Monday, October 6, 2008
Silly Terminology and “Divisive Hate Speech”
By Dr. Boyce Watkins
As I work to do my part toward the fair treatment of African Americans, I can't recall how many emails I've received from well-intended, yet uninformed individuals who presume that my words are nothing more than "divisive hate speech". It doesn't matter what I say, or how I say it. As long as I bring up the impact that slavery and oppression has on the present, I am accused of using "divisive hate speech". When I bring up the fact that slavery, oppression and economic exclusion have created the massive wealth gap between blacks and whites in America, I am accused of using "divisive hate speech". When I mention the disproportionate black male prison population (an artifact of Jim Crow and slavery) or the lack of tenured faculty at majority universities, I am again accused of using "divisive hate speech".
I now ignore that line in any email I receive. To use that term in response to being confronted with slavery is like an irresponsible father getting angry every time his child's mother reminds him to pay child support. Reconciliation for extraordinary damage and devastation comes with a price. You can't just wish it away.
I know how to look past the critics, they don't bother me. But for some reason, that term (divisive hate speech) was in my brain when I woke up this morning, and I wanted to share some thoughts with those who are bothered by such criticism. Part of the price of admission for African Americans into so-called "mainstream America" is that we must do our ancestors a huge disservice by remaining quiet about the atrocities they've experienced. If you spend just one day thoroughly studying the impact of slavery and the experience of some of the slaves, you wouldn't think for one second that it is ok to forget what they went through.
The reason the term "divisive hate speech" is silly in response to any African American who speaks up on racism is because it is reflective of the lack of personal responsibility that our country teaches when it comes to dealing with the impact of slavery and discrimination. If I am wealthy because my father raped my best friend's mother and stole her belongings, it would be irresponsible for me to say "that's divisive hate speech!" whenever my friend attempts to have my family held accountable for the actions of my father. If I am forcing my friend to remain silent about what happened to his mother as a condition for our friendship, then the truth is that he is not my friend at all. The secondary truth is that I do not respect my friend nor love him enough to make things right after what my family has done.
African Americans are in the same situation. My precondition for being accepted by my colleagues in the academy is for me to remain silent about the raping, castration, murder, robbery and torture of my own historical family members during slavery. Engage in this mental exercise with me (close your eyes and really imagine this), picture having your siblings taken away forever at the age of 6, seeing your mother raped in front of you or watching your father beaten and eventually killed. That gives you a tiny glimpse into the lives of African Americans during slavery and Jim Crow.
The secondary reality that comes from treating another group of people like this for 400 years (that's nearly half a millennium, a very long time to form cultural habits) is that the dominant group is going to gain a sense of comfort and habit in their perpetual attempts to oppress the minority group. The minority group is going to feel comfortable being oppressed and victimized. I refuse to be a victim, so I am fighting back. Fighting back and refusing to be victimized is what leads to rejection by the group that is comfortable oppressing minorities. It also leads to conflicts with other minorities who have grown comfortable remaining silent about the truth (i.e. the “Administrative Negro” – Modern day overseers). That partially explains the term "divisive hate speech" or the use of inaccurate terms like “militant” to describe individuals like myself, who’ve never picked up arms against another human being. In fact, I recall hearing an esteemed black colleague of mine politely tell his superior that "racism doesn't exist in this organization", when privately, he knows that his company has not promoted a black man in 100 years. That is the kind of sick, twisted lie that many African Americans are forced to live, all in the name of "not appearing divisive".
Another reason it is irresponsible to use a term like "divisive hate speech" to describe any man or woman's desire to discuss the impact of slavery is that the truth MUST BE CONFRONTED IF YOU ARE TO MOVE FORWARD. A fat man who is challenged to exercise might want to say "Exercise is painful and unfair!" But he should understand that without exercise, he is going to remain fat. America is that fat man. Every time the term "divisive hate speech" is used as an attempt to silence those who speak out on race, Americans are behaving like the fat man who doesn't have the discipline to exercise. He should realize that confronting his weight problem is the only way he is going to get healthy. There is no way around it.
For the overweight man in my example above to think that he can achieve the gain without enduring a period of discomfort and sacrifice would be both weak and irresponsible. That is what many Americans want. They want racial harmony without the responsibility of true reconciliation and accountability. That is something I refuse to accept. So, from this point on, the term "divisive hate speech" is officially deemed silly and counterproductive. If you want to criticize me, you have to come at me with something better than that. But then again, I don’t pay much attention to the haters. Malcolm, Martin and Muhammad Ali taught us that the world will never reward an intelligent Black man for speaking his mind. I encourage all of you to reinforce your commitment to truth.