“Blackness” Matters

Rachelle Peterson

What does the Black Lives Matter movement want?  After all the “demands” on all the campuses; all the protests on all the city streets; and all the coverage in the national media, you might think the answer is obvious. Perhaps it is.  Black Lives Matter activists want attention and they want political power.

But within the movement, things are more complicated.  Some participants fiercely argue that America needs to change by embracing “diversity.” Others just as fiercely argue that what is needed is a cohesive form of Black Nationalism that shuns white society.  According to this second view, the only way to convince people that “black lives matter” is to reaffirm the importance of “blackness” itself.  What is blackness?  The advocates find that rather hard to say.  And to make matters even more confusing, some of the participants in Black Lives Matter enunciate both views at once.  They want to be “included” in mainstream society while at the same time expressing contemptuous rejection of that society.

New Black School

This is what I learned at a crash-course in black activism sponsored by the New School in New York City.  The five-day course ran from April 25-29.  “Black Lives Matter 101: A Comprehensive Course in Black Social Movements” offered attendees instruction in topics such as “mobilizing the African diaspora,” learning how to “leverage” black churches for activism, and influencing upcoming elections. The “New Black School,” the campus black graduate student organization, arranged the event and earned the imprimatur of the School of Public Engagement. New Black School, according to its website, “helps members succeed in, navigate, and critique racist, sexist, transphobic, heteronormative and capitalist environments.”

Readers who have not previously dropped in on Black Lives Matter internal discussions may be disconcerted by the racist rhetoric, the narrow-minded ideas, and pernicious premises. Some of what follows in this essay is pretty raw.  Consider this a trigger warning.  I am about to recount, with direct quotations, what I saw and heard at BLM 101. When I have mentioned some of these details to others, some have responded to the effect that it is grossly impolite of me to repeat such things. I have cleaned up the language to the extent of deleting the expletives that accented much of what was said.  Otherwise the quotations are accurate and as close to verbatim as I could transcribe. They can be verified from the video.

The purpose of this essay is to introduce to a wider audience—not necessarily a whiter audience—a “discourse” that is becoming more and more influential in American life.  I disagree with much of that discourse, but I think it is important that it be heard clearly by the general public.  All too often, the people who articulate the views that I quote below are granted a degree of moral authority and influence they could not have if their liberal supporters were actually listening to what Black Lives Matter activists actually say.   

I attended day four of BLM 101, “Tech and New Media.” It was held at the 450-seat auditorium at Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall. The room was about one-third full. The audience was overwhelmingly black and young. The average age was about 25.  “Tech and New Media” was supposed to “explore how technology has strengthened traditionally unheard voices”—that is, how the internet fosters diversity. But the panel, and the audience with it, seemed split between wanting to amplify diverse voices and forging a unique black perspective.

It might not be amiss to wonder why a university would sponsor such an explicitly political gathering. The New School, however, is no stranger to political activism.  It is where social justice, climate justice, and racial justice are built into the floors, walls, and ceiling.


The event’s moderator, Chris Witherspoon, a CNN entertainment analyst, asked the panel what they thought of “Black Twitter.” Johnetta Elzie, better known by her Twitter handle @nettaaaaaaaa, warned the audience that Black Twitter was ripe for “colonization” by white people, who have discovered that blacks use Twitter. Blacks should be aware that white social scientists are studying blacks’ online habits. Elzie, who tweets and writes about racism, especially police prejudice, earned the Howard Zinn Freedom to Write Award after she and DeRay McKesson created the #Ferguson Protest Newsletter, also called This is the Movement.  She heads an activist group We The Protesters, and was for a time a field organizer with Amnesty International. 

Elzie was offended that white people thought blacks shared Twitter habits—but she was also offended that whites failed to recognize the apparently common black hobby of shooting fireworks in the streets. Many white reporters in Ferguson misinterpreted those fireworks, she said, as gunshots. “It’s just black people being black people,” she said. Elzie seemed unfazed by the contradiction between her resentment of whites for noticing “blackness” on Twitter and again for not noticing “blackness” re fireworks—a contradiction that ran through the entire proceedings. Black Lives Matter has a deeply-planted “heads I win, tails you lose” outlook.

Jamilah Lemieux, senior editor of Ebony magazine, and Damon Young, a writer and co-founder of the online publication VerySmartBrothas, said Black Twitter was simply a community of black people using the social media site. But Lemieux warned that “not everyone in Black Twitter is black.” Some imposter whites used fake photos. Black Twitter once commemorated the “shared experience of being black,” but now that the whites had caught on to it, “we’re under a microscope, being marketed to.”

White Man’s Diary, Black Woman’s Curses

Is there a fundamental, immutable difference between people with black skin and other people? To say so used to be called “racial essentialism,” and was regarded as a fundamental moral error as well as an empirical mistake.  But the panel agreed there is such a difference. In the world of Black Lives Matter, black and white are self-evident, ineluctable categories, though their exact content is difficult to articulate.  It is an I-know-it-when-I-see-it distinction.

Terrell J. Starr, a national political correspondent for Fusion, said he had left several writing jobs before, because he was “too black” for the office, and his viewpoint didn’t match even the most progressive ideas of his white colleagues. “American journalism is nothing more than white man’s diary,” he said.  Once, fed up with his white colleagues touting Bernie Sanders’ record of civil rights activism, which he considers “just BS,” Starr pitched a story about why blacks aren’t feeling the Bern. His editors rejected it, so he took to social media and sparked an outrage on Black Twitter. 

Johnetta Elzie, the Ferguson protest organizer, said Twitter let people find authentically black voices. “I curse,” she said. “I can call police a [expletive] and mean it. People can relate.” Expressing her views online was crucial, Elzie said, because otherwise “white people will tell their fabulous lies that they always sell for clickbait.” Lemieux, the Ebony editor, noted that the rise of black media led to a “sea change” in how progressives handle race issues—but it could never duplicate the black voices that magazines like Ebony publish. “Not that I want them all to go back to being bad conservative hyper-Christians,” she explained, but even the most left of the leftists can’t grasp the unique black experience.

Conservative White Roaches

Witherspoon asked panelists whether social media had ever gotten them in trouble. Could one expose too much online? Lemieux relived her feud with the Republican Party after a testy Twitter exchange with a black Republican, Raffi Williams. Glancing quickly at Williams’ Twitter photo, Ebony editor Lemieux thought he was white and tweeted dismissively, “Oh great, here comes a White dude telling me how to do this Black thing. Pass.” Williams had written to Lemieux that he “hoped you would encourage diversity of thought,” but Lemieux responded that “I care about NOTHING you have to say” before landing a parting blow comparing conservatives to “roaches.”

Lemieux denied that when she called Williams “White” it was intended as an insult—as RNC party chairman Reince Priebus intimated when he demanded an apology to Williams. But would she have reacted differently if she had known Williams was black? “I just saw a white man yelling at me on Twitter like they always do,” Lemieux explained to the audience at The New School.  (Ebony later issued an apology claiming it “strongly believes in the marketplace of ideas” and respects the “practice of celebrating diverse Black thought.”)

Elzie shared that she had been fired from Amnesty International for staging a race-based protest and hijacking Amnesty’s Twitter hashtags during its largest annual conference. “I knew I wouldn’t stay” at Amnesty International she said, because the organization “was for whites with a white dominant culture and white money. I knew I didn’t belong.”

That kind of talk sounds close to intentionally reinforcing racial stereotypes and clamoring for segregation—not for reasons of white purity, but for black purity. One panelist, Ebony editor Lemieux, endorsed Black Nationalism, the theory that blacks should be governed by blacks, separately from white jurisdictions: “I am a Black Nationalist,” Lemieux shared. “I come from a family of Black Nationalists.” (Lemieux’s father, David—pronounced Daveed—Lemieux, was a member of the Black Panthers.) Jamilah Lemieux has the family talent for framing provocative views, as when Twitchy headlined her opinion of a movie, “Jamilah Lemieux sides with North Korea because of ‘white privilege.’”

Later, during the question-and-answer period, one attendee wondered aloud about “taking down the nation-state of America.” Elzie responded with guarded enthusiasm: “I do not feel like on this panel I can address taking down the state of America. But I feel you. I feel you.”

“I Appreciate Open Bigotry”

A major claim shared by most of the participants at Black Lives Matter 101 is that the black “lived experience” is impenetrable to non-blacks.  The “narrative” is closed off and inaccessible to any who has not lived it, which means, by definition, all “whites.”  White people pretending to be black, even for sympathetic reasons, are no better positioned than any other whites to really understand. 

What are whites to do? “Is there any room for white allies?” Witherspoon asked the panel. Simple question, simple answer.  “No,” Elzie, the Ferguson organizer, said firmly, shaking her head.  

Witherspoon again:  Is there a “safe way” for whites to help, without destroying the black narrative? “Just retweet,” Elzie responded.

Starr, the Fusion correspondent, bemoaned that, for every other culture, white people are willing to extend the “basic courtesy” of quietly learning about its views. Starr himself speaks Russian and spent four years living in Eastern Europe, observing the social values and asking questions. “But everyone is a [expletive] expert on black people,” he said. “We’ve never had the privilege of occupying a space that was ours. We always have to occupy others’ space.” Starr also noted that his experience with racism at previous jobs had driven him to consider suicide.

An audience member challenged the idea that all blacks have the same values. “Who you are is only your voice,” he said. “We have to combat the idea that one black person speaks for all blacks.” Lemieux, the Ebony editor, backpedaled: yes there was real “danger in a single narrative.” But that danger, she said, came mainly in the form of “white culture” tending to “choose a single expert” on black issues. When ESPN hired a black commentator, it did right by highlighting a black voice, but erred, she said, in selecting someone who didn’t “resonate” with the dominant black experience.  Starr offered advice for how to “bear” the “white culture’s” stereotyping of black culture: “I’m not the explainer of black culture to whites. I have no shame in saying there is a type of culture—white corporate culture—that I can’t navigate.”

What should non-blacks do?   According to these pronouncements, they are inadvertent racists if they attempt to affirm black culture because they will inevitably present it as one-dimensional. And they are racists pure and simple if they do not affirm black culture in exactly the ways the Black Lives Matter activists prescribe. It is racism either way, and racism all the way down.

The only clear path under these circumstances is to set aside what the Black Lives Matter activists say, since their counsel leads nowhere for America as a whole.  Theirs is not a message of racial reconciliation or progress towards any kind of national unity.

Some of the activists do, however, have advice for whites.  They should, in effect, express openly the racism that the activists know that all whites harbor. “Let me know where you stand. Then I know how to navigate,” Elzie said.  She notes she respects Donald Trump’s unfiltered commentary. “I appreciate open bigotry.”  Of course, Elzie had earlier called for whites to retweet (without comment) whatever Black Lives Matter protesters say. 

Grievance Fatigue

 No doubt by writing about this event I put myself in the category of whites writing about black voices and ideas. By Black Lives Matter standards, I am disqualified from reporting on The New School’s panel and am exploiting their voices.

I disagree. The Black Lives Matter is a faction that has appropriated moral language because it sees that it will serve its purpose.  It is opportunistic rather than principled, and the contradictions in its claims are evidence of its incoherence.  The spokesmen at Black Lives Matter 101 gave voice to what would quickly be recognized in any other context as claims of racial exclusivity.  They were not shy about this or worried that it would undermine their larger claims.  But, in fact, this view does undermine their larger claims.  Their eagerness to take racial categorizations as fundamental, unalterable, and essentially “true,” contradicts their sense that racism is unjust and wrong. Replacing one form of racism with another takes us no closer to a fair and just society. 

Tactically, it also seems self-defeating. The Black Lives Matter movement attempts to mobilize the resentments in black communities and to shame whites into ceding their wealth and power, partly out of fear and partly out of contrition. Resentment can indeed be an effective way to rally people (consider the current national election cycle, on all sides) but resentment on one side breeds resentments on all sides.  It is seldom a recipe for long-term success.  Likewise, trading on the fears and contrition of other people requires constant inflation and eventually produces grievance fatigue. 

In any case, the activists would benefit from a greater degree of intellectual openness.  Their prevailing mix of anger, resentment, self-pity, and self-assertion has undoubtedly achieved a short-term political success for the Black Lives Matter movement.  They may mistake that as a reason for more of the same.  But their campaign has futility built in. What is the use of protesting racism by affirming an intrinsic all-powerful racial identity? The New School’s panel showed activists and writers who define themselves primarily by race, and secondarily by anger at racism. Take away race—achieve true colorblindness—and the racial identity collapses. Take away racism, and self-actualizing anger evaporates.

This leaves a significant number of the “new civil rights” activists demanding race-based discrimination—a far cry from the equality the movement once espoused. 

Image:"Millions March NYC" by B.C. Lorio // CC BY-NC-ND

  • Share

Most Commented

May 7, 2024


Creating Students, Not Activists

The mobs desecrating the American flag, smashing windows, chanting genocidal slogans—this always was the end game of the advocates of the right to protest, action civics, student activ......

March 9, 2024


A Portrait of Claireve Grandjouan

Claireve Grandjouan, when I knew her, was Head of the Classics Department at Hunter College, and that year gave a three-hour Friday evening class in Egyptian archaeology....

April 20, 2024


The Academic's Roadmap

By all means, pursue your noble dream of improving the condition of humanity through your research and teaching. Could I do it all again, I would, but I would do things very differently....

Most Read

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...

September 21, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What Does YHWH Elohim Mean?

A reader asks, "If Elohim refers to multiple 'gods,' then Yhwh Elohim really means Lord of Gods...the one of many, right?" A Hebrew expert answers....