I once told a joke about race on national television.
I was seventeen. It was 1994 and I was representing the state of Alabama as Alabama’s Junior Miss. This probably won’t shock you, but Alabama had never had a Black junior miss before. I was it, and as you can imagine, there were a fair number of folks who were a little uncomfortable.
They weren’t unhappy with it. Or angry. The truth was, they just didn’t know what to make of me, how I’d be different, or what the year would hold.
“I walked into a Denny’s the other day,” I said, smiling to the camera. “And the waitress said, 'I’m sorry, we don’t serve Black people here. And I said, ‘Good, ‘cause I don’t eat ‘em.’”
Well, the audience laughed, thank God. Because the only thing worse than making a joke about race on national television is having no one laugh at the joke you told about race on national television.
As I reflect back on that joke now, I have a range of feelings. Almost all of them bad. Because at its core, that joke was a way to help white people feel more comfortable with my Blackness.
Tangled up in the joke was an acknowledgement of recent racism (there’d been a real incident of a Denny’s refusing to serve Black folks in 1994, SMH) AND the joke that racism was so ridiculous that I didn’t understand that the waitress declining to serve me.
That joke was the way so many of us related to race in the 90s in America - we kept it light, didn't talk about the details, overlooked far too much and more than anything kept white folks comfortable.
You see, for a long time, I thought keeping white folks comfortable would keep me safe. I thought that being palatable to them would make me less of a threat, less strange. I thought that “sanitizing” or minimizing by Blackness would give me access to more opportunity, more power, more wealth.
I was right. That approach got me to Harvard. To an upper middle class life.
AND that approach is horribly wrong and built on layers and layers of white supremacy.
You see, the very notion that I needed to assimilate was (and is) predicated on the idea that whiteness was the default, the norm, and even the standard.
What we saw at the Capitol this week was a violent backlash against the erosion of white dominance.
That mob of insurrectionists carried confederate flags, nooses, and white power symbols to seize power violently because they lost in democratic election.
These extremists are fighting for social control - for the idea that this country IS and SHOULD BE a white country. They are fighting to control, devalue and terrorize the diversity of race, ethnicity and religion into submission.
These insurrectionists took up arms and stormed the Capitol of the country they claim to love because they wanted to remain the norm. They wanted to remain in power. They wanted to remain the standard. They wanted to remain comfortable.
This is not the time for us to let white extremists to be comfortable. They have made themselves violently visible. All we have to do is not cover our ears and ignore them. They are in the light of day, screaming and willing to shed blood - as they have so many times - to force the true promise of America back into submission.
They want life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to continue to apply only to them. They want the American dream for themselves only. And they want the rules, the force of the state and the weight of our nation’s laws to apply only to others.
And that my friends, is not a joke.
I hope that I can look to each of you to stand strong and tall in our truth. Because if we do not push back loudly and decisively with the full force of the law, we will find ourselves in extra-judicial conflict with fellow Americans. We will find ourselves at war.
This is not a time for race blindness and looking away from hard truths. This is a time for people of conscience to stand up and call what is happening around us what it is - a racist, supremacist hate movement trying to take this country by any means necessary.