The Case for Curiosity in the Fight Against Anti-Blackness
Why We Need a Beginner’s Mind
In my work at the Black Lives Matter Global Network, I am on the receiving end of most of our communications: email, social media, phone calls, etc. I encounter assumptions about and explicit biases toward Black people almost every day. Whether in the headlines, my inbox, or comments on our social media, there are stereotypes and emphatic assertions claiming to know all there is to know about Black people, our experiences, and our lives. I can see the stain of decades of misinformation, punitive legislation, and racist tropes all over these comments. Against this barrage of obtuse certainty, I keep coming back to the same question: Why aren’t people more curious about Black people and Blackness?
In part, the dearth of curiosity about Black people is a direct result of the ways in which anti-Blackness and white supremacy obscure Black people’s inherent value and worth. In the face of this reality, we have to find a way to build and broaden people’s curiosity about Blackness anyway. The problem is compounded, however, as Dr. Joy DeGruy pointed out over a decade ago, by the fact that white people in particular “have a very hard time even hearing a person of color express their experience.” At the same time, DeGruy’s point is exactly why curiosity as an approach to dismantling anti-Blackness is necessary.
Anti-Blackness is bad for everyone because anti-Blackness exists to reject people. When any person is viewed as disposable, the whole system suffers morally and no one is safe. Curiosity about the people who are most disadvantaged by systems, social practices, and behaviors that shape all our lived experiences flies in the face of the rejecting hegemony of anti-Blackness, and says that trans and genderqueer folks, the disabled, poor people, and Black women matter. Curiosity requires a radical imagination, because in the United States we’ve never been exposed to a world outside of anti-Blackness. Curiosity requires all people, but especially white people, to consider how their life choices, good and bad, impact the lives of Black people. And curiosity as an approach also requires what feels like a superhuman goal of asking people to consider that it is both possible and better for everyone to shine a light on and significantly reduce white supremacy.
We see curiosity at work when states stretch their understanding of a “real job” to include care work, and require employers to grant paid leave for new mothers or caregivers of sick family members. Since we are all interconnected through both our proximity to one another and through systems, I’m hopeful that more people becoming curious about Blackness and the impact of anti-Blackness on Black people, and therefore on everyone, can open a needed dialogue about power — who has it, who doesn’t, and why. More importantly, curiosity allows us to identify where and how we’ve been misinformed about one another, who is responsible for that misinformation, and what their motives are.
I’m hopeful that curiosity as an approach can make a difference, but I also sense what we’re up against. The most popular, reductive, and disconcerting display of incuriosity shows up for me when people claim members of Black Lives Matter don’t care about Black people. The pervasive “Black-on-Black crime” or “inner city violence” narrative is given as proof that BLM is cherry-picking its battles, while not tending to things in “our own backyard.” Though the fallacy of Black-on-Black crime has been proven nonsensical time and again, its staying power is buttressed by both implicit and explicit anti-Black bias and a whole lot of hypocrisy.
Because American society is segregated and crime is based on proximity, intraracial violence is as common among white people as it is among black people. However, we know that this well-worn “concern” trolling is not really about violence among people of the same race. This specific retort serves the larger political purpose of reifying the idea that Black people are inferior and have a particular problem with violence — one that is attributed to Blackness itself, rather than to the societal factors that cause crime among people of all races. At the same time, policy makers, government agencies, and everyday people are absolved of caring about the problem of anti-Blackness. Deal with your own stuff before you ask for help; the king of all misguided bootstrap philosophies.
A curious person, or someone who understands how nuanced it is to be human, might invest in assessing conditions that make intracommunity violence so pervasive across the board, instead of anchoring their beliefs to talking points in the media or misinformation; conditions like poverty, unemployment, and a lack of access to basic needs such as healthy food and healthcare. The truth is that Black people are the only people who have continuously shown an interest in helping Black people. Because the question at issue is whether police should be able to kill Black people with impunity, whether state violence in any of its forms should be allowed to continue as a reign of terror on Black lives, the assertion that we don’t care about each other because of intracommunity violence is a pretext for anti-Black racism. State violence and other systemic injustices have nothing to do with how Black people treat each other, or how any community of people treats each other. Addressing injustice so that we can all be more free has to do with whether or not police and or other state actors should be able to kill Black people or anyone with impunity.
What would it mean for us to become curious about anti-Blackness?
As part of my commitment to increasing curiosity broadly, I take the vulnerable and strong step of expressing myself fully, so that we may wonder together about anti-Blackness. I admit that I’m frustrated and sad about the ongoing lack of curiosity about Blackness and Black people overall. But I’m also fascinated by and hopeful for what might happen as people get more curious about anti-Blackness.
In 2014, while leading the ACLU of Northern California’s communications efforts to undo legislation that encouraged poor women to limit their pregnancies, I became aware of how ubiquitous incuriosity is among people across the political spectrum. In the 1950s white women, not Black women, were the recipients of most of the aid given away by the government. Recognizing that many had husbands who were away at war, they supplemented families’ incomes with small grants. It was, after all, the American thing to do. However, beginning in the 1980s Ronald Regan and American conservatives deliberately sought to associate state assistance with Black people (although most recipients were white) in order to delegitimize government support for poor families. The Maximum Family Grant took direct aim at poor women’s ability to grow their families by obfuscating income disparities with negative stereotypes about Black and brown women. I traveled throughout the Bay Area interviewing women whose lives had been turned upside down by this legislation; women who had to give their kids away or who terminated wanted pregnancies because they couldn’t afford to continue to grow their family without help.
In this country, the reality is that because of access, ability, or systems like racism, sexism, and transphobia that prevent people from earning what they deserve, many people are kept from earning at the same level. Often, my so-called progressive friends pushed back on the idea that poor women should have children when they “can’t afford them,” friends who were simultaneously fighting against both wage theft or gender-based discrimination in pay scales in their work. The contradiction was clear to me; bad systems impact all of us, but the “bad” part is particularly bad for some. Those friends asked few questions about how it came to be that the litmus for whether you could have children was whether you could afford them, few questions about why terminating a wanted pregnancy or birthing a child and giving it away is an acceptable social solution for poor Black people but not for others, and few questions about how capitalism, the labor market, immigration, and systems of oppression impact our ability to earn and live. A deficit of curiosity coupled with pervasive paternalism obscures solutions to human-made social problems, and it makes each of us complicit in maintaining the scaffolding of human suffering. It also obscures where we should be directing our ire. Are poor Black families, not wealth hoarders, really to blame?
Legislation like the Maximum Family Grant rule was an idea someone had the power to turn into policy. It doesn’t make the assumptions that this legislation is predicated on right or even true. In this instance, curiosity would have been an antidote to the pervasive anti-Blackness that fueled the exploitation of power and bad governance behind the Maximum Family Grant, as well as our collusion in it.
In his widely-shared essay, Blackness is the Fulcrum, Scot Nakagawa reminds us that the racial arrangement in the U.S. is not a hierarchy of oppression, with white people on the top, Black people on the bottom, and all other non-Black people of color in the middle. He writes:
“Our Constitution was written by slave owners. They managed to muster some pretty nice language about equality, justice, and freedom for ‘men’ because they considered Africans less than human. Our federal system is based on a compromise intended to accommodate slavery. Our concept of ownership rights, the structure of our federal elections system, the segregated state of our society, the glut of money in politics, our conservative political culture, our criminal codes and federal penitentiaries all evolved around or were/are facilitated by anti-Black racism.”
Getting curious about anti-Blackness, how we all perpetuate it, and its impact on Black people, means getting curious about how the structures of power came to be in this country, who benefits, who doesn’t, and how the civil and human rights of everyone, not only Black people, are slowly being repealed. Getting curious about anti-Blackness is a countermeasure to authoritarianism because realizing true freedom for Black people means shaping power so everyone benefits — not merely a select few.
Why is it taking us so long to get curious about something so dangerous, and that impacts us all?
In September, Perry-Undem, a non-partisan research firm released a comprehensive report on the state of Black people in America after the election. Black people identified the Obamas as the most trusted voices on public policy issues. Black people also voted upwards of 90 percent for Hillary Clinton, and according to this report, Black people believe we will suffer more than anyone while Trump is in office.
Ironically, this survey is only one of a handful done specifically to determine how Black people feel about things. Most studies that contain data on Black public opinion are based on an oversampling of studies done to find out how Black people’s opinions compare to those of white people. According to the researchers, polling only Black people is cost-prohibitive. Social scientists claim that because Black people make up 13 percent of the population it is too expensive to poll Black people. Of course, without data or a clear understanding of how people feel about specific issues like healthcare and living wages, it is hard to meet their specific needs. But a more insidious question remains. Why not spend the money to figure out what could make conditions better for the people most impacted by state violence? Such information would help us construct public policies that would benefit everyone, building from the bottom up rather than waiting in vain for justice to trickle down.
Ultimately, policies that benefit everyone is one way American democracy is realized. But how can we shape good policy if we don’t get curious about what everyone needs? Because anti-Blackness is the fulcrum of white supremacy, as Nakagawa argues, and white supremacy — the idea that white people are the superior race and should dominate other races — continues to be the determinant for cultural, legislative, and criminal systems, we must meet at the nexus of anti-Blackness and human behavior and get curious about how to solve for our own freedom. Only through getting curious about what Black people need and solving for anti-Blackness can we successfully solve for sexism, homophobia, and other institutionalized irrational, prejudicial fears. An attempt to begin anywhere else is palliative — like a band aid on a cut jugular vein.
People are committed to what they think they know. It’s time to disrupt that.
In many ways, I know why people are not curious about Black people; anti-Blackness is inherently obscuring. However, because I understand that incuriosity is incredibly pernicious, I am experimenting with strategies that may lead people to become more curious about the welfare of Black people, or at least about their own welfare within our interrelated society. Even this is an uphill battle.
Study after study shows how racism becomes fomented in the mind and body, how children at an incredibly young age come to understand people as inherently more or less valuable just by being exposed to America’s racist culture. Tropes and stereotypes are so deeply embedded in everything we do, say, and feel; and often we don’t second guess where they come from. We don’t take time to examine why we believe what we believe, and sometimes we are not even aware of what we believe even though those beliefs dictate how we engage with one another, how we vote, and ultimately how we perpetuate those harmful systems.
In the June 15, 2017, episode of Invisibilia, a white man with an adopted Black daughter sorrowfully tells the story about how he racially profiled a Black man and how he couldn’t believe how that had “happened to him,” that he could possibly assume something about someone that was harmful in nature. His disbelief is part of the problem. We are all capable of doing this — every single one of us — and while for some the impact is much more severe, that we refuse to acknowledge its possibility leads us to replicate the same behavior. In this episode, Dr. Patricia Devine offered a solution to this man’s bias, a rigorously tested way to significantly reduce bias: recognize, reflect, and reject. A mnemonic device I’ve used almost every day since I heard the episode.
Of course, this doesn’t solve the problem that people aren’t aware they have a problem — or in some cases flat out refuse to acknowledge the problem. Why are we so surprised that we can be problematic when we all are? Even in my social circles I hear people say, “he’s problematic, she’s problematic, or they’re problematic,” as if problematic is a place at which you arrive, not an ongoing human condition that we will all spend a lifetime working on. We are not a country that embraces restorative justice, and in many respects, have given up on the idea of rehabilitation all together. We have all been socialized in a country that believes the solution to mental health crises or violence is to be caged. Given this, positive change can only be made through acknowledging how we all contribute to bad systems, and by making a daily commitment to undo them.
We have to stretch ourselves in ways that can feel inconvenient and uncomfortable, and ask ourselves hard questions about both our beliefs and our everyday actions, knowing that all of us harbor bias, prejudice, and racism. Curiosity may not be the same thing as comfort. Like most things that require deep attention to transform, we have to put in the work. We must get curious about how we perpetuate the systems that harm people, ourselves, our country, and our aspiration to realize a true democracy.
I continue to want people to be curious about Black people; specifically, about what we feel, think, experience, like, etc. Over the next ten weeks, come on a journey with me as I explore how we can increase curiosity about Blackness in a way that leads to understanding more of what we don’t yet know and change the material conditions of Black lives. We will learn why a lack of curiosity is a recipe for human malice and social decay, how this process has been uniquely deleterious and life threatening for Black people, and hopefully through the conversation get more connected, compassionate, and curious with each other about the systems to which we are all bound.
We cannot wait to deepen understanding of how to make life better for Black people, and therefore for everyone. We must engage now. By committing to a rigorous approach to community building that starts with empowering people who have the least and asking questions about things we do not understand, we can create an ecosystem of care that extends beyond our wildest imaginations.
Shanelle Matthews is the director of communications for the Black Lives Matter Global Network and the inaugural activist-in-residence at The New School. Follow @theshanellem