.” They lie and say this is how it was meant to be. They laugh at our pain and try to destroy our wonder, they eat their humanity but pretend that the difference in skin color makes it acceptable. They will lie, cheat, steal, and kill to maintain the illusion of civility and the delusion of sanity while their immortality continues to consume them from the inside.
So keep mining our tweets. Keep digging through our YouTubes. Keep convincing yourself that you are a genius because you have managed to commodify Black innovation. Keep lying to yourself. We see you. We’ve always seen you. That is why you work so hard to keep us invisible and silent. Truth shines too brightly for you to ignore it, so instead you hide in the darkness of your soul and pretend you are better than you are.
We see you and you are not worth cannibalizing because you are rotten.
I woke up crying this morning. Crying because I planned to write about a culture that views me and people who look like me as food. Not literal food, but cultural, exotic, diverse, intellectual food. Creative food. Political food. Ideological food. Sexual food. Emotional food. Exploitable food. Disposable food. We are who they use to feel powerful, because if you do not have anyone to oppress, to whom are you superior? Trying to view myself through the lens of those who do not value me is painful.
That white people think it’s easy for Black people to talk about racism exemplifies their ignorance about racism as well as their privilege. That they think we take some kind of special joy experiencing this and pointing it out is ridiculous. As a child, I couldn’t wrap my head around racism. It wasn’t real to me. I was so busy learning about the world and how to live that the racist obstacles I faced were just obstacles I faced. I didn’t understand that they were deliberate. I didn’t understand that they had been created specifically to make things more difficult for people who looked like me.
We like to think racism happened by accident, but it didn’t. None of this happened by accident. Some of the ramifications, the health issues, are unanticipated side effects, but the conditions that created them are not accidents. It takes many people in a room and numerous years to make laws. That is very, very intentional. And many of the laws being enforced today are designed to prevent the very acts that emancipated America, and it was at the expense of a lot of people.
Thinking about racism, talking about it, is a kind of torture. When I start researching and analyzing it, I take such an emotional beating that it affects me even as I sleep. I wake up with tears streaming down my face from having to ask myself, “Why do people hate me for being brown? Why do white people work so hard to try to convince me that I’m worthless? Why do I have to push so hard to be respected as a human being? Why does anyone have to work this hard? Why are Black invisibility and Black pain the status quo?”
“Why do they wantonly kill people who look like me? Why do they defend it? Why do some people seem to hunger for it?”
I look at the white people in my life and wonder if I can trust them. I wonder if they are imagining what parts of me they can extract to improve future generations. Is it my melanin, because of the protection it provides from the sun? Is it my intellect — my children would probably be pretty smart. Is it the access I would provide to the Ivy League school from which I graduated? Is it the wealth I am slowly amassing for my retirement?
I wonder if they see me as fresh carrion that they are circling, waiting for the opportunity to feed.
I wonder, I wonder, and I wonder . . . until my heart aches, my throat burns, and my eyes glisten.
I wonder and then, just a little, I break inside.
Lead image: flickr/Edward Kustoff