Hidden Hegemony: Being a Voice of Vested Interest

October 28, 2016

by Lizz Pankova

Last week, I had one of those 2 a.m. conversations with my closest friend at Georgetown that kept me up when I tried to fall asleep. Most essentially, he questioned me, as any good friend and intellectual should, about why I read and write so much about the issues I do. He asked why I, a white kid from Richmond, VA who goes to Georgetown University, has any authority to talk about, or to be troubled by, destruction of black bodies, economic plunder, and enslavement.

It’s important to note that this conversation, this twisting and turning of my mind, happened in a larger conversation about the recent murder, committed by Metro PD on 3rd St. NW, of Terrence Sterling. I was watching, yet again, the body camera footage released by the department taken in the moments directly after the murder. And I was formulating my thoughts—on the overbearing institutional power of law enforcement that negates the race of single officers in a department, perhaps—for this very column.

I was frustrated, angered, even taken aback. This is my very best friend, after all. I decided, that night, to nix 900 words worth of work about Terrence Sterling, about the painful image of a black officer trying to resuscitate a black brother’s beautiful breaths. I replaced those 900 words with 900 new ones about the need for all people, of all races, to fight against systems of violent oppression. About the academic and intellectual perspective that can be, and is, provided about this violence by white writers. About the need for morality and conscience and ethics and heart and soul and tears to shatter barriers of race—particularly when those distinctions of race were and are constituted as a political tool used to maintain and build hegemonies and economic status.

But the more I thought, and continue to think about it, the more I felt uncomfortable with those new 900 words. It’s not that I think they are untrue, more that they are ancillary. The more I think about it, the more I know and feel the reality: that thinking and writing about Terrence Sterling, or Michael Brown, or Eric Garner, or Tanisha Anderson, or Tamir Rice is not only inextricably tied to my response to the questions raised in the 2 a.m. conversation, but is that response.

When asked what white “allies” can do to mitigate the societal and structural flaws he writes so eloquently about, Ta-Nehisi Coates, echoing a James Baldwin sentiment of old, has used an analogy: if Coates was lying on the ground with my foot pinning his neck beneath it, it would make no objective sense for me to ask him how to alleviate his choking. I’d just take my foot off his neck.

When I read and write and think and speak, I try to do just that: to take my foot off his neck.

Addressing issues surrounding inequality and oppression simply isn’t a matter of fixing laws and dismantling biases. Criminal justice reform isn’t just about becoming more fiscally responsible. Effort isn’t made just for the greater sake of this thing we call America. It is about taking my foot off of Coates’s neck. It is about blocking the flow of red that cascaded from Terrence Sterling’s head and pierced the black night, the pavement, the engulfing darkness.

I have, to whatever extent anyone thinks I have it, authority and a voice about and within issues of race because doing so undergirds what it means to be human. I have a voice, an education, and a system of support because those of us who are white, as the personification of our nation to this point, have pillaged and plundered and destroyed. We have houses because we owned chains. We have wealth and a system of capitalism because we committed floggings and beatings. We have freedom because we tortured, slowly and bloodily, black freedom. We have—and we continue to have—roads like 3rd Street NW because we sit idly by and let Terrence Sterling bleed out, alone, on it.

Ultimately, I, along with all white Americans, will need to take my foot off the necks of Ta-Nehisi Coates, and James Baldwin, and black America.

We will need to converse about and grapple with the notion that our whiteness, our voices, and our self-actualizations do not exist outside the context of black destruction. If we fail to do so, Terrence Sterling will bleed out, alone, on 3rd Street NW.

We will need to rid ourselves of the assumption that black America is in any way responsible for escaping its own oppression. If we fail to do so, Terrence Sterling will bleed out, alone, on 3rd Street NW.

We will need to be voices of vested interest, of learned knowledge, and of assured authority. If we fail to do so, Terrence Sterling will bleed out, alone, on 3rd Street NW.

This is why I write about the intersection of criminal justice, from its primordial causes to its enduring implications, and race. I write not to represent or understand the lived experience of black oppression in any capacity. I write and speak out, because to not do so would be to assure that the blood of Terrence Sterling, in its solitude, on 3rd Street NW, continues to irrigate corn fields in Iowa, to mark roads in California, to sway in the willow trees of Louisiana, to bubble in the mud of Mississippi, to float in the chills of Lake Michigan.

Isaiah Fleming-Klink
Isaiah was the author of the column, Hidden Hegemony, for the Voice.


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