White, Polite, and Part of the Problem: How to Honor MLK Day

White, Polite, and Part of the Problem: How to Honor MLK Day January 15, 2018

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that white people, as a rule, like for things to be pleasant.

Admit it. We deeply value politeness in all things. We like for things to be orderly, mannerly, and–in a word–nice.

This is what comes of privilege though. We live in a world built by us, and for us; a world in which systems and services always tilt in our favor. So we can afford to be polite. We don’t have to rock the boat to challenge the system, because the system works for us. We don’t have to get loud or angry to be heard, because we have always been heard. We don’t have to organize to protest our oppressors, because we’ve never been oppressed. In fact, we are the oppressor.

We hold these truths to be self-evident. Except they aren’t evident to everyone.

I can’t tell you how many times in the past year I’ve heard MLK referenced by white people who wish things were “nicer.” When the Black Lives Matter movement got a little unpleasant in response to police brutality, white people said “if only they could be more like Martin Luther King…” When Donald Trump responded to a White Supremacist rally in Charlotte by saying “there are good people on both sides,” his fellow white people said things like, “well, he’s right! The counter-protesters didn’t have to get so angry! They should have been more like Martin Luther King.”

Then Colin Kaepernick quietly takes a knee, but “MLK would never have made such a spectacle!”

Of course, “if only we hadn’t had a black President who insisted on stirring up all this tension. I tell you what, HE was the problem. We were all getting along fine before.”

Leading voices of social change, like Rev. William Barber and Rev. Traci Blackmon go on the news to speak about racial and economic equality: and they are referred to as “trouble makers.”

And at any mention of white privilege, there are outraged cries of reverse racism and racism against whites. “What about OUR rights??”

Enough. There is no such thing as “racism against whites.” You cannot be discriminated against when your demographic holds, and has always held primary privilege. Our entire culture has been built on a system of ‘white’ values; and our primary value, as it turns out, is niceness.

And so we shape our shared narrative, and name our heroes, based on a scale of nice. MLK changed a lot of things for the better–so he must have been nice. That Rosa Parks–she was a big deal. She made history. She must have been just as docile and polite as they come.



Enough of this. We are sanitizing history to make some comfortable sense of our current times. “If only these modern day African Americans had the calm, gentle spirit of MLK, things would be fine!”


Take a hard pass on that story line, folks. It’s code for “protect the status quo at all costs.” “Be nice, know your place, and we’ll all get along just fine.”

Yes, Martin Luther King, Jr was for peaceful resistance. He was respectful. He was a bridge-builder. But our white-spun history has elevated these values in him, while diminishing his fiery prophetic witness. We have confused non-violence with polite passivity. Never forget that he was also a “trouble maker.” He rallied against injustice; he protested; he organized union workers. And he got as loud and unpleasant as necessary; and he was beaten, arrested, and ultimately shot dead for it.

If we’re going to honor him today, let’s remember that whole story.

If you feel like Black Lives Matter and the Poor People’s Campaign are too angry–or that protest in general causes too much trouble, stirs up too much unpleasantness– then also accept that, had you been alive in another time, you would be the one blocking black youth from the lunch counter. That whole business was pretty unpleasant too.

Change is never pleasant, or comfortable. We try to canonize those who spoke hard truths in generations past, remember them as being “nice.” But that’s not the real story. If you want to honor the spirit and the voice of Martin Luther King today, don’t do it with an out-of-context, inspirational quote. Instead, remember the true spirit of resistance that shook this country to its core… then ask yourself if you’ve got the courage to let that same spirit take hold of us again. Ask yourself if you’re willing to get uncomfortable.

Graphic designer Daniel Rarela has generated these powerful memes, attaching popular MLK quotes to images of modern day resistance. His goal is to prevent Americans from “whitewashing” King’s legacy. Take a look at these. Share them around. Sit with the not-so-pleasant awareness of how we continue to shape the narrative of race as it suits us in the moment.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: “nice” is part of the problem. And we white folks are so. Very. Nice.

“I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”  -MLK, Letter from Birmingham Jail

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Daniel Rarela@DJRarela, via Twitter

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