Black Angst: Outside The Quite Visible Black Backpack

Black Backpack
A professor at Seattle Pacific University recently told me that she requires her students to read Peggy McIntosh’s essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. My gut reaction was that of delight and satisfaction. A feeling of being glad that students in the very Caucasian northwest corner of the United States, at a college located in a particularly affluent area in town will be forced to realize, understand and then acknowledge that they have an unearned privilege because of their race. Through my pride I felt that perhaps I should give the article another read, as I’d read it so many times before.
Almost immediately I realized that the once very poignant words sounded differently than  read them before. Perhaps it was Lauryn Hill’s song “Black Rage” playing on my speakers in the background that seeped in to my subconscious. Maybe the shift represented the change in the way I saw myself, moving from a youthful Black adoptee in a largely white smaller town, to a young Black women in a large American city. Whatever the reason, my gut told me that educating students cannot simply stop with an acknowledgment about the unearned advantages that Whites have, but educators must also provide a narrative from  the opposite viewpoint and a history about what had to happen in order to allow for hierarchies and such privileges.

McIntosh’s infamous and well-written piece was published in 1989. In this 21st century, Black men and Black women are learning how to climb out of the deeply entrenched history of oppression simply while journeying through our everyday lives. By the time Black men get to their classroom, they have learned the correct way to walk the streets in order to avoid being accused of acting in a disruptive or frightening way. Black women, like myself, have exerted much work and effort in learning how to be proud being dark-skinned despite the defaming innuendos and sexual objectification of African-American females.  This readily backed-up fact is a far cry from Ms. McIntosh’s account on her Whiteness:

“My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture.I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.”
It seems to me that Blacks have realized that many doors open for people most certainly due to virtues bestowed upon them before their birth. Peggy’s list contained 26 indisputable facts aiding in her unearned yet, more privileged life. I have realized that for me, a Black Women, my very visible black backpack can be summed up in one undeniable truth:
Ordinary privileges cannot be had for Blacks, without a fight as this country is founded upon a widespread enslavement and systemic genocidal dispossession of my entire race.
Only once we truly understand that the U.S. history of capitalism, followed soon thereafter by racism, aids in the privileges of Whites and fuels the angst of Blacks and our uphill battle. Once this knowledge is truly assimilated will we be able to move forward with peace and understanding around the continued oppression and denigration of Blacks. Coming to this realization may not stop the bloodshed or lessen the dormant fear others have of black men, nor should it lighten the feelings of white guilt and the desires for white folks to “rescue” or adopt black children. These truths will remain. Even under the leadership of the first Black president our country has ever been bold enough to elect. Even with the hiring of the first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts (Cheryl Boone Isaacs). Even with the first African-American female four-star admiral (Michelle J. Howard). For as long as we enthusiastically salute African-American firsts as though we are babies moving into toddler-hood, I will know that racism and Black oppression is systemic. It is my hope that the confusion around with whom is oppressing whom is banished under the cloak and facts of our history. We must know that the reason behind the oppression goes much deeper than Mike Brown ever would’ve seen had he not died an early death because of his quite visible black backpack.

5 thoughts on “Black Angst: Outside The Quite Visible Black Backpack

  1. Hi Angela: I appreciate your thoughtful writing and the fact that you inspire me to dig deep and seek the truth. Here are me comments:

    We who are not trying to justify how things are – have questions about how to proceed.
    As a country, a state, a community and a family we know the way forward to closing the disparity in employment opportunity and the broad gap in the justice process: that road drives right through a common understanding of civility. The Institute for Civility defines civility thusly: Claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.” Merriam-Webster thusly: polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior. I define civility using the “golden rule”.

    Our family has policy of “you don’t have to agree with me, but you must tell the truth and you must be civil.” We take things on – head-on and we don’t shy away from the hard issues – so here goes.
    Understand that as a retired cop -it breaks my heart to ask these questions. Will my sons need to keep a white friend at their side at all times to be safe? Will having white friends at their sides make them less likely to be accepted other young black men? Will they ever be black enough for the black community? It is clear that they will not be accepted by “white america” unless they are successful athletes, astronauts, service members or president of the country.

    A few thoughts: America is 238 years old, as a nation we have populated a continent, built industry and created a way of life (even in our “impoverished” areas) that far exceeds countries that are hundreds of years older. We have reduced the number of crimes that result in the death penalty from over 200 to only 2 (specific types of murder and treason). We have altered the Constitution 27 times as we have gained experience as a nation and to rectify fundamental flaws in the original document. We have named and labeled discriminatory behaviors as “isms” which is the first step any society takes in altering the public consciousness – thus: changing behavior. We have in fact criminalized many “isms” specifically in employment law. Yet, here we are.

    Black Americans make up 54% of the workforce but have a 12.6 vs 5.6 rate of unemployment. More than 800,000 black American men in jail or prison. Almost 10% of black American males drop out of high school. All proof that the foundational idea of white supremacy in all things is alive and well.
    Some say education is the answer – well ok, where are the teachers to staff low wage teaching positions in “high risk” schools? Would you take a job paying $25K per year to work in a school where you are as likely as not to be assaulted by a student who has not been diagnosed with learning disabilities and is frustrated, angry and out of control? What help, support or services are available to parents who are desperately trying to keep their young adults in school in the face of “easy money” on the street, school systems that are broke and broken and the influence of the “gang culture” as an acceptable way of life? What brand of civility, if any are these young people being taught and by whom?

    If there was magic and tomorrow all fields were equal and no disparity in housing, opportunity or education existed –how would we as a society cope? What would we do with stereotypes, prejudice, suspicion and distrust born of experience? What salve would be available for the wounds that were carved over generations? What do we as a society do with the roughly 1M black Americans who are incarcerated? As a group, they are likely poorly educated, poorly trained, institutionalized and “un-rehabilitated” from whatever criminal charges that caused them to be incarcerated (skin color and poverty notwithstanding). In fact, they are more likely to be indoctrinated in a criminal gang that operates as freely within the prisons system as it does on our city streets : and if not, will likely return to the same socio-economic conditions that lead to their incarceration in the first place. How will they successfully re-enter free society where they are even less likely to find one of those newly available jobs with a criminal record? Further, who has the responsibility for re-habilitating these men’s views toward police, courts and society at large – all of which contributed to their incarceration? How do we convince them that being civil is a requirement when for the duration of their incarceration the same behavior was likely to make them victims?

    I will say it again. I am at a loss. We are unapologetic about being the white parents of black sons. We wanted a family that infertility made impossible. We adopted the children that God sent us. Should we have said no – I can’t accept that child because he is black and left him to “the system” as there were no black families waiting to adopt? Is there a backpack for those of us who are not black, who understand our inherited privileges, have black children and are afraid for their futures.
    amy

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  2. Amy, I’m glad you all adopted children who needed adopting and raise your children to be civil. Thank you. Some of your essay troubled me. Do you really think your sons will not be accepted into society unless they fit into a few molds? I look around me and see black men doing all kinds of work, engaging in the community I live in, laughing with their families around town, and basically just living life with all it’s ups and downs. I live in a medium sized city out west. Perhaps there is a whole America out here where black men just pursue their lives without huge drama, taking in the small racial slurs and injustices and moving on just like women do with sexism and sexual violence. I guess I’m saying that perhaps the USA is not as bad a place for your boys to grow up in as some might suggest. Sometimes I wonder if the internet is bringing an overload of fear and negativity into our lives that in no way reflects our actual day to day experiences. We react to it like it’s a crushing wave of inescapable badness when in reality it is a tiny trickle that we can examine, do something about changing its direction or step on over.

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  3. Hi Dana: Thank you for ready my post. You are correct that America is a great country with many opportunities for us to pursue. I disagree that the racial issues facing this country today represent a trickle that can be stepped over and ignored. I do not live in America as a black citizen and I cannot know their experience whether in as small town or a big city. I do know this from living for over 50 years: my sons who are black are more likely to be stopped by the police than their white friends. My black sons are more likely to be followed, harassed and challenged at the mall than their white friends. Statistically, my sons are more likely than their white friends to be killed by other black men. My sons will be offered fewer jobs, paid less and let go first regardless of where they work. I am not a pessimist. I am a realist who chooses to educate myself and my sons in an effort to save their lives. I write because I feel a tremendous responsibility to understand the challenges that my boys will face and to prepare them for those challenges. I believe that if we, as a society could agree on the definition of civility and agree to teach our children to be civil to one another regardless of their challenges, we could begin to turn the tide of violence in this country. Civility is not a panacea – but it cant hurt along the journey. Amy

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