Anthony Jerry

Appropriating Black Vulnerability

Sep 2, 2020 | Community

In the early phases of COVID-19 quarantine the idea of slavery was seized upon by many as a rhetorical strategy to express a larger social commentary about their unwillingness to allow the government to enforce the public health policy of wearing a mask. 

In a recent blog post on the blog website “Scary Mommy,” Sa’Iyda Shabazz discussed how utilizing the analogy of slavery as a way of protesting against the denial of individual freedoms exposes the privilege of many White Americans. 

Shabazz points out to her readers, in disgust, there should be no way in which asking the public to follow public health measures should be seen as oppression.  Rather, suggests Shabazz, asking the public to wear a mask is simply common sense and the least we can do as a society. 

Shabazz, to make sense of her own rage, asks two important questions: 1) How could someone equate public mask regulations to one of the grossest forms of injustice in modern history? And 2) Where does one’s mind make the leap to even put slavery and mask guidance in the same sentence?” 

Shabazz explains to her readers this is something she struggles to wrap her head around.  I however think on another level, White people (and some other non-Black people), making the connection between slavery and the erosion of the individual freedoms they see as one of the hallmarks of modern democracy makes complete sense.  But, why?

I agree with Shabazz that one should not be able to make the symbolic or material connection between African/Black enslavement and public health regulations directed at containing a public health emergency.  But I have to wonder, what is the underlying logic that allows this connection to make sense in the minds of many White people? 

Let’s face it, the protest in Humboldt, California in which several people held signs declaring that “they were not slaves,” or that “masks were only for slaves and dogs” is just one example of a larger shared public intuition.

For many, then, the intuitive connection between slavery and the loss of White privilege makes perfect sense.  And what really allows the analogy Shabazz so rightly points out as gross and disgusting to make intuitive sense is part of a larger set of historic relations between Black and White in the United States (if not in the West in general). 

This is to say that whiteness has become accustomed to being able to appropriate blackness, and therefore many aspects of the Black experience, in almost all forms to support White privilege.  This, I would argue, is one of the outcomes of a modern world predicated on a social, cultural, and legal system in which Black people at all times, were made available to physically produce that which the White mind could imagine. 

This is one of the real outcomes of African/Black slavery and it is the underlying logic of this system that continues to frame the intuitions around Black and non-Black relations in the US.  Ironically, it is this same logic that allows for White people to appropriate Black vulnerability as a rhetorical strategy and to suggest that anything that potentially erodes White privilege is akin to a system of slavery.

The intuition around appropriating Black vulnerability has become so common and entrenched in public discourse, President Trump haphazardly retweeted a similar sentiment that was originally tweeted by a popular conservative columnist. 

The original tweet argued masks were not at all about public health but were rather about social control and mandates to wear masks, “endorsed slavery and social death.”  The most interesting thing about President Trump’s support of this sentiment, as shown by his willingness to endorse the argument by retweeting it, is not that the president simply supports individual freedoms at whatever cost to public health.  More interesting, is the fact that Trump endorses this sentiment to justify his own unwillingness to wear a mask in public; a move that would undoubtedly tarnish his own meticulously crafted public brand. 

In one simple action, a retweet, President Trump can appropriate African/Black slavery and the ensuing system of social death that continues to be responsible for real Black vulnerability in the present, as a way to rhetorically support the individual actions of millions of Americans who still refuse to wear a mask. 

Ironically, the appropriation of African/Black slavery and the related system of social death, as well as the associated vulnerability, makes Black people even more vulnerable. Studies have shown Black people are the among the most vulnerable and are more likely to become casualties of COVID-19. 

Even more ironic, there seems to be a conversation developing among some who claim White people do not need to where masks if non-Whites are indeed less vulnerable to COVID-19.  While this cyclical argument doesn’t even deserve further consideration, it clearly demonstrates the appropriation of Black vulnerability as a way to support the individual freedoms associated with White privilege.

This doesn’t seem to be anything new to me.  Rather, the fact that the actions of White people (both conservative and progressive) makes Black people, and by extension, myself, more vulnerable to any number of social ills seems to be a hallmark of the Black experience in the United States.

Many of us, while not learning much about the institution of Slavery in the US, will remember our elementary school teaching about how slavery was used as a metaphor to resist British colonization. 

Slavery, then, was a key component in the rhetorical strategy to create the second independent nation in the Americas (let us not overlook Haiti), even as the screws continued to tighten within the system of African/Black enslavement that would solidify one of the world’s top national economies. 

What seems to ring true here and now, as it did in the 18th century, is the product of the Black experience, as well as Black labor, is never the property of Black people.  This simple equation is why it makes sense in the minds of many White people (whether publicly uttered or not) to relate governmental trespasses on non-Black individual freedoms to a system of enslavement. 

There is simply no better way, not even hollow references to communism/socialism, for White people to talk about the governmental restriction of their individual freedoms, in fact the restriction of their individuality, then to invoke the system of slavery.  And, it seems even in 2020, a conversation about White freedom continues to rely on the reproduction, or at least ignoring, of Black vulnerability.

There seems to be a dangerous tendency in today’s political environment to relate this type of behavior, perhaps even ideology, of appropriation to the far right.  Protests against wearing masks in public or conversations about whether or not it is constitutional for local, state and federal government(s) to demand all citizens wear masks in public, are popularly represented as conversations among segments of the population we now refer to simply as, “Trump Supporters.” 

But, I think it is dangerous to overlook the ways in which the intuitions around the appropriation of Black vulnerability are also shared by the far left and even those who see themselves in the middle of the conservative/liberal divide.  This can be seen in the ways in which the demonstration of support for Black Lives by White (and many non-Black) people regularly turns into a strategy for publicly representing people’s own individual social justice brands.

Take as an example this past 4th of July when my kind, friendly, and well intentioned liberal White neighbors put up huge signs supporting, if not directly the value of Black lives, then at least the “defunding of the police” and the “dismantling of White supremacy.”  One sign read, “DEFUND WHITE SUPREMACY NOW!”  I could not help but notice the cars on my somewhat short cul-de-sac street as they slowed down and, in some cases stopped completely, read the several larger-than-life anti-racism and social justice inspired signs before speeding off on their way.  Two or three days later, the signs were retired without fanfare, and the pace (and perhaps peace) of the neighborhood returned to normal.  My neighbors had seized the moment to make a statement!

I have to wonder, though.  What value comes from that type of display in a majority White neighborhood?  Does the appropriation of Black vulnerability, my vulnerability, become useful in helping to support one of the many individual brands of White liberalism?  And, if whiteness in the United States is incapable of being oppressed, then is my vulnerability (Black vulnerability), whether in relation to White supremacy or Police Brutality, one of the few ways that White people can actually represent themselves as warriors for what we allow to take the place for real social justice?  I do not mean to discredit the important work of White allies.  However, I have struggled to make sense of all of the selfies, sometimes smiling and proud, and other public images that have been used to document the work of White allies at anti-policing marches, or protest marches in support of Black lives, or in other public displays against White supremacy. 

I have to wonder what is actually being documented by the personal and public archive of images?  And, I have to wonder, where does my vulnerability, Black vulnerability, fit into the overall equation?  There seems to be a logic that brings the right and left together. 

As I view the images of proud faces holding protest signs, my mind is drawn to other images, images of mobs surrounding burnt or hanging victims of lynching in the US…and intuitively these images feel the same to me.  What I see, underneath, is my Black vulnerability.  And, the appropriation of that vulnerability as it continues to be one of the few ways of articulating the resistance that has become part of the modern American story.

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Why should requirements to wear face masks never be compared to slavery?

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