The Other Face of the Black Shadow

Facing the White Shadow

Why don’t blacks narrate their own story?

This is what one white woman wanted to know at a recent talk I gave on my book, Facing the Black Shadow. What she meant by that question was, why do African Americans let themselves be defined as “inferior?”   Her question was a sincere one, and I’ve heard white people ask this before in different ways over the many years I’ve been speaking and teaching about racism.

If you’re black, this question probably didn’t occur to you because you live in a reality where you’re constantly being defined in a negative way by the white, mainstream society.  It’s an everyday reality for you to be restricted and denied access to resources and opportunities, and then to be blamed for not achieving the American Dream.  If you did do well in school, graduated from college and graduate school and seem to all the world to be a black success story, you also know what it means to be feared and hated simply because of your dark skin.  You know your nice clothes won’t necessarily protect you from white police suspecting you of being a criminal in your own neighborhood. You know your educated way of speaking might get you called “uppity” either to your face or behind your back.  Sadly, you  probably have experienced the truth that racist beliefs about black inferiority sometimes seep into your own psyche and cause you to hate yourself for being black.

Black people know, because we live it every day, that centuries of slavery left its mark on African Americans, making it hard for us to believe in our own intrinsic self-worth.  In answer to the white woman’s question, we do work hard to rewrite the white narrative that defines us as inferior.  But the reason we don’t “narrate our own story” is because we are still digging out from under the rubble of the narrative of the white society that allowed the business of enslavement of dark-skinned people to thrive for hundreds of years in America.  The lack of honest engagement about slavery – the rape of black women by many of our nation’s revered Founding Fathers, for example – makes narrating our own story something like an uphill swim through toxic sludge.

The white woman who asked this question has to make a leap of understanding to really hear what the black shadow does to her African American friends, neighbors and colleagues.  Because she was not raised in a culture, family or history that constantly bombards her with the message that whites are inferior, it might take some time for her to really absorb the truth of the black shadow.  I am grateful she asked the question because it helped me to explain to white audience members how complicated the black shadow is for black people.

But I am so glad she asked her question for another reason:  it revealed to me that there is also a white shadow.  The white shadow blinds white people to the impact of racism on black people. While the black shadow is the internalized belief in the myth of black inferiority, the white shadow is the internalized belief that racism isn’t that bad.  Haven’t we all heard a white person at times dismiss or minimize racism by saying, “Oh come on, it’s not that bad for black people. We have a black president!” Or, “Black people always play the race card.”  They don’t mean to be racists; they truly believe they aren’t.  Their white shadow blinds them to the ways the myth of black inferiority affects not only black people, but themselves as well. All white people are raised in a racist society, just as all black people are raised in racism. But being white comes with a “we don’t have to think about racism” privilege. Their white shadow causes white people to too easily dismiss the truth about racism and white privilege to blind them to the pain and suffering and legitimate grievances of African Americans.

Racism is an entrenched system of white invisibility (because white = normal) and black visibility (because black = “other”).  Of course, genetics prove that humans are 99.9% similar across all races and ethnicities.  But until we evolve to the point where skin tone doesn’t matter, we have to talk about the black shadow.  But by only talking about the black shadow, are we saying whites don’t have to think about their own white shadow? I’ll be asking myself this question more as I continue to give talks around the country about Facing the Black Shadow with racially mixed audiences.

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