Violence is often treated like a taboo subject, even though we experience it in its various iterations every day. I have written an essay reflecting on the issue of violence and how we can free ourselves to understand it in a way that may lessen its prevalence in our lives, while healing the real collective wounds it leaves behind.
By Courtney Napier
I like to think of myself as a gentle person. I get it from my mother. She is one of the sweetest, gentlest people I know. I remember having friends over as a teenager and they would say, “Your mom is so zen!”
What many don’t know is that, while gentleness for majoritized Americans — white people — is a cultural ideal, for Black women like my mother and I, it is also a technique for our survival. Earning the moniker of “angry Black woman” can be a difficult and oppressive label. The power elite in American (and Western) society does not account for the range of emotion and expression that white men and women receive. In fact, the spectrum is such that white men have incredible latitude for emotionality and reactivity to life’s highs and lows, as we have seen in historic moments from the Boston Tea Party to Disco Demolition Night to the UNC Tarheels defeating the Duke Blue Devils in their NCAA Basketball Final Four matchup this weekend. On the other hand, women and minorities have little room to respond to life’s most powerful moments with true human authenticity, however fair or flawed, without drastic repercussions.
This societal pressure cooker does two things. The first is that it sends those ripples of traumatic emotionality down our societal hierarchy. Minoritized men and masculine-presenting people take out their frustrations on each other, minoritized women, children, and so forth. Secondly, the Power Elite and their allies cannot fully flourish because they have preoccupied themselves with policing the behavior of others and protecting their privilege instead of embracing the human struggle in its proper, collectivist reality.
This leads me to the “V-Word”: violence.
A couple years ago, I was in an impromptu discussion about the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. I was the only Black woman in the conversation, and my comments included the words “violence” and “justified” in the same sentence. I wasn’t able to finish my point — which was that while there was very little retaliatory violence during the protests even in the midst of the state sanctioned violence inflicted by the police — before the other individuals in the discussion were immediately up in arms. The phrases “violence is never the answer,” and “violence is unacceptable,” and “only non-violent protest is effective. Violence ruins the important work of liberation.”
I thought of this moment when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars two weeks ago. Again, the immediate reaction by many (predominately white) celebrities and commentators was swift and intense vilification of Smith’s actions. The issue here was very similar to what I experienced, which is a very specific and intentionally narrow definition of violence. I use the word “intentionally” because there is a conscious or unconscious desire baked into white supremacy to make violence something only a small number of inferior people do, and not something that happens on a broad, systemic level. The purpose of this is to obscure the many harms that are inherent to white supremacy while spotlighting behavior of individuals deemed deviant (notice I did not say deviant behaviors, because Elites and their closest allies are often excused of such behaviors and rarely face consequences).
Coretta Scott King, a woman who faced many forms of violence against herself and her family during her life, had this to say:
“I must remind you that starving a child is violence. Suppressing a culture is violence. Neglecting school children is violence. Punishing a mother and her family is violence. Discrimination against a working man is violence. Ghetto housing is violence. Ignoring medical need is violence. Contempt for poverty is violence.”
Indeed, the society we at Common Good hope to contribute toward building is one with little to no harm of any kind. To get there, it’s important to not write ourselves out of the story and be generous in our definitions of harm and violence so that they can all be addressed.
In an onboarding meeting for a new Common Good team member, I shared something that I want to share with you. Our three pillars: a sense of belonging, significance of place, and eliminating economic isolation, are purposefully undefined in explicit terms because there is power building a common understanding based on the diverse perspectives of the collective. In the Beloved Community, there is no need for the idea of deviance (and, therefore, disposable individuals), nor is there a need for the binaries that create such criteria. Instead, each one does their best to both reduce harm and to speak up when harmed so that an opportunity of reparation and reconciliation is realized. When we choose to reject the urge to make a feature of our current society taboo, we can finally see it in the spectrum in which it exists and address it with collective wisdom and authentic accountability that will bring us closer to the safe, flourishing society we deserve.