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When the Legacy of Slavery Leads to Privilege

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

It is possible to be a black person in America and not be “woke”


By Malaika Cheney-Coker

Source: Boonyachoat via istockphoto.com


I grew up eating pigs feet. Broad-knuckled and tendon-bound, they were slave food, my parents explained. Our cuisine had rubbery tripe too, along with leafy greens that in other places would have been fed to ruminants. My parents, in discussing the peculiarities of this diet, explained that it was the creative usage of offal and humble vegetation that the masters didn’t want. And Freetown, Sierra Leone, where I grew up, is so named because the British established it as a new home for returned and rescued slaves, resulting in a mixed people called the Krios, of whom my father is one. I grew up watered by a fable — that if Freetown, once called the Athens of West Africa for its early prowess in higher education, was the home of the Krios, it was a sign that we were a refined and exceptional people, privileged, educated and successful.

As an immigrant to the United States, I realized that dark skin was a passport into a less favorable experience of blackness — one rarely of tangible racism (in my personal experience), but certainly of a subtle marginalization. In a nearly all-white town, despite the kindness of many that welcomed me, the sense of being perceived as “the other” was pervasive yet frustratingly nebulous. I suspected that it flowed from a deep well. So, whenever I locked eyes with the lone other black person in a room or on a street we shared a fleeting but potent — “I see you too, and we’re in this together.” I assumed too, that my slave ancestry provided me a unique connection to African Americans, one not shared by other African immigrants who had never been slaves. Our lineages were branches from a root of common victimhood, separated by the Atlantic Ocean, that great highway to alternate realities.

It was nearly two decades later that I realized I had been an imposter to the American experience of slavery and oppression. Not because half of me is Filipino, not because I hadn’t grown up in the U.S., but because slavery and its brutal successors of systemic oppression weren’t embedded into my psyche.

It is possible to be a black person in America and not be “woke.” I am embarrassed and saddened by my earlier assumptions and condescension regarding African Americans. I wondered why so many of them struggled to attain the middle-class markers of success that seemed attainable to my circle, to escape the usual stereotypes of being gangsters and welfare mamas. Like a hapless “dude” wondering why women are so complicated, I found some of my own personal relationships with African American friends and colleagues fraught and confusing.

What I could not see was not just the centuries worth of PTSD borne by African Americans (with the trauma continuing to compound), but that my lack of similar wounding was both a result and an enabler of privilege — the ability to harbor hope like a big helium-filled balloon, unweighted by the expectation that “the system” would work against me, the ability to draw worth from a society other than the one that has oppressed me, the ability to concern myself with my individual actions, rather than feeling the need to bear collective responsibility. True, in a society where the externalities of race are what we are judged by, such privileges may be tenuous, but they are real.

What remains shocking to me is not that I had these early blinders — it is how long it took me to recognize them as such. And when they came off, I realized I too had fallen prey to the seeming invisibility of oppression, the lie that all is well because no one is in chains or hanging from a tree or shunted to the back of the bus. My big epiphany came during a visit to the Equal Justice Initiative and Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, where I was confronted with the narrative that slavery, rather than dying, simply reincarnated itself in vile form after form. Yes, it took the equivalent of a neon sign for me to get it — not because I am particularly resistant to truth-seeking but because the invisibility of oppression casts a powerful spell.

Those that are surprised by the rawness of emotion and anger in response to the murder of George Floyd, the latest victim of police brutality, should not be. Things are no less real because they are invisible — that is, until they shoot outward, a spurting lava belied by the silence of the earth under which it previously roiled. And in fact, much of this injustice is plainly visible. Death by lynching is horrific but how much better is being callously gunned down by a police officer or dying with your neck under his knee?

Over time my growing pity and empathy for my African American brethren has led to a corresponding astonishment and admiration. To have persevered as a people when they could have been irremediably broken and scattered. To have built a nation not only with their hands but with their minds and spirits. To have given the world new art forms, scientific discoveries and leaders. To have given us one of the most powerful stories of renewal from the rot of oppression.

And yet, these triumphs have come largely in spite of the political and legal fixtures within which we live. As a result, the story of renewal is far from complete and brokenness abounds. For we all must be renewed, whether oppressed or not. We all must be healed of our blindness and deadening complicity. We must turn away from easy judgments. We all must confront the invisibility that lurks within and without, so that the failure to see the deceptions that surround us does not become a failure to perceive the drowsing ignorance within us. (Likewise, I have come to question the dubious assumptions on which my Krio privilege rests).

You don’t have to be black to feel pain and sorrow at the collective injustice we all visibly or invisibly partake in, as the racial diversity of the protesters attests; you only have to be human. Ditto for doing something about it.


[This post first appeared on Medium.com.]

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