…I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today? – Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” July 5, 1852
What would Frederick Douglass have to say almost 163 years after delivering his famous public speech in Rochester, New York before then President Millard Fillmore and other illustrious guests on why he could not, in good conscious, celebrate the fourth of July? Would his words still ring true today? If you have not read Douglass’ speech, now is a good time to do so because his words resonate as clearly and strongly today in the aftermath of all that we have witnessed over the last six months in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and other places that did not make national headlines. And, our collective post-traumatic stress syndrome as Black people extends back almost four hundred years.
For Douglass, on that fateful occasion celebrating July 4th, while the moment represented a day of glorious independence for whites, for him it served as yet a symbolic and painful reminder that he had lived to witness yet another year of America’s singular and continuing contradiction of slavery. Douglass spoke prophetically eleven years before the Emancipation Proclamation would become a living reality in 1863 in the United States, with the exception of Texas that would not recognize the law until two years later in 1865.
Douglas’ observation that the United States of America may be a great nation, but one mired in contradictions, is as truthful and illuminating today, as it was over 163 years ago. What is that contradiction? The chasm that exists between the profound belief in liberty that undergirds democracy for all men, and the continuing subjugation of Black people and the exclusion of women from the rights of full citizenship.
And almost four hundred years after the structure of slavery became part of the architecture of democracy, its legacy lingers, despite emancipation, in the ongoing disenfranchisement of people of African descent in the United States; and we now know such disenfranchisement is a pervasive condition of Black people globally. And all the fanfare that goes into 4th of July celebrations makes it one of those moments when this major contradiction shows up and is on full display. Kinda like a democratic runway fashion show–of the worst kind.
Despite all the advertising and pomp and circumstance surrounding America’s July 4th celebration, as African Americans and women, we know that the white male voices that scribed the Declaration of Independence and who fought the American Revolutionary war of Independence did not mean for us to be included. Women, Black slaves and freedmen, and the indigenous population of American Indians were not part of the symbolic opening words of “We the People.” The founders of this “great” nation were not diverse and they definitely were not inclusive.
There were no women, no Blacks (men or women), and no American Indians sitting anywhere near the spaces where ideas of liberation from Britain and its religious persecution were being debated and decided upon. The idea of taxation without representation was abhorrent to the founders of this country, and yet we have that practice today. African Americans, and other people of color in the United States, live in states where the political representatives do not represent their best interests. Yet we pay taxes, but have no representation.
We as African Americans, descendants of freedmen and former slaves, have always held an uneasy peace with July 4th. How can we hold sacred a holiday intended to celebrate American independence when 400 years later we are still not completely liberated from the history and after effects of enslavement and the white supremacist racialist beliefs of our presumed Black inferiority and their presumed white superiority and privilege? These ideas and ideological beliefs run deep and bind all of us to a social, political and economic dance of never-ending inequality.
White Women and the Challenge to Race-Based Policies
What is most troubling, and a modern day manifestation of the contradictions of this country are the ongoing challenges to the small gains and progress we have made. Affirmative action policies that were a form of reparations and restorative justice have been challenged and dismantled. And the minor concessions granted by the Supreme Courts to allow some form of race-based admissions to exist, are continually under assault.
In 1978, it was Bakke (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regents_of_the_University_of_California_v._Bakke, Accessed 7/11/2015). In 2003, with the Supreme Court Ruling in favor of race-based admissions in the case of Grutter v. Bollinger ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grutter_v._Bollinger, Accessed 7/11/2015), we regained some footholds and momentum. But all of that modicum of progress is being challenged today in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fisher_v._University_of_Texas, Accessed 7/11/2015). Although the case was began in 2013, Fisher, a white woman persists in appealing rulings that do not favor her.
My question is how can Fisher, or whites in general, in good conscious, challenge race based admissions programs aimed at rectifying historic inequities? And how can white women, especially, side with power and privilege and become the latest challenger to the small gestures of restorative justice or reparations that Black and brown bodies have struggled historically to get in place, and from which they, white women, have benefitted the most?
Why are Feminists So Silent on this Question?
White women have been some of the most disappointing allies in the fight for social equality and social justice. Where are the voices of my white feminist sisters in calling Fisher out and challenging her on the basis that much of the progress white women have gained grew out of the struggles of Black people? Why are you so silent on the fact that white women in particular have disproportionately benefitted from policies, funding and programs intended to address historic racial inequities? And why do you tolerate and leave unchallenged white women who now align themselves with their white privilege and challenge the very programs that in many cases may have increased the number of women at the University of Texas?
White Feminists have not always addressed the contradiction that underlies the origins of their struggle for equality. In the early days of the women’s rights movement in the 1970s, the main platform was for equal pay and equal rights. No mention was made of the inequities by race between the pay of white women versus Black and other women of color.
It would take another decade before the tenor of critiques levied by Black and other marginalized women were so strong domestically and globally, that their voices could no longer be ignored. One of the major critiques levied against white women activists, some of who would avow themselves feminists down the road, was the need to for them to recognize that the majority of those campaigning for equal rights were often white middle class women, who themselves exploited women of color as domestic servants, and who had access to greater job opportunities and did nothing about the exclusion of Black and other marginalized women.
The “Women of Color “Paradox and Dilemma
It is at this moment (1977) that Black women coined the phrase “women of color” as a way of unifying the voices of women whose bodies and cultures have been historically marginalized.” The term is not a biological term, but one of ideological and political solidarity ( http://www.thesociologicalcinema.com/videos/loretta-ross-recounts-the-origin-of-the-phrase-women-of-color, Accessed 7/11/2015).
Since that historic moment, the term has become globalized to “People of Color.” And while it is evoked, what is missing is the reality that all people who have melanin in the skin do not have histories of oppression or consider themselves as oppressed. What is missing is an understanding that the term was rooted in people’s political perspective and a willingness to form political coalitions based upon common experiences and histories of oppression. Not everyone who happens to have melanin in their skin is righteously a “person of color.”
A good example are people who come from other countries where they may have had statuses of privilege and because of caste/class privilege are sometimes the oppressor, or benefit from the structures of inequality in their country. As Jenani explains from the lens of a Southeast Asian or AAPI, in her blog on the problematics of the term “people of color,”
That moment was unsettling precisely because even if Black and Asian kids had a common experience of being racialized, we didn’t have a common racialized experience. Being a Desi kid in St. Louis is not like being a Black kid in St. Louis (or anywhere else). Even if we live in the same neighborhoods, Black people in the US largely have their ancestry in formerly enslaved peoples, and most South Asian folks are immigrants or immigrants’ children. My people were colonized and faced all the associated violence of colonization, but their original struggle happened in South Asia. And you can argue that my parents and I immigrated to the US because of the economic systems of the time, but we were not brought here as slaves, and this is not land that was taken from us forcefully. We are not White people, but we are also settlers. This land does not carry our enslavement or our original colonial struggle.
Janani identifies the fault line that has created tension among people of color, and that is not recognized by whites, allies or not. A “common experience of being racialized” is NOT the same as a “common racialized experience.” They are not equivalent, and we need to accept that and stop pretending as if they are.
We must also recognize that some groups who have immigrated to the United States or who though born here find there is privilege associated with their skin color; they accept the benefits and the privilege it has given them privilege over the voices and histories of local dark-skinned/Black/Brown people, and never once question why, nor offer to give up such privilege. Some Diversity scholars and practitioners who have seen the arc move from multiculturalism to diversity call this the “POC–people of color escape hatch.” Why?
Why the “People of Color” as a Concept May Not Be Helpful
Because in America, the racial history of injustice is our Achilles heel. It is a painful wound upon our national psyche, and if we can avoid reminders, we do. So it is easier to put in place South East Asians as the Diversity Officer or hire them to teach African American Studies because their perspectives are rooted to very different personal and socio-political relationships to racism and structural inequality in the United States than a person whose origins are historically rooted in being Black, Brown or Indigenous in America. This is not to say that they cannot do a good job in whatever the role is; it is to say that they see with very different lenses. And, sometimes may only understand oppression in the United States as a theoretical concept versus a lived reality. This absence of lived and deeply rooted historical relationships to marginality, inequality, etc will shape their solutions and interpretations.
Also, sometimes people of color with different histories join in the chorus of the privileged to explain away inequality based on their own experiences, and become gatekeepers maintaining existing systems of inequality and exclusion. One final problem is that some hiring practices have shifted to prefer “people of color” without a history of oppression in the United States over the hiring of native-born scholars of colors whose histories are deeply linked to this country. Such practices create problems and competitions unnecessarily so, and the focus of the newly included and current excluded becomes each other rather than dismantling the system that created such a dilemma in the first place.
The Need to Question Even as We Celebrate
I appreciate the history of the ritual of July 4th celebrations and our need as a nation to celebrate our history of the formation of this nation we now call the United States of America. But in the midst of our celebration, we should pause and ask ourselves as citizens of this nation, whether born here or immigrated here whether you would be so celebratory if it had been members of your people who were gunned down in church simply because of the color of their skin?
I think not. I think you might use this day to reflect on the fact that “We the people” are not all free, and that there is so much more work to be done to inform minds that are riddled with racism and white supremacist thinking, and to dismantle systems of oppression that perpetual inequality. We must change minds before we can change hearts so deeply convinced that their white privilege and sense of white entitlement must be maintained at all costs.
Changing Minds and Hearts to Act with Equity, Justice and Equality for All
These are the preconditions: change minds to change hearts in order to act with equity and justice and equality for all. Without such change, there is a continuing diminishment of what July 4th means and pall cast over any celebration. We have a full year ahead of us, and much can happen in that time when the will of a people is brought to bear.
I look forward to celebrating in my lifetime the 4th of July when it will have the same meaning for ALL Americans. I will embrace it as a welcoming moment because I will know that socially and politically I am a truly FREE Black woman who is able to enjoy all the rights and privileges to the fullest extent promised in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States and its Amendments.
I look forward to the day when the Supreme Court will uphold the truth of our Civil Rights amendments and stop dismantling them. I look forward to the day when white women and white men will recognize that letting go of some of their privilege is the price they must pay for us to be a true and just society.
There are of course other intersections to be considered as well–sexual orientation, religion and potentially others heretofore unknown that will shape our future experiences in the world and must be considered and anticipated.
But for a true celebration of July 4th by all citizens of this United States of America, we must dismantle the mind sets and behaviors that prevent us from moving forward and perpetuate inequality. We must dismantle the formal and informal structures and systems that allow, perpetuate and sustain discrimination and exclusion, unequal pay, limit access to opportunities and create enormous disparities. Once we are all in agreement that such a radical and bold approach is the only way to get us back on the democracy track, then the Supreme Court will be able to put a halt to its own collusion in maintaining structures of inequality. It will stop making rulings that rob us of the laws, legislations and policies that had begun to put us on the road to an authentic democracy and brought us some modicum of hope and progress.
Towards an Authentic and Rockin’ July 4, 2016 Celebration
This time next year I want to have a rockin’ and joyous July 4th Celebration because I will feel truly FREE as a straight Black American woman in my own country, the United States of America, and I will have full confidence that all of us who have been marginalized across time and space, and for reasons of race, class, gender, ethnicity, abilities, sexual orientation, religion and many other ways in which this country has practiced exclusion, will be doing a collective dance of liberation.
Now that’s a party I want to attend. Join me.
(c) 2015 McClaurin Solutions
http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/douglassjuly4.html, Accessed 7/6/2015
http://racetraitor.org/nelson.html, Accessed 7/11/2015
http://www.blackpast.org/1888-frederick-douglass-woman-suffrage, Accessed 7/11/2015
Irma McClaurin is the Culture and Education editor for Insight News, an activist anthropologist, writer, proponent of diversity leadership and a member of the National Writers Union (NWU). For 2015, she recently earned Insight News First Place for the Emory O. Jackson National Column Writing Award given by the Black Press at the NNPA (National Newspaper Publishers Association). Emory O. Jackson was a Civil Rights activist and editor of the Birmingham News from 1941-1975.