MLK Day Is Almost Here, And White People Need To Check Themselves

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Scary Mommy, moniquesworld_/Twitter and Central Press/Getty

Every mid-January, my social media feeds are flooded with quotes by Dr. King. The familiar words posted by white people are predictable, because they always choose the same love-and-peace quotes. I’m sure you’ve seen them too. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” These same posters say nothing about racial equity or supporting Black lives matter the other 364 days of the year. I saw nothing on their timelines when white terrorists invaded D.C. in the name of their commander, the man they worship, the racist-in-chief himself. If they did post something, it was about praying for our country. Not denouncing the years and years of torture that people of color have endured under the regime of racism concealed as patriotism.

They want to control the narrative. They will post a cherry-picked Dr. King quote to make themselves feel better about their whiteness, but they wouldn’t dare actually have more than one Black friend. (I also highly doubt they actually have a for-real Black friend. I’m going to go ahead and guess tokenism and inauthenticity here. Would the Black friend they refer to agree that they are, in fact, actually friends?) They certainly wouldn’t have an honest conversation about race with that friend, either. Doing so could threaten white privilege, evoke white guilt, and poke white fragility.

No. They’d rather just cling to MLK, a single quote just one day a year. That’s safer and gives them warm fuzzies. Meanwhile, they will stay silent when white nationalists are met with peace and hand-holding, unlike Black protestors, fighting for racial equity, who are met with gas, rubber bullets, and violent arrests. When the President called the terrorists “special” and “loved,” there wasn’t an eyelash batted. But when he called Black protestors “thugs,” they nodded their heads in agreement.

They love dropping it like it’s hot to WAP, but they wouldn’t dare respect Black culture. They might wear blackface to a Halloween party (or claim, when someone else does so, that it’s no biggie) or appropriate cornrows, but they’d never attend a BLM rally. They excuse the behavior of their racist uncle, saying that he’s from a different generation, when the uncle refers to Black people as monkeys in front of the whole family over the Thanksgiving meal.

Racists aren’t always obviously racist. They might claim colorblindness, clinging to it like a lifejacket in a sea of denial. We are all humans, after all. We all bleed red. They might tell you that there’s no way they’re racist, because they have a Black co-worker, neighbor, friend, or even family member. They are nice to Black people, for Pete’s sake!

They will, however, remind you of some of their favorite go-to things like “Black-on-Black crime” and “the race card.” They prefer to remain neutral and complacent, because that keeps their place in line (which is first, always first). Any disruption to the norm (which favors whiteness) is a threat. Of course, they promise you they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies.

Voting for Obama, adopting a Black child, going on a mission trip to Africa, none of these things make someone not-racist. Frankly, if you’re white (I am), we have to work really, really hard to unlearn racist teachings. One example is the whitewashed history we had to sit through for all of our years in school. We have to re-learn language, such as not referring to “slaves” but “people who were enslaved.” We have to be willing to listen and learn, rather than lecture a Black person on not being so politically-correct and sensitive.

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We have to be willing to confront racism, head-on, in our everyday lives. We have to work to change policies, laws, and even unspoken rules. We can’t do this without first getting a solid anti-racist education by reading books, listening to podcasts, watching documentaries, and most of all, having authentic relationships with people. We can’t throw MLK in their faces when their family members and friends are being harmed or murdered for simply being Black in America.

Surface-support of unity is simply not going to cut it. It’s insincere. Supremacy won’t be eradicated with an MLK quote. Its 400 (plus) year history is deep, intricate, powerful, and evil. If your best effort is to smile when you hear “I have a dream,” you are failing your Black brothers and sisters. You are choosing to err on the side of darkness.

There’s simply no middle ground. Ibram X. Kendi reminds us that we are either anti-racist or racist. There’s no such thing as not racist. Posting an MLK quote, especially after not saying a peep about the clearly racist response to white nationalists invading D.C., just makes you a fool, not an ally.

Yes, MLK dreamed of a world where there is unity, peace, and love between people of different races. This doesn’t mean differences aren’t acknowledged, celebrated, and appreciated. This means we choose to see each other, and we choose to honor each other. To truly love another, we have to be willing to change, to acknowledge another person’s pain, and work to meet their needs. Are you willing, or are you going to stay comfortable?

Please, don’t cherry-pick an MLK quote to slap onto your feed this month. Instead, choose to jump-start your anti-racism education and then make damn sure you’re teaching your kids to do the same. True change doesn’t come from superficial efforts or avoidance. The fact is, if you’re white, you have privilege, and you’re likely fragile when someone confronts you with this truth. That’s a start. Now, what are you going to do about it? I promise you, quoting Dr. King is not your ticket out of racism.