A Letter to the Undefined Crew…
I just have to let you know how transformative the LEGALIZE BLACKNESS gear is. In this pandemic time of political crisis, economic crisis and social unrest, I wear my shirt nearly every time I to go out into the tense and distanced world.
I like to think that this white, 50-year old, grown-man wearing LEGALIZE BLACKNESS across his chest in big and bold letters, as crazy as it may sound, causes people to be just a little more curious or go one layer deeper in their thinking on racial injustice. I also think wearing the LEGALIZE BLACKNESS shirt is good for the overt White racist world to know there are White folks out there that hold solidarity more properly aligned to social justice. Which in my mind means, if I can widen my perspective in the attempt to hold a more clear and historic view of how we have arrived at this point in the American experiment, certainly others can too. And who friggin’ knows what folks think? However, their reactions to the walking White-male, LEGALIZE BLACKNESS, message-board are often revealing.
From White people.
When people see me and the shirt coming their way their reaction is spontaneous, visceral and hard to filter. I have only had one White person say, “Nice shirt, man.” A White guy, my age, in the weed shop. Go figure. I was caught in my tracks and didn’t even know what to say! The normal White reaction is opposite in degrees. White folks do the double and triple take at the shirt and me and then they typically do one of three things in order of frequency: 1) Look through me. 2) Give me a big berth as they dramatically walk around me, go the other way, or glare. 3) Stop what they are doing all together and dramatically glare at me as I walk past with their eyes burning holes in my back. That last one has only happened on a couple of occasions. Without words it was made clear where they stood on “things.” The degrees of hostility seem to increase in the suburbs, the xurbs and the further out from Seattle I go.
I have talked about my experience wearing the shirt with other White people who are trying to hold to a clearer perspective of this moment and our shared history, and have heard “I could never wear a shirt like that” - and that is when I think, that is exactly why we all should. It is good for us White people. It’s good to feel vulnerable, to feel people’s eyes watching, and to even feel threatened, and then to explore those feelings… that can’t help but to lower our own emotional transmission to a smoother, less threatening, and more empathetic frequency.
From Black people.
90% of the time when a Black person sees the shirt, they can’t help themselves and say, “nice shirt!” Sometimes they smile and chuckle with a sprinkle of laughter or make some other positive comment. It is their chuckle that makes me most curious. What are these folks thinking that causes them to laugh at the scene? There has been only one or two times that a Black person doesn’t say anything, and I get it. Once, a young, Black checker at the grocery store and I carried on in the friendly-weather-talk that we do with each other in the checkout line. He didn’t want to talk about the bright bold LEGALIZE BLACKNESS sign on my chest, but he clearly didn’t mind holding that more traditional conversation. Which again, I get, and I enjoy chatting with the grocery checkers just about every time I go to the store. So, it’s all good.
From within this White man.
Beyond the external reactions I receive, it is the internal reaction I observe that is absolutely the most important reason the shirt is transformational; it is good for me. Every time I pull the shirt on, I know I am going out to receive verbal or non-verbal feedback, and likely barbs; felt hostility. It causes a stutter of movement just about every time. And within the space of that stutter, I reflect that I am pulling on a new and highly visible layer over my whiteness. And then there are times within that shaken moment, that I reverse course and choose not to wear the shirt. Do I always have to protest? Do I really want the White reaction today? Do I really want to be the observed today? These are powerful moments for me. They are powerful moments because I know I want to be, and can be, completely anonymous; I don’t want to be observed. I become acutely aware that I can hide in my skin. Damn. That awareness is so good for me. It completely reinforces the fact that we live in a racial caste system, a system designed for White people to move throughout in comfort, without resistance or observation.
And then when I peel off the shirt after wearing it out, I can’t help but reflect on what I am doing; I am going back into my white anonymity. That is privilege in America. The privilege of being unseen. The privilege of not having my presence make others feel uncomfortable or react one way or another. This is also the very reason White people have a hard time being in all-Black settings, the feeling of being different and the discomfort that comes with that, is so opposite to what we White people are used to.
It has been a good, and at times intense, several months of learning in my/your shirt. Driving my empathy down deeper, and my rage and love further to the surface. I have had work hard at my personal mindfulness practice as applied to being White. It is hard to hold the fact that Whiteness has been used by White people for generations, expanding out of Europe until today, as the embodiment of what is superior; most importantly superiorly violent and therefore, in some twisted belief, more worthy. I have to learn to be kind to myself because frankly that is hard to hold. While at the same time my frustration and rage with that White, unsympathetic and blind world continues boiling. To give into that rage would be perpetuating the violence of the paradigm, so I find myself constantly trying to embrace love and compassion along with the anger for my White brothers and sisters who do not share solidarity aligned to social justice.
I don’t know if y’all can “feel” any of this, but I thought I would share. Your shirt is powerful, and EVERY White person should wear it. Just think if we all did?!? I have encouraged several White friends to go to your site and buy and wear your gear. It is an empathy forcing function, a prompt to walk in another’s shoes and for a swift second or two, feel it. Just feel the exposure and the vulnerability and the aggression. The meaning and importance of safe spaces and places means so much more.
Thank you for opening my perspective even further.