The other week I was visiting family in the St. Louis area and drove by a billboard showing two hands, one white and one black, making a heart. The only words were “Hands Together.” I don’t know what group created the billboard, but it seems pretty clearly in response to “Hands up, don’t shoot,” a prominent slogan in the anti-police-brutality movement that has grown since the shooting of Michael Brown.
I expect that the organization putting up this billboard wants to see people of all races living together peacefully. I do too. “Hands together” laudably implies that there is work that we need to do together. But it ignores the current gulf created by unchecked white privilege and supremacy. Until white people can acknowledge the privileges and power that come to them because of racist systems, work through the guilt that comes with that acknowledgement, and begin to take seriously the stories of people of color, there can be no “hands together.” Suggesting that our communities are ready to work together demonstrates a weak analysis of the pervasive system of white supremacy.
But I think an even more insidious problem with “Hands Together” is that it takes a slogan from a movement framed by People of Color (“Hands Up”) and turns it around — “corrects” it. This isn’t even the first time that white people have “corrected” a slogan within this same movement. Plenty has been written about “All Lives Matter,” like this tweet from one of my favorites, Brittney Cooper, a.k.a. @professorCrunk: “That all lives matter goes without saying. That Black lives matter must be said. Without equivocation, apology or addenda. #BlackLivesMatter.”
By “correcting” slogans, the new slogans become part of the system enforcing white supremacy. White people feel left out of “Hands Up,” because we don’t feel threatened by police for the most part, and we aren’t sufficiently connected to communities of color to join in their movement with empathy. People of color remain the Other. And white people hate to feel excluded, so we seek out slogans that counter the exclusion that we feel when people of color create something important without us. God forbid that white people not be a part of something important!
White people are not excluded from movements created by communities that we have excluded from our own communities! If we feel excluded from a movement, it is because we have excluded ourselves by building walls of white supremacy and privilege. If we stay behind those walls, we are making a choice for our own exclusion.
(Addendum: It is possible, even likely, that a multiracial group created the “Hands Together” billboard. I don’t believe that would negate this analysis, however.)