Often after racism results in the death of a Black person, I can anticipate a frantic barrage of white rage fueled posts. Journalists will desperately scour the victim’s social media pages to find potentially inflammatory pictures to utilize beside headlines like: NAME SMOKED MARIJUANA, or NAME HAD A HISTORY OF MISDEMEANORS. Very rarely do we seem the same kinds of organized efforts when white women or men are killed.
As an academic and writer on racial justice and Black racial identity, I intentionally interact daily with other people about the meaning of race in our lives.
A question that Robin DeAngelo utilizes which I also use in my classes asks participants to consider for one uninterrupted minute how their life has been shaped by race.
Often, I receive silence from my white participants.
Understanding how race, particularly whiteness (note the function of whiteness is different than white people) functions is imperative when discussing the nuanced and often insidious ways it reinforces a culture of supremacy.
In the wake of Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, and Ahmaud Arbery’s lynchings, I have been unsettled by how the messaging of niceness continues to pervade and inform white allyship.
Too often, when I share stories of how I have been impacted by racism, I hear responses like:
Pay attention to the semantics.
Perhaps you, like me, have noticed the underlying and horrifying ideology that racism happens to “deserving” Blacks. Perhaps you’ve also heard it in dog whistles like: “well why were they talking back to the police officer, why were they jogging, why were they sleeping with someone who had a gun, why did they smoke marijuana…”
How often will a white person instruct Black people that niceness is the only deterrent to racism? And, how often is that niceness also tied to concepts of cursory palatability?
And, perhaps similar, how often does this instruction come from white people who fundamentally rely on their own “niceness” as a way to avoid culpability for racist acts?
Recently, Franklin County’s official website, in a now since deleted page (thanks to Instagram user @trustmeiamasocialworker’s efforts to amplify and call for action), had provided its constituents with a PDF of instructions specifically stated for the African American community on what kinds of masks to wear. Instructions included wearing bright colored masks and avoiding bandanas, gang colors, or masks with scary pictures.
While the PDF included links to contemporary articles on why Black people are generally hesitant to wear a mask, and to the NAACP, the pointed centering of Black communities by asking them to specifically wear items that would make them appear “less threatening” was disingenuous at best and racist at worst.
But this can be what unchecked white allyship looks like. This can be what niceness culture endorses – another set of rules policing Black bodies.
When I facilitate workshops on allyship, I often utilize journal prompts as a way of engaging participants to think critically and carefully about ways in which various ideologies have impacted their ability to engage in relationships. Below are some helpful journal prompts around niceness.
What does it mean to be nice?
How has niceness culture impacted or impeded your ability to engage in relationships holistically?
How has niceness culture impacted or impeded your ability to enter into racial justice work?
How has niceness culture impacted your ability to share or endorse Black or POC content?
How has niceness culture shown up in your actions?
What would you do or say if niceness culture didn’t exist?
How does niceness culture connect with freedom?