Black folks are at the bottom of the racial hierarchy and yes, there is a racial hierarchy.
The trendy trifecta of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has familiarized most of the country with basic concepts of race and racism. Most are whitewashed and watered down, but there’s at least a conversation. At the policy level, racism is named (even if not wholly) and acknowledged as immoral.
As we broaden our understanding and deepen the work toward the liberation of all people, we are met with resistance. The deeper we go and the more intersections we come upon, the more folks are asked to examine their power and privilege. The discomfort is felt by all and it makes us reluctant to push through the ick to get to the truth and a step closer to liberation. Nobody wants to feel like they benefit from the oppression of others.
Recently, there has been a focus on exploring anti-Black racism, specifically. That alone has raised cries from non-Black folks asking why we need extra focus. And when people who are working against anti-Black racism explain why – that Black folks are at the bottom of the racial hierarchy – some non-Black folks are outright offended. They do not believe a racial hierarchy exists, let alone that the global plight of Africans places them at the bottom of it. Non-Black people of color are especially offended as they too experience the oppression white supremacy forces upon all non-white folks. The fact that they deny that such a hierarchy exists is to silence the discomfort that owning their position and privilege causes.
Usually, the group that comes up when thinking of Black folks’ position on the racial hierarchy, is Indigenous people. Because of the United States’ history of genocide and mass displacement of Indigenous tribes, there is a particular respect for their plight. Every American citizen is standing on land that once belonged to these tribes. I currently live on Duwamish land and my family descends from Indigenous tribes in the Carolinas. Indigenous folks from the U.S. make up only 1% of a land that used to be 100% Indigenous. They are also murdered by the police at the highest rates. Indigenous men and women earn less than their Black counterparts as well. So how can one say that Black people are on the bottom of the racial hierarchy?
The simplest retort is that some of the most powerful Indigenous tribes enslaved Africans in America. It’s always been a joke to me when white people claim to be part Cherokee to disprove their racism because the Cherokee perpetuated one of the greatest race-based atrocities right along with the white folks. Now, most Indigenous tribes were not given the opportunity to enslave Africans. Most tribes had very little interactions with Africans until the late 19th century. But the fact remains that white supremacy (and anti-Black racism) allowed Indigenous people to hold power over Black people.
The truth is, non-Black people are often given power to harm Black people. Even Black people can be given power to harm other Black people. This is seen in systems and institutions supporting anti-Blackness. An Indigenous Latino murdered Trayvon Martin and the system let him go. Peter Liang is Asian and killed Akai Gurley. A Korean store owner killed Latasha Harlins. Half of the officers responsible for Freddie Gray’s death are Black. Institutional racism rewards anti-Blackness no matter the race of the perpetrator.
Is the reverse true?
Are Black people rewarded by the system and given power to cause non-Black folks harm? If we take those same scenarios and reverse the victim and attackers, do Black people have the support of the system in the harm done? When a Somali police officer in Minnesota shot and killed a white woman, white supremacists defended the victim. When Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown, white supremacists defended the attacker. Nobody is giving Black folks a pat on the back for harming anyone other than ourselves. Any time a Black person is the suspect of the crime, they are vilified. Any time they are the victim, they are vilified. Even if they are merely an accused attacker or a proven innocent victim. If a crime occurred, somehow, the Black person is at fault. The world runs on anti-Blackness.
Across the globe, you can find beauty products that will help you look less Black. Bleaching cream and hair relaxer is known to be harmful to our bodies, but they are bought up in every corner of the world so that people can distance themselves from Blackness. Colorism is found within every racial group. The lighter (whiter) a person is, the more privilege they are given. Negrita and Blackie are the demeaning nicknames given to the darkest cousins with the nappiest hair and the biggest lips. The lighter cousins with good hair and pretty, light eyes were grandma’s favorites.
Darker skinned women in particular have been telling their stories about the colorism and anti-Blackness they face their entire lives, while the world ignores them and lighter skinned women use the same tactics white people use to silences people of color. But. nothing Black folks say or believe about the beauty of non-Black people holds any weight in our systems. There’s no media to support it. No studies showing that most kids see goodness and beauty in the Black dolls. Our ideas about non-Black beauty are not forced on the masses and used to perpetuate systemic harm.
When whiteness is the gold standard, Blackness is the undesired last place. I don’t know about you, but I learned my opposites from Sesame Street and if white is on top, Black is most definitely on the bottom. Race is largely based on aesthetics because it is much easier to dehumanize people who look less like you. Western Europeans’ light skin and eyes, straight hair and slender facial features were in direct contrast of the Africans they chose to enslave. The oppressive class uses our differences as an excuse for their immorality. All non-white people are oppressed under white supremacy, but Black people are at the bottom of the racial hierarchy because Blackness is the antithesis to whiteness.
Believe me, it’s not a contest. We have all grown to loathe the phrase “Oppression Olympics.” I didn’t present a case to recognize Black folks’ position on the racial hierarchy so we can earn all the oppression points and get all the benefits and win the zero-sum game many think we’re playing. I say all this because we all need to recognize and address the anti-Black racism we perpetuate in the same way we expect white folks to recognize and address the racism they perpetuate. Black folks are needed for the liberation of non-Black folks. We are willing to fight to liberate us all. It’s just a lot to deal with racism from white people because we’re not white AND anti-Black racism from non-Black people because we’re Black. It’s constantly fighting for liberation with and against the same people and it’s exhausting.
My ask for white folks is to continue to work to examine and interrupt racism and to start naming anti-Black racism intentionally. Don’t just tell your coworker their joke was racist, tell them it was specifically anti-Black. Push back on the everyday anti-Blackness the plays out in white spaces. And to non-Black people of color, my ask is to examine your own privilege in juxtaposition to Black folks. Look at how that privilege may have been used to cause harm to Black people. Realize the ironic truth of the model minority myth. Be willing to get as uncomfortable discussing anti-Black racism as you want white folks to be discussing racism in general. If Black people are at the bottom of the racial hierarchy, your liberation depends on ours.