Advice for White People on Celebrating MLK Day
"I can remember, I can remember when Negroes were just going around as Ralph has said, so often, scratching where they didn't itch, and laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God's world.
"And that's all this whole thing is about. We aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God's children. And that we don't have to live like we are forced to live."
--Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 3, 1968 (The day before he was assassinated, in his last public speech.)
In my experience, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is often an awkward day for white people. I think I understand why.
As a spectator, I've observed that there are two ways that white people often celebrate MLK day that are a bit offensive. We laugh it off, but under the laugh is an annoyance, a slight offense. I’m sorry; it can’t be helped.
One option is to say, “Oh! How wonderful that MLK’s dream has been realized!” But this is offensive, because it hasn’t. 95% of black people, I guarantee you, will say that racism exists today. It may be more muted, it may be more camouflaged, but it does exist. And science confirms that even (or, perhaps, especially) those most vocal about racism have a subconscious racism that their consciousness has to control vigilantly (which might, incidentally, have to do with why they are so vocal against racism). And we black people are even conscious about racism – I came across a study recently that merely telling a black person to self-identify as a black person on a test caused him to do worse. We know there’s more work to do ourselves, because we are racist to the very face we see in the mirror. So don’t tell us that racism is over. It’s a profound insult to what we know to be true.
Another option is to say, “I’m so sorry that the dream hasn’t been realized! We still have a lot of work to do.” But this doesn’t work, either. At least, not by itself. It turns easily into a patronizing, “I’m SO sorry I’m still better than you.” This apologetic statement pales in comparison to the black individual’s celebration of the day. He feels no pity for himself. Only raw determination.
I know this, in a way, from studying feminism. As a man, I cannot fully be a feminist. I can’t do it. Sexism exists, and it is a problem. And yet, as a heterosexual male, I can’t be as militant or as strong or as free of pity as an advocate of feminism as someone who is actually female. I can respect their fight, but I can’t join it the way that a woman can. It’s just impossible.
So why should I bother? Because my definition as a man is profoundly connected to who they are as women. I am not an advocate for their cause – I am a listener. I fight to listen. I tell others to listen. And, through listening and respecting their unique perspective of the world, I acquire for them an increasing measure of respect and deepen an understanding of my own experience, as I build in myself an increasing measure of humility.
I don’t provide the content for their advocacy; I provide an ear for their advocacy.
And that, I think, is how white people can celebrate the legacy and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. By taking a day out of the year to listen. Just one day. Let us speak. Respect our voices as much as we respect your Fourth of July. Because this is our beginning; this is our Independence Day, and in the words of Langston Hughes, we, too, sing America. And that listening can be active and an advocation for others to join your ears.
But what about all the other minorities? This question is commonly used to silence minorities – when a minority speaks of injustice, he is told to shut up, because at least he doesn’t have it as bad as X. I agree that I should listen to others, but I can only provide content for my own advocacy. I do not provide content for the Asian or the Palestinian – I listen to how they define and affect my own experience and standing in the socioeconomic political and experiential standing I find myself in. I am not qualified to provide the content for their voices. If you want to hear my voice, then I will speak as myself. And I will let them speak for themselves. I’m asking you, as well, to listen to me, and perhaps, through listening, you will understand yourself. This is my struggle. You may engage in your own. Do not tell us what we should do for this one day. For one day, for one 24 hour period, listen.
Morgan Freeman was once asked about black history month. He hated it. When asked why, he said, “I don’t want my history relegated to a month. How would you like to have ‘white history month’?” You see?
I don’t want this to turn into, “black people’s struggles are a symbol for my own inferiority.” Because we aren’t. We aren’t. We just aren’t. We’re not a symbol – this is real life. Day in, day out. It’s not pretend. It’s not just a story. This is our life. We aren’t your metaphor; we’re ourselves.
But at the same time, in hearing us, you’re hearing a part of yourselves, because we are, with the rest of the United States and the world, constructors of your identity as a patriot, as a citizen, as a human being.
Understand yourself by understanding us.
So that’s how you can celebrate his legacy. It’s only for one day. And your gift is coming one step closer to defining equality. For when you get right down to it, your equality and fight against inferiority is dependent on and defined by my own.