You have nothing to prove.
If you hail from Haiti, El Salvador, or any African nation President Trump impugned with his racist comments, you do not need to demonstrate — to anyone — your talents, value, or right to be in America or anywhere else.
Still, that’s what many on social media have been doing since Trump, in his insidious effort to Make America White Again, denigrated black and brown nations during a White House immigration meeting. They have felt compelled to tout their achievements to undercut Trump’s clear belief that people of color can’t contribute to this nation.
“I’m a future doctor. I’m a medical student. I have 3 degrees. I speak three languages. I’m published in Psych-Oncology. I’m a member of Zeta Beta Phi,” tweeted a young Sudanese woman.
A Texas man posted, “I was born in Chile and live (sic) in 3 countries by the age of 21, I went to war, have a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with valor for combat, I speak & write in two languages and I’m graduating in May with a BA in History and I’m getting my teacher certification.”
I get it. When insulted, it’s a natural instinct to reject spurious claims. That innate sense must be exponentially greater when some bigot — who happens to be the president of the United States — maligns an entire nation. Yet racists like Trump and those who applaud his ugly comments won’t be swayed by an impressive resume.
Pushing against Trump’s prejudices in this way also unintentionally smacks of respectability politics. That’s the idea that acceptance for certain groups is predicated on behaving in a manner that meshes with white mainstream values. (Harvard professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham coined the term “the politics of respectability” in 2001.)
It’s the basis of a famous and racially provocative comedy routine by Chris Rock. It propelled Bill Cosby’s late career pull-up-your-pants preaching that denounced what he, of all people, had the audacity to call “abnormal ways” taking root in the black community.
In short, it’s a way of saying, “Behave like this, and white people will like you,” an empty idea as old as America.
In his exceptional National Book Award winner, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” Ibram X. Kendi devotes an entire chapter to “uplift suasion,” an antecedent of respectability politics. He defines it as the idea that “white people could be persuaded away from their racist ideas if they saw black people improving their behavior, uplifting themselves from their low station in American society.”
“Abolitionists urged free blacks to attend church regularly, acquire English literacy, learn math, adopt trades, avoid vice, legally marry and maintain marriages, evade lawsuits, avoid expensive delights, abstain from noisy and disorderly conduct, always act in a civil and respectable manner, and develop habits of industry, sobriety, and frugality,” Kendi writes. “If black people behaved admirably, abolitionists reasoned, they would be undermining justifications for slavery and proving that notions of their inferiority were wrong.”
In other words, be perfect to be treated half as good as white people.
Of course, the very idea itself is racist — that objectionable behavior by certain groups is the cause of racism, and that to eliminate that scourge, it’s people of color who must change.
Trump does not care about the accomplishments of people of color. He does not care about their academic degrees. He does not care about lives risked and medals won in defense of this country — something he steadfastly avoided. He cares only that they aren’t white. Any other attempt at reasonable debate is wasted on this unreasonable man, and there is no one more immune to reason than a racist.
Pushing against Trump’s prejudices in this way also unintentionally smacks of respectability politics.
With his comments, Trump demeaned millions, and that’s painful whether you’re a Republican congresswoman of Haitian descent or a Salvadoran house painter. He didn’t attack their achievements — he attacked their humanity.Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.