Black deference and dormant racism: the politics of knowing one’s place

‘In prisons, it is not at all uncommon to find a prisoner hanged or burned to death in his cell. No matter how suspicious the circumstances, these deaths are always ‘suicides.’ They are usually Black inmates, considered to be a ‘threat to the orderly running of the prison.’ They are usually among the most politically aware and socially conscious inmates in prison’.

Assata Shakur (1987).

It is now well accepted that the most tenacious and elusive aspects of people’s racial prejudices sit outside of their conscious awareness.  This has been unequivocally established.  Empirically. So, even though most people today would describe themselves as tolerant, reasonable and fair-minded, the reality of course is often quite different.  Racism is very difficult to escape from, even for those individuals who might take great pride in their liberalism and see themselves as anti-racist. Whether we like it or not, we live in a society with a disturbingly heavy racist legacy. A society where the degradation of people of colour continues to be perpetuated more often than not covertly, silently and quite casually. A society, with an order and hierarchy that is still rigidly stratified by race.

The ‘ally turn’ and dormant racism

This social order may be why many apparently neutral situations can quickly turn into racist encounters for people of colour and why countless rational and ‘liberal’ individuals can seemingly, at the drop of a hat, utter the most surprisingly bigoted statements. The above suggestion may be unsettling to many white people nevertheless, any sceptic may only need to initiate some conversations with friends, relatives and strangers of colour.  In all probability, many such individuals will recall some racist deeds or words by so called allies and/or from supposedly enlightened people.  I’ve called this process the ‘ally turn’.  From the ex-lover who upon being dumped suddenly develops a taste for racial slurs, to the ‘close’ white friend who almost out of the blue feels the need to discuss the superiority of white women’s looks because her friend of colour is getting more attention, to the devoted career advisors who may simply not find it in them to support the choice of talented Black students to go to ‘Oxbridge’ or to study prestigious/power enabling subjects, perhaps because of their own mediocrity.

Too many of us have had to navigate through such exchanges which may lay bare a number of patterns. For example, that some people of colour seem more likely to encounter racial hostility than others (I submit here, they are likely individuals who challenge whiteness) or that some situations and contexts appear to attract more racial contempt than others (I propose, situations seen as transgressing the racialised social order). The concept of dormant racism offers quite an interesting tool here. In biology dormancy refers to the period in which an organism’s physical activity and growth is temporarily suspended; after which, development resumes its normal course. Usually when the environment becomes more favourable. By dormancy in racism, it is simply proposed that much invisible racial prejudice lurks inactive or unknown until the conditions for its expression and externalization are met.  Challenges to normative racial expectations and disruption to the implicit social order seem to provide ideal conditions for the manifestation of dormant racial bigotry.

On Black deference

All imperialist systems have relied on the legitimization of white authority through the propagation of ideas of superiority and benevolence and correspondingly, discourses of dependency and incapability. Oppressed groups (racially or otherwise) in other words, have been expected to gratefully bow down and to defer to their masters not only because the latter knew better but also because it was considered an affront to challenge the authority of the master.  Indeed, doing so threatened the very structures of oppression. In essence, challenging the master meant refusing to stay ‘in one’s place’. Many may see such expectations as historical but, there is arguably much evidence that the expectation of Black deference lingers both at individual and structural level. The case of ‘socially conscious’ inmates as described above by Assata Shakur, may provide an illustration.

Following the Rachel Dolezal’s affair, a number of commentators have openly expressed the view that Black women should be grateful for Dolozal’s work and, in the same vein, some white feminists have taunted Black feminists for the credit they felt due for supposedly providing a platform for the birth intersectionality. The expectation that people of colour should be grateful for the presumed benevolence or attention that is afforded to them by those with race related privileges may well be a manifestation of ‘Black deference’.

And, as any questioning of the master ’s judgement and orders was deemed an act of insubordination potentially punishable by imprisonment and by death; across centuries and continents; it is striking that contemporaneously, several instances exist of Black people who have come to harm or died while or shortly after questioning illegitimate orders.  Often, white orders. Zimmerman, a mere neighbourhood watch member, demanded that Trayvon Martin recognized his (illegitimate) authority by identifying himself and his intentions. The latter did not (and indeed, did not have to).  An altercation which led to Martin’s death ensued. Similarly, the confrontation between Sandra Bland and Encinia only escalated after she objected to the state trooper ordering for no apparent cause, that she put the cigarette she was smoking (in her own car) out and, that she got out of her vehicle.  Sandra Bland resisted Encinia ‘s unwarranted demands.  She was threatened (with a tazer gun) into submission and later died in police custody in highly suspicious circumstances.

There are many everyday examples suggesting that Black deference continues to be expected and enacted. Many of us might have witnessed incidents involving white teens behaving in the most abusive ways physically and verbally towards the police or others in positions of authority, only to receive warnings, if even that. We have known fair well that Black teens would probably have served time for the same conduct. White teens are allowed irreverence to authority to a much larger extent, it is often deemed a sign of being free-spirited, of adolescence or of critical thinking even. In Black teens, the same behaviour can quickly be constructed as defiance or disorderlines. There is plenty of evidence documenting that Black children and teenagers receive harsher punishments than their white counterparts for similar authority related ‘infringements’ and when they come into contact with the criminal justice system.  In other words, for Black people, not knowing their place can have serious consequences. From a very young age.  

Clearly, Black women are not exempt.  Many of us have learnt that minding our demeanour may well mean the difference between making it home or ending up detained. Or worse.  We have intuitively known of dormant racism. We may not necessarily have given it that name. Our holding our head up, an act of resistance and of self-affirmation which should be celebrated, is not. It is the antithesis of deference and thus incompatible with the social order…And so, we have poor attitudes.  It is a disturbing state of affairs to have in some parts of the ‘Western’ world, lawyers advising men of colour that their number one strategy to survive police encounters should be to comply, irrespective of how unreasonable the conduct of the officer(s) may be. Questioning power and white authority regardless of their illigitimacy can get Black people killed.  And, make no mistake about this. Those whose lives are taken whilst they question the state, do not die because they threaten individuals. They die because they challenge their place in the hierarchy. Because they threaten the social order.  An order that lays invisible and silent until its existence is threatened.

Thank you for reading.

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  1. “Many of us have learnt that minding our demeanour may well mean the difference between making it home or ending up detained. Or worse. We have intuitively known of dormant racism. We may not necessarily have given it that name. Us holding our head up, an act of resistance and of self-affirmation which should be celebrated, is not. It is incompatible with the social order and so… we have poor attitudes.”
    I like that passage. That was very well said. We must keep holding our head up and not bow down to this racist society. Black people are a very strong people. We have dealt with a lot of pain and suffering the last four hundred years or so. I also think as black men we tend to forget the pain that a lot of black women go through. Black men are seen as a physical threat by the power structure. But like you said,sistas are not exempt. And it doesn’t seem to matter if the black woman is famous or not. With the symbols like a Michelle Obama as the first black first lady, Oprah as a billionaire, and Gaby Douglas as an Olympic champion, society is seduced into believing that being black and female “isn’t that hard or bad.” These feats, while remarkable, represent a small minority of blacks that are able to defy overt disenfranchisement by existing in spaces previously reserved solely for whites. However, these symbols are merely individuals, or part of whole that is entirely victimized by systematic racism. So, despite their success, these individuals are still susceptible to a lack of cultural consciousness, which cripples them from helping the less franchised versions of themselves. Nevertheless, these individuals do not and should not represent the totality of the black experience as their success does not negate the racism that affects the entirety of the black diaspora. For in the face of discussing Michelle Obama and Oprah, let us not forget our sisters like Renisha McBride,Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman who were slain by white supremacy. Thank you for this beautiful post. I definitely feel where you’re coming from.
    Since you started this post with a quote from the great Assata Shakur. I will end it with one of my favorite quotes from her.
    “People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.”

    1. Hi Prince, sorry for the delayed response it has been a crazy few weeks, lots of challenges. I am currently in Africa on holidays. As always I appreciate your comments. I love the quote you cited. It resonates and illustrates both the curse and blessing of being ‘conscious’, of not getting used to our oppression and seeing it as normal. Ever. Thank you.
      Thanks for taking the time to share your perspective.

      1. Thanks for the reply. I realize you’re a very busy woman. I appreciate it when you do respond. You have some amazing insight and great information. Take care.

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