Decolonize Your Mind

I love bell hooks. I love the way she thinks and writes ever since reading her book Teaching To Transgress. My reading of the book coincided with my reading of Teaching with Primary Sources from the Society of American Archivists, in which I wrote a blog post. From that auspicious beginning, I read Killing Rage: Ending Racism and Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. A recurrent theme of hooks’ is “decolonize your mind.” Her work, in many ways, validated my experience as a black woman but it also cast a critical lens on this life I live. White supremacy is a helluva drug and I’m realizing that it’s a drug I have steadily consumed for 33 years.

Point of clarification, before proceeding further, I am writing from a black, cis-het, female perspective. I’m writing for minority audiences, specifically black people. Decolonizing our minds is a concept we must begin to grapple with as a community. For white readers, since this is public, I challenge you to read thoughtfully and thoroughly as I hope you too will learn something from this writing. But know this isn't a space to hear how you feel or what you think.

Let’s take it back (for those who know this, indulge me)

Scientific racism (aka race biology) was pseudoscience promulgated as scientific fact by Europeans (read: white) to study biological differences. Not so coincidental is that this type of “scientific study” popped up as soon as Europeans expanded beyond their borders to conquer and colonize the world. They encountered people different than them. So they treated the people they encountered as specimens to be studied, put on display, and bodies to be dissected. They defined progress and culture on their terms and any civilization or peoples not up to that level were regarded as inferior. Heathens. They studied the skulls of Africans, Asians, etc and developed theories to back up these racist ideas of their superiority and the inferiority of “the other.” Some of the top (white) thinkers of the day believed this bullshit such as Thomas Jefferson.

In turn, these beliefs laid the foundation for justifying slavery in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, and even the Eugenics movement which advocated selective breeding and compulsory sterilization. This movement in particular was popular in the 20th century and can be seen in the Nazi Germany regime.

I write this for context. In a video, anti-racism activist Jane Elliott (known for her Blue/Brown eye experiment) put it succinctly, “we started out as one human race but then we were divided into categories.” From that European-created division, they demarcated who was superior and who was inferior. Guess who was at the top? Their shitty “science” was a mask to cover up their sins of racism and colonization. These beliefs accepted as fact.

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In the case of American black people, we supposedly felt less pain, are predisposed to hard labor, and intellectually inferior. Slap on the yoke of slavery, the white conversation shifted to slavery being good for us. In fact, the best thing to happen to us as a people because it got us out of “dirty, filthy Africa.” Because we were regarded as lesser, families could be broken up and black women raped because we were lower life forms. The desire for freedom, kinship, and education were regarded and treated by white enslavers as a mental disorder. Something was wrong with us because we wanted to be free. The powerful yearning for freedom led to uprisings and revolts which tacked on a fear among whites. This led to policing black bodies and an unease of too many black people gathered together, especially black men. With the American Civil War and Reconstruction, black people were free….but not really. Now, because we expected more and didn’t want to work for free, we were called lazy (actually enslaved people were called lazy throughout slavery). U.S. Freedmen Bureau records, a short-lived government agency established during Reconstruction, are replete with letters and other documents of white people complaining about the laziness of black people, their former slaves. Or, black people, men in particular being arrested for “loitering.” Now prisons became the new plantation.

Do you see the pervasiveness of white supremacy? Do you see how its seeped in? Do you see in the history how those words and actions are parroted now?

White supremacy is codified in the DNA of white people and accepted as fact, even among white people who profess to be liberal. They have breathed it in from birth. (Side note: for white readers here is a great Twitter thread on white fragility and white supremacy)

It’s easy to point the finger at white people but now let’s shift to the heart of this essay. Black people, we have not escaped unscathed. White supremacy is the poison and we have drunk from the same water.

White supremacy is most apparent in the stanning and policing of each other based on white supremacist standards and defense mechanisms.

It is embedded in the ongoing conversation of colorism where lighter skin is regarded as beautiful and aspirational. Darker skin regarded as ugly. This has led to generations of infighting amongst us and self-hatred. I see it on social media as dark-skinned black people, more often black women, are fighting to be heard and included (see pretty much any tweet by @IWriteAllDay_). It is present in the favoritism parents, family, and society give to the lighter-toned among us. It is in the family members that tell you not to play in the sun too much or, as they warn, you’ll get “too dark.” It is to be asked, as a black woman, if you are mixed or biracial because the only accounting for your beauty is if your blackness is diluted. (I shit you not, I had a 30ish black man ask me this because he couldn’t believe that my curly hair came from having two fully black parents.)

It is in the black police officers who participate or turn a blind eye in the “extreme policing” of black lives. The most recent example is the image of black police officers violently dispersing protests after Chicago barber Harith Augustus was killed. They are steeped in white supremacy where black (and brown) lives are suspect and must be policed.

It is present in violence that we, as black people, perpetuate on other people of color. We accept the white supremacist view of difference and spread its toxic out. See this story.

It is commenting and policing each other’s hair and then claiming it was a joke.

It is weaponizing Chicago and other economically-depressed areas as an example of crab mentality without educating ourselves on the systemic issues in that area and the work of folks on the ground.

It is the easy acceptance of white allies who show an elementary grasp of basic human decency. (You don’t deserve a cookie or an invite to the cookout because you recognize that black people are people.)

It is tearing each other down by holding each other to this (invisible) white supremacist standard.

And when this behavior is called out, it is met with scorn, dismissal, and a refusal to see an alternative point of view. Sound familiar?

The thing is white supremacy and those who uphold it will always try to move the goal post of acceptance. Keep it just outside of black reach.

To decolonize our minds, means to be cognizant of and examine our responses to things internal and external to us. Is the thought or action rooted in policing black behavior and and bodies? For example, I had to confront my unease regarding groups of black men. One Saturday morning, I glanced out my 2nd story window to see on the street corner three men, ranging in age from 20-40ish. I stopped and watched them. An unease creeping in me. They chatted, laughed, and went their separate ways. It was then I realized they were just a group of guys talking but why did I feel so uneasy at the sight of them. I sat with that feeling for days. I realized that because of white supremacist culture, I had viewed them with suspicious, with fear.  I assumed them guilty of something or up to no good based on NO evidence.

I’ve had many a moment where I had to grapple with my reaction and thoughts to things. To find myself ready to police another black person’s behavior or words when they were merely pointing out the problem. It means learning and educating myself about black history, black intellectual thought and black feminism, to understand how much of white supremacy I have consumed.

Know that to walk this path of decolonization will open you up to a world that you cannot unknown. To see how problematic you are, your family is, or your friends.

If we want to create a world beyond white supremacy, we have to grapple as a people, as a community, with the damage it has wrought on each other and our psyche. If we don’t, we risk replicating this world, these systems, in the next iteration.

To be truly free, we must decolonize our minds. It is imperative.