Apparently Freedom Sounds like White Privilege
Three weeks ago I attended the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I had no plans to go in the museum — I just needed to be in the number. To be able to tell my future grandchildren that their blacker than black Grandma was there September 24, 2016. That morning I was playing no games. I made it super clear to my line sisters that we needed to be on time. I couldn’t miss a moment of the Dedication Ceremony.
Once the Uber got us as far as the barricades would allow, we followed the sea of black folks toward the museum. My foot touched the ground, and I was officially excited beyond measure. As we walked, I looked around at all the blackness that surrounded me. We kept walking, and I looked up to see none other than THE Dave Chappelle staring me in the face! I thought: yep this is about to be the day to end all days. We approached the gate, cleared security, and we were finally there. There are no words that can fully articulate the immense joy I felt in just being alive and present for that moment. Overwhelmed, I closed my eyes and prepared myself to take the whole day in. I opened my eyes, looked around, and something disrupted my joy — I realized all the white people in the world were in attendance.
“Ummmm…why are they here and in such mass numbers?” By no means was I operating under the illusion that only black people would be present, I just didn’t think there would be SO MANY white people that they would outnumber us. This was a problem for me, but it was less about their presence and more about our absence. Although it’s a black museum, I did not want this to be a sign that black people felt like it wasn’t truly ours. I convinced myself that I was making too much of it and that more black people would show up in time, and I was right. By the time the Dedication Ceremony started, we showed up and showed out in mass numbers.
The ceremony started and they announced a number of people on the dais, but it was not until President Obama and the First Lady walked onto the stage that it started to feel real. The energy in the crowd changed, and it was our moment. There were a litany of speeches, all way too long, all too drawn out and most given by older, white men. So at this point I was beyond annoyed. I understand that the Smithsonian leadership is predominantly white and male, but I don’t really care. This is not what the Dedication Ceremony was supposed to be. We should have been out there pouring libations and singing old church hymns. Spoken word should have been on deck… aka the day should have been SUPA BLACK. But none of that happened…at ALL. Mama Patti (as in LaBelle) did show out for the people, and everybody loves to see Stevie sway and do his thing. Angela Bassett and Will Smith graced the stage in all their glory, but it just wasn’t enough. They had poetry and drum circles outside the grounds, but that was not the part of the day that was broadcasted for everyone to experience and enjoy. That was not the main event. While I was glad to be there, so many others did not have the ability to attend and for those people and for myself, I wanted more. Nonetheless, the performances later that night would make everything in the world right again. Or so I thought.
So we left and returned for the concert. In the beginning, the concert was turning out better than the dedication. Public Enemy did not disappoint — especially Flavor Flav with his hilarious pleas to the President to invite him to the White House. All was well until the set change between Public Enemy and the Roots. We were all standing around waiting, and I randomly turn around to see a black woman behind me tapping a white cop on the shoulder. She pointed at these white people near us…smoking weed. I remember looking at them and thinking that these white people were getting off on this weed like they had never had it before in their days. What I hadn’t seen earlier was the two little boys the woman had with her. The woman and her significant other explained they asked them to stop smoking with consideration of their children. As soon as she tapped that cop, every black person in the immediate vicinity of the situation became aware of all of this and knew some craziness was about to go down.
At this point in the story I have to inform you that this is about to go all the way left. Depending on who you are, you’re either about to be pissed off beyond measure — you all, brace yourselves for the foolishness that is about to ensure — or wonder why this event would lead me to recount the details of that day three weeks after it occurred — for you, know it is because this situation is indicative of so many of the things that are wrong with this country.
So I need to set the scene because it matters. The crowd was divided by fences with a walkway for security and event staff. At the base of the fences were these stepping stools that faced the walkway. There were a total of three cops in the area — all white, two male and one female.
The cop approached the fence to address the smokers. Immediately, half of the white perpetrators took off running and disappeared in the crowd….
Case of White Privilege Number 1: They felt like it was safe to just run away. Had it been me, I’d have every black person that lost their life running AWAY from a cop on my mind, and would be careful not to breathe differently, let alone run!
Not two seconds after they ran, the second cop jumped onto the step stool on the fence beside me and had his gun within inches of my face. Let me be clear — the gun was in the holster, on his belt, on his waist. He did not have his gun drawn, but drawn or not, I froze and prayed. Prayed that he wouldn’t think I was standing wrong, or that he wouldn’t look too closely at my shirt with “Very Black” across my chest then consider me a threat. Prayed that I did not turn my head ever so slightly and he conclude that my movements were a clear indication that I intended harm him or anyone else. Prayed that he was not trigger happy that day like so many cops have proven themselves to be.
Case of White Privilege Number 2: As I stood there — frozen and terrified, but the one not accused of any wrongdoing — I got to listen to the remaining two white men aka the actual accused, tell both cops “no” every single time they asked them to do something. “Give me the weed”. No. “What’s in your water bottle? Let me have it.” No. “Give it all to me.” No. NO!?! This is where the history of racial violence in our country has brought us. They felt the freedom to say no because the system intends them no harm. They are the only ones that police officers have ever been trained to protect and serve, while I represent who they are enlisted to protect white people from. So because of this fact that so many people in this country choose to ignore, I got to stand there paralyzed while these two white men told the cops no.
Case of White Privilege Number 3 (and it really is the best one): While the two male cops accepted “no” to every demand they made, the female cop begged and pleaded with the two pot-puffing perpetrators. This white woman begged them, “Please, please just give us the weed and it will all be over.” But wait for it. After she said that the white cop with his gun inches from my face looks down at me and says, “They’re just kids.” I looked at this fool like you have got to be kidding me!!!
Mind you, I didn’t ask, but these guys were at least college-aged AND even if they were let’s just say 13 years old, that’s not supposed to matter to you, police officer. How could it if police officers are not the problem? How could it if there is no bias within the police force and the larger judicial system? How could it if the prison industrial complex is some falsehood that black people keep rambling and complaining about for no reason at all? At the root of that argument is the notion that black or white, we are all treated the same. So if they were kids and that was indeed true, when Tamir Rice was seen playing in a park, like an actual kid does, he would not have been brutally murdered. If it did, then 13 year old Ty’re King would have been spared. His family would not have laid Ty’re to rest the same day this police officer was in my face telling me that these young adults in front of us were “just kids” and deserved to be treated with care. How different things would be if beautiful Tamir and Ty’re would have been treated with that care… if those young, black actual children had received the same care and attention that these “kids” did.
In the midst of trying to process this tomfoolery, the three very white cops disappeared. Just like that, they walk away and leave these two very white “kids” there. So as most have probably guessed, all the black people were HOT. Everybody was screaming. Everybody was pissed. Everybody was angry because we all knew the unfortunate truth about that incident without saying it. That if they had been black, there is no possible way that situation would have been handled that way. Any black person irrespective of age would have been dragged over the fence, and there definitely would not have been any pleading — at least not by the police. If they had been black, it’s likely that shots would have been fired first, no questions asked later. The police officers would have received a pat on the back and paid time off for successfully lynching another black person only to return to work a few weeks later to lynch more.
Trust that we made that very clear to the white “kids.” At one point my line sister shouted, “YOUR WHITE PRIVILEGE SAVED YOU TODAY.”
That essentially sums it up. Let me remind you that all of this took place outside of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We don’t even get to BE BLACK at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. But as black people living in America,that is not incredibly shocking.
It would have been nice if the National Museum of African American History and Culture was not another privileged space. It would have been nice if this was a place where I would not worry about being violated and traumatized. Instead it’s another place where two beautiful black boys had to stand by watching their family attempt and fail to protect them. The place where these black children were reminded for probably the millionth time that it doesn’t matter whether you are just existing or resisting. As a black person you are always in danger and you will always be the last considered, the last valued and the first violated when the preservation of whiteness is at stake. Instead of being reminded of our beauty and celebrating our achievements, those were the lessons we were reminded of at the opening.
I could fault the police officers for this, but why would I? They were simply doing exactly what they’ve been trained to do. People have to stop talking about the system like it’s broken. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. Modern day police departments originated as slave catchers. Organized groups of white men who did nothing but monitor the enslaved and incite terror to keep the enslaved in line. Sounds super familiar I’m sure. Our police force is one of the most well-functioning institutions in this country. There is no rebuilding trust with police officers when trust never existed in the first place. The police force is in need of more than just rebuilding, and most people fail to understand that because they are ignorant to the historical context that created the conditions we now suffer. But guess who has no excuse to be ignorant to this fact? The National Museum of African American History and Culture.
I wanted so desperately to have a few hours where I could feel some semblance of freedom and celebrate the beauty of my blackness — I thought this would be that. I get to tell my future grandchildren that their fabulous Grandma was indeed there, but that just meant that I was once again a witness to the same thing I witness every day: whiteness glorified at every turn and black people left wondering where blackness exists without white people appropriating it, attempting to degrade it, and belittling its existence.
Signs lined the concert stage stating, “Freedom Sounds.” The audacity. You know what freedom sounds like when you create an environment where whiteness is put on a pedestal at the dedication ceremony and you have a majority white police force at the opening of a BLACK museum? It sounds like white boys telling cops no. It sounds like a white woman whose been given the authority to “protect and serve” pleading with white boys to give them what they want so all of this can go away. And for the black people who witnessed that madness, freedom sounds like what it always sounds like…white privilege.
Real cute National Museum of African American History and Culture. Real cute.