My Turn: Pro-Black is pro-White

  • A lawn sign seen in Nashua. Courtesy Daniel Weeks.

For the Monitor
Published: 7/13/2020 4:06:22 PM

The last six weeks have been full of trauma and hope. The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks provoked an inability to deny the reality of racism and its effects in a way unlike we have seen in our time.


For my family, that has meant that walking in the wealthier north end of the mixed-income part of the city where we live now brings us into contact with a myriad of signs expressing solidarity for Black lives: “Black Lives Matter;” “Hate Has No Home Here;” “This House Is Anti-Racist” … and, “Pro-Black Isn’t Anti-White.” The sentiments are welcome – at the very least, to me.

Thankfully, my children are a little too young to really understand racism. Yet the time is fast approaching when we will have to have that conversation with them explicitly – hopefully, before they are rudely introduced to the reality of racism through some “micro”-aggression perpetrated against them by another preschooler.

After all, research shows that, while children recognize skin color differences as early as two to three months old, they do not assign normative value to those physical traits until later when, around preschool age, they start to show distinct racial bias and even perpetrate racist interpersonal acts.

As someone who regularly walks into (predominantly White) spaces not always sure whether I will be welcome there or might face some act of racist psychosocial violence (see Ibram X. Kendi’s powerfully written explanation of this ever-lingering fear in The Atlantic), these lawn signs on my daily walk with my little people are a welcome flag that perhaps I can put my guard down just that little bit for these few minutes of my day. (They are certainly a welcome counterweight to the Confederate flags I sometimes see on trucks driving by.) The physical exercise that scientists tell me is good for my health might actually genuinely produce the stress relief they claim it should bring … and perhaps it always does for those who do not have to worry that they might be accosted by some or other expression of the fact that they are ultimately unwelcome in our racist world.

Yet, the last sign has kept jumping out at me: “Pro-Black Isn’t Anti-White.” Its sentiments are no less welcome than the others in so far as it says that I am welcome there. However, it also suggests two important things that are worth talking about.

First, it says that its primary audience is White people. It is a sign to assure those who are worried that pro-Blackness is anti-Whiteness. I assure you, I am not worried about this because it doesn’t even occur to me that “pro-Blackness” could mean “anti-Whiteness.” But I understand that White people might be worried. This sign therefore reminds me that the people about whom our society is always most concerned are White people; that they are the predominant power holders in our society; that it is their privilege that must most (seem to) be unthreatened and assured at least some protection; that their “White fragility” ultimately frames and defines the content of all conversations about racial injustice in America and the world.

Second, this sign suggests that the well-intentioned person who produced the sign has not yet made the full journey to understanding how it is that Black lives ultimately matter. In short, the sign-maker’s fuller understanding should produce a sign that says “Pro-Black IS Pro-White.”

The research on this claim is pretty definitive. From “The Inner Level,” which shows that inequality is bad for virtually all people across the wealth spectrum (negatively affecting everything from their physical and mental health to their marriage and divorce rates), to “Dying of Whiteness,” which demonstrates how White voters motivated by fear of “soon-to-be majority” minorities benefiting too much from government programs stand in the way of government putting in place such social programs as would adequately support and justly meet their own needs.

There is plenty of evidence that, as the poor people’s movement has long maintained, following from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision, Black and White people disadvantaged by a powerful, wealthy few (who are almost entirely White and mostly male) would do better to ally in their common struggle to achieve equal justice for all, including themselves. Put differently, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I come from South Africa where most people subscribe to some version of the statement, Umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu (literally, a person is a person by, through, and because of other people) – this is the principle referred to by the shorthand, Ubuntu. At the heart of this indigenous aphorism in fact found in languages across the African continent is a recognition of something the feminist political theorist, Jennifer Nedelsky, describes in her critique of liberal rights as she argues for “reconceiving rights as relationship” (1993).

Nedelsky cautions us about the conception of rights grounded in liberalism wherein “rights are barriers that protect the individual from intrusion by other individuals or by the state.” Herein, rights are “boundaries others cannot cross and it is those boundaries, enforced by the law, that ensure individual freedom and autonomy.” Nedelsky rightly argues that this view is impoverished by its belief that “autonomy is independence, which thus requires protection and separation from others.” Instead, she shows how “[w]hat makes autonomy possible is not separation, but relationship. This approach shifts the focus from protection against others to structuring relationships so that they foster autonomy. … dependence is no longer the antithesis of autonomy but a precondition in the relationships – between parent and child, student and teacher, state and citizen – which provide the security, education, nurturing, and support that make the development of autonomy possible.”

In sum, the well-being of any one of us is dependent upon the well-being of the rest of us. Thus, when we invest in improving the health, justice and security of Black people, we make progress toward achieving the health, justice and security of White people, too.

Someone recently shared with me these very apt words they attributed to Berwick “Mahdi” Davenport: “Instead of White allies we want White people who realize that the struggle for justice is also the struggle for their own humanity. ... White people need to be in the struggle to reclaim the humanity their ancestors chose to exchange for the chance of prosperity in the world. So, White allies stay home, but if you’re a White sister or brother who realizes it’s your struggle for justice and humanity just as much as people of color, then welcome.”

I know it is considered anathema in some circles to suggest that the highly “developed” and “civilized” nation that leads “the free world” has something to learn from “shithole countries” (as the president once described countries like the one from which I come). Nonetheless, I dare to suggest that – much like Nedelsky argues of rights – this worldview is “deeply misguided” because what solving America’s race and poverty problems essentially begins with is embrace of ubuntu.


Sindiso Mnisi Weeks is Assistant Professor of Public Policy of Excluded Populations at the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development, University of Massachusetts Boston. She lives in Nashua with her husband and three children.

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