by Maisha Z. Johnson
After the racist mass murder at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, I’m mourning. I’m angry. I’m afraid. I’m seeing the vicious face of white supremacy on the news and social media, and for once in my life, responding with kindness doesn’t make sense to me.
I’ve always believed that I should be kind, above all other things. Treating people with respect in this unjust world sure isn’t a bad thing. At times, kindness can be courageous, can be loving, can be bold. It’s kept me safe, helped people around me feel good, feel comfortable.
Only there’s nothing good or comfortable about sitting with white supremacy as it destroys our communities. Being nice has its limits. It can’t mean facing racism with a smile, trying my damnedest to kill it with kindness while it comes at us with bullets.
The pastor and congregants of Emanuel AME were kind to their killer. They welcomed him into their church, prayed with him for over an hour. We should be able to be kind to strangers without violence in return, so they did nothing wrong.
What went wrong was a man who was so indoctrinated with racist hate that’s lived in this country since its birth, who opened fire even after hesitating to go through with the shooting because, as he told investigators, the people he killed “were so nice.”
So nice. But he murdered them anyway.
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It’s demeaning for me to have to approach someone with care for their feelings as I explain the terror of life as a black person in this country.
To put it simply: fuck that. Here’s what’s behind my urge to be kind – and how I’m learning that kindness can wear out its welcome.
1. I want to “keep the peace.”
I’ll be honest: I avoid conflict like it’s a pool after a trip to the hair salon. As I gradually open up to its necessary role in life, I see that avoiding conflict through kindness also means not standing up for myself.
This applies to conversations about racial justice, too. Under the inherently violent conditions of white supremacy, there is no peace to preserve. Keeping the “peace” means maintaining the status quo, and that’s not a viable option for protecting people of color.
Fighting oppression isn’t supposed to be comfortable. To stand up for my community, I have to embrace tension.
After all, if you don’t outwardly express rage, grief, or fear, then where does it go? Personally, I turn it on myself as shame, guilt, and self-doubt – the natural results of living in a world that tells us the racism we experience does not exist.
That’s no peace for me.
2. I don’t want to seem like a “bad person,” or a negative stereotype.
Many people see kindness as a virtue. But people of color have to be a hell of a lot more virtuous to be recognized as good people. When black women get rightfully angry, we’re often accused of “attacking” a sensible white person having a “rational” discussion.
Ever feel like this idea of rationality is some kind of trick? Hoops for people of color to jump through to prove we’re civilized creatures worthy of respect – because we should be able to keep calm while we’re violently losing our lives.
Racist people are not being kind when they dismiss my right to demand to stay alive. Racist systems are not being kind when they keep people of color in poverty, prison, and early graves.
To say the least, being impolite in the face of all of this doesn’t take away from my worth. I’m done believing that being nice defines the value of persecuted people.
3. I want to be the bigger person.
Racism gained power in this country with the ugliest of weapons: hate, slavery, and mass incarceration, to name a few. With kindness, I try to use the opposite tools: love, liberation, and dignity, to name a few. But I also have to fight with passionate rage to protect myself from the powerful systems working against us.
Some of the family members of the six women and three men murdered in Charleston forgave the killer just days after the shooting. I’m in awe of them for their ability to offer forgiveness. But the pressure for other surviving relatives to do the same isn’t about healing or justice. It’s about seeking permission to let this go, to say that all’s forgiven and we can move on from the horror of racism.
I’m not ready to grant forgiveness for what the Charleston church shooting has done to my community. That doesn’t make me or anyone else who feels the same a lesser person.
4. I want to make change.
For me, being nice can be a desperate attempt to change people’s minds. Black folks are being killed on the streets, in our homes, and in our churches, and we urgently need change.
But the pressure to quiet my anger in order to be taken seriously is a weapon of white supremacy. I’ve been kind, I’ve spoken calmly, I’ve taken the feelings of guilty and defensive white people under every consideration. And I’ve still met people who refuse to hear me, no matter how gently I deliver my message.
The real story of why we need radical change does not revolve around white people’s feelings. It’s the story of our suffering, our resistance, our truth, and I can no longer avoid that truth for fear of not being kind.
I’m not ashamed of my nature, which still includes erring on the side of gentleness. But I’m no magical Negro with only kindness on my side – I also have the righteous rage that’s kept people of color alive through centuries of violent oppression.
I don’t have less value because I’m angry with the Charleston church killer and with anyone who refuses to face the truth of how everyday racism leads to tragedies like this far too often. I actually don’t have less kindness, either – I’m giving that love back to myself and my community.
And someone like the Charleston shooter would still kill me, even if I’m nice.
Maisha Z. Johnson is a healer, a troublemaker, and author of two poetry chapbooks, Split Ears and Uprooted. She breathes her Trinidadian roots and experiences as a queer black woman and survivor of violence into her art, working to amplify the voices of those often silenced. She blogs at www.maishazjohnson.com.
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