Irremoveable Masks: On Identity, Race and Justice in Post-Ferguson America

3 years ago ccwa 2

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On August 5, 2014, we were reminded that the black body is probable cause for gunfire in public spaces. On that day, an unarmed man was shot and killed by the police for carrying a toy rifle in a store that sells toy rifles. After protestors demanded a surveillance tape it was discovered that the police opened fire on John Crawford within seconds of encountering him. On September 24, 2014, we were reminded that the courts do not protect us all. On that day, a Grand Jury found that the officers involved in that incident acted justly. On August 9, 2014, we were reminded that two black arms raised in the universal sign of flat-palmed surrender is reason enough to die in America. Mike Brown and John Crawford were taken from their families, their communities, and themselves unarmed and surrendering like countless others before them and many more to come.

We cannot seem to escape the tragedy. On pavement sweltering with afternoon sun and latent rage, we remember how his body laid empty-palmed and melanin rich. His final cry reverberated throughout the nation. His departure propelled us to march, weep, yell, scream, mourn. Sigh, again and again, anguished broken sighs lilting with experience – growing weary with every news report. We hurt a deep kind of hurt, way under the surface. A hurt that’s been growing on the fertile lands it took centuries of tears to water. The kind of hurt that feels like betrayal, a lingering injury, a throbbing sensation; this hurt is historic.  Even so, our wounds are fresh. This rancid hurt squeezes into the most fragile corners of our psyche and stays there to rot.

The question ailing our consciences begs, why do we refuse to examine the context of this hurt, the treachery of these instances? How can a nation genuinely mourn John Crawford or Michael Brown or the countless others, when it knows another young black man or woman will be martyred within the month? In short, we cannot. We cannot realize any kind of restorative justice as long as we refuse to admit that we are living in a state of constant injustice, as long as we do not acknowledge that we are seated at the precipice of calamity.

The American psyche has long sidelined colonialism as a European infliction. The occupation of India and strategic dissection of Africa are taught as lessons in euro-centric economics gone wrong. But what is the state of the Black American today if not that of a colonized people? Does the black individual not bear the physical, psychological and institutional apparatuses of a purposeful colonial history? But this history is never viewed in its entirety; it is never grappled with honestly. This history’s relevance is stripped away by being made peripheral. We hear it being sidelined in conversations about “post-racial society” and ”historical racism”, as if it’s been left behind, as if we are operating outside of it. Our lessons become sanitized accounts of the ethnocentrism that poisoned our soils with ill-spilt blood. The shattering of the American black and brown body is taught as unfortunate but necessary; our institutions were built on those unnamed backs, but a “post-racial” society is incapable of acknowledging such a gruesome past.

Our dark history of subjugation was not simply an experiment in political exploitation and acquisition; it is a project that rests firmly on the grounds of redesigned identity. In order to understand the fluctuations of identity, however, it is critical to explore precisely what identity entails. How can such a pervasive term be defined, so elusive as to present itself indefinable? Surely, the behemoth of identity, specifically that of the colonized, enslaved or subjected, must be situated in its proper historic context.

What must that definition contain and how can one adequately scale the complex walls of its labyrinthine interior? The question is not new. It has always been a central preoccupation of the oppressed since the dawn of time – who are we really? And how do we answer any of these questions outside of the false identity forced on us and the false ideal we were made to seek? And when the murder of a black individual is treated with the callousness and inhumanity we have come to expect, how can we begin to see the true humanity in ourselves?

September 24, 2014 cannot simply be a day of mourning it must also be a day of reexamination. In the wake of a jury decision that excused the inexcusable murder of an unarmed man, America must ask herself what the justice she so desperately seeks actually is. This tragedy is holding a mirror up to us and it is every American’s duty to grapple with the face staring back.

Perhaps nothing makes our slow progress clearer than the parallels that can still be drawn between the image in the mirror today and the one that looked back at us just 60 years ago.  In 1952 a young Trinidadian novelist named Sam Selvon penned A Brighter Sun. Selvon’s work chronicles the external and internal shifts that took place simultaneously in an era of relentless change. One of Selvon’s central characters, Tiger, a young Trinidadian man of Indian ancestry, struggles mightily with the changes the colonial gaze has on his view of himself. Tiger’s development localizes the effects of empire and allows the reader to sense the magnitude of their scope. Tiger reacts to the pressures of imperial presence by reevaluating what rightness is and interacting with his surroundings accordingly. In this way, colonial reality is not only tangentially related to individual reality, it is intrinsically linked. Whenever I hear minorities speak about dressing to garner respect or excusing racial profiling, I see Tiger. Whenever I am confronted with an individual who wants to “stop making it about race”, I hear Tiger. Everywhere I turn these days I am surrounded by blindfolded Tigers, Tigers wearing the masks of men.

Black Skin, White Masks was published in the same year as A Brighter Sun, focusing its efforts on the individual reality by speaking to the internal mechanisms of colonial dominance. Fanon likens the internalization of subjugation to a disease of the mind, “The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation…The Negro’s behavior makes him akin to an obsessive neurotic type, or, if one prefers, he puts himself into a complete situational neurosis. In the man of color there is a constant effort to run away from his own individuality, to annihilate his own presence” (43).

What is it about this disease that still ails us all? It seems we have not cured ourselves of its perennial hold. Even if the words were not spoken, the mechanisms of colonialism make clear a hierarchical system of power. Since the political landscape was shaped by that hierarchy, so too were the social spheres. Eventually, through the process of navigating these spaces of degradation, the actions begin to affect the psyche to the point where the colonized begins to believe in her own inferiority. The navigation process does not leave the colonizer unchanged, however, after the structures are created the process of creation is largely forgotten and what were once man-made systems of control become the “natural” order of things. It’s “naturalness” becomes its greatest strength, allowing people to act around it and question themselves sooner than they question the system. In this way, the internal dialogue of the Negro is not with himself but with the system and against himself.

Chela Sandoval posits in Methodology of the Oppressed, “Many political intellectuals lament the ending of the modern era, when it was possible to apprehend clearly who were the rulers and who were the ruled and to look clearly into the face of one’s enemy” (22-23).  Selvon and Frantz interpret the relationship between the rulers and ruled differently. The relationship between the two is not linear and proportional; indeed to view the relationship this way is to view it incorrectly. Rather, the walls that separate the two are permeable and shifting and ultimately fail to keep either side completely isolated. In the 19th and 20th centuries, colonialism and international imperialistic action more generally (including economic activity) systematically disassembled existing structures. However, they also left wholly new structures in their place. Outside of the organization of markets, goods and labor there existed the creation of new internalities. Surrounded by a world unrecognizable to them, people were made to redesign themselves. There could be no easy way to tell the ruler from the ruled because in that redesign the ruling principles would have to be internalized. In an unrecognizable world, one would be forced to become unrecognizable even to themselves.

Herein lies the issue both of these authors and many after them faced: recognizing that even when the mask can be named it cannot simply be removed. We live with this legacy of self-denial even today. After so long, the mask continues to make the face unknowable, even to itself. It is only with a new mirror, one forged in the fire of liberation, that the face can see itself. A mirror that reflects new processes, theories and clear languages through which to reclaim the ancient truths of humanity, autonomy and self.  This process will start only when we can take an unflinching look at ourselves and at the systems we have come to know as normal. The mechanisms that promote subjugation and control should become so impossible for us to bear that we mobilize ourselves to uproot them and strive towards a genuine justice. We should let our anger keep us from living contently with systems that mask injustice. We cannot mourn the deaths of those we have lost to a system that values some human lives more than others until we learn to value their lives enough to name their killer out loud. The same apparatuses that are responsible for putting the masks on our faces are responsible for the death of our brethren. We cannot begin this work behind the treacherous familiarity of these masks– we must remove them.

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by Ilhan Dahir

(photo credit: rack.0.mshcdn.com, thegrio.files.wordpress.com)