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We live in a society that is more preoccupied with appearing nice than actually doing that which is kind. Appearances are important, but substance is undervalued. If we were truly concerned with doing kind things, elected officials would prioritize the common good over political wins and philanthropic organizations would fund Black women-led organizations to the extent they do white-led ones.

The dynamic I am highlighting is simple: There is a veneer of niceness that sometimes masks personal and institutional commitments to racism. This is particularly true for persons who fancy themselves liberal or progressive. By virtue of claiming this label, many believe their work is done. After one anti-racism workshop or one inter-racial relationship, they believe they have arrived. This is exemplified by people who don Black Lives Matter flags yet ignore the conflict between their professed beliefs and daily behavior or by people who consider themselves inclusive yet surround themselves, hire and network with people who look just like them.

The truth is each of us lives and breathes in a society that is racist by default. That means that deconstructing our mindsets must be ongoing and longstanding.

To understand how we got here, we must understand our history and cultural upbringing. The veneer of niceness was created because many in our nation have been trained to “be nice.” One of the byproducts of the civil rights movement is that some have done away with outward displays of hate, without a corresponding denial of white supremacy.

Relatedly, each time a person or organization’s racism is exposed, I wonder if public shame drives their core beliefs and behaviors into hidden domains. Apologies do not necessarily correlate with a commitment to do the long, hard work of anti-racism. Such work is never over, especially when one lives in a nation where racial terror via slavery and Jim Crow colors much of the past. Few want to be called a racist, but even fewer want to do actual transformation work. 

As I contemplate the hate that Black women experience, the quickness with which the public dispenses with us, I am reminded that masks sometimes fall off.

When I think about Black women and marginalized groups, I realize that the veil of niceness is broken when one dares to utter a contrarian opinion. It is shattered when one refuses to oblige or surrender to prevailing opinions and dominant narratives. It is threatened when one refuses to assimilate or go along to get along.

But a veneer doesn’t completely mask what is underneath. Even in the darkness, a sliver of light can shine through. When the light comes on, what is in the room can be shocking. For instance, actress Letitia Wright inspired the adoration of many after her breakout role in the Marvel film Black Panther. But the moment she shared a video questioning the trustworthiness of the COVID-19 vaccine, she was bullied off two social media platforms. I do not condone transphobia as she has been accused of promoting. And I must question whether the people who attacked her were divorced from the long history of Black people being exploited for governmental or scientific gain. For instance, the medical community’s treatment of Henrietta Lack — whose cancer cells, unbeknownst to her and her family, were harvested and used as the source of the HeLa cell line — didn’t stop people from giving a nuanced critique of Wright. This history alone is reason to mindfully consider, if not understand, any initial mistrust Black people may have with a vaccine.

I am learning that the same people who claim “we’re all in this together” will shamelessly attack a supposed ally. Or they will minimize or erase the contributions of Black women and people of color altogether. For instance, when I learned about philanthropy underfunding women of color-led organizations and sharing their intellectual property with white-led groups whom they later funded, I was pained. “Does it ever end?” I asked myself. Philanthropy is supposed to do good, not just have a good reputation.

Additionally, the controversy surrounding possible theft of intellectual property from Tangerine Jones is also demoralizing. Jones is a racial justice baker, who used baking as an outlet to diffuse pain and hurt over racial injustice. She launched a site and a movement called #RageBaking, where she baked for social justice organizations as a means of expressing frustration over the trials that sometimes come with being Black in America. Two white women allegedly stole the idea and published a book with Tiller, a Simon and Schuster’s imprint, under the same title – Rage Baking: The Transformative Power of Flour, Fury, and Women’s Voices. Jones was never acknowledged as the original source of the concept, credited in the book or compensated financially.

I am sure these women consider themselves good people, possibly die-hard feminists. Yet, co-opting something that belonged to another or ignoring how their actions perpetuated racism and harm is morally and ethically wrong. As writer Veronica Wells of MadameNoire put it, “One of the tenets of capitalism is that the person or business with the best idea wins. The oft-unspoken underbelly of this tenet is that all ideas aren’t respected equally. The history of this country has shown that concepts created by Black and other marginalized groups have frequently been co-opted or straight stolen by the more privileged. We like to think this behavior stopped in the early 1900s or so. But even in 2020, there are countless examples.”

As a nation, we should raise our children to focus less on being nice and encourage them to do the hard work of divesting from racism so they can actually be and do that which is just, equitable and kind. It is far past time for surface-level change. It is time for transformation.


Jennifer R. Farmer is the founder of Spotlight PR LLC and the author of 'First and Only: A Black Woman’s Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life'.