The Prompt: Malcolm X said, “A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.” Discuss.
My first thought was that as a middle class white woman, I needed to get more context on this quote before wading in. I did read Malcolm X in college so I had a sense that this quote wouldn’t be so … obvious?
Anyway, what I learned is that this quote is attributed to many people including Alexander Hamilton, Pastor Peter Marshall (to a Rotary Club!) and Ginger Rogers among others. There’s a vast difference between a Founding Father, an Appalachian Christian minister and Malcolm X. After all, Alexander Hamilton’s stand was on the back of Malcolm X’s enslaved ancestors. And Marshall was embedded deeply in ministering to very poor white families nearly isolated from the rest of the world.
Perhaps then standing for something necessitates something or someone falling to the wayside?
I have to be honest – the idea of a slew of mostly white female BlogHer bloggers pontificating on a quote that may or may not have originated with by one of the most influential African-American men in American history, the spiritual father of the Black Power movement and an iconic reminder of the ongoing struggle for human and civil rights – it does not seem like a good idea without great care.
And since Malcolm X may or may not have said this and then may or may not have repudiated it when he left the Nation of Islam, it is even more difficult to navigate this prompt.
So let’s talk about how we fall into these traps ourselves – creating memes and quotes and imbuing them with our own interpretation without any accountability to offer historical relevancy or cultural context? I don’t mean to be glib but I highly doubt that Malcolm X would stand for something without reflecting on the way in which the institution involved reinforces a racist paradigm. After all, there was a time when he would have chastised black men who stood for a peaceful assimilation into the dominant white culture. And then there was his own personal transformation and repudiation of his earlier beliefs – so standing against the white race would no longer hold value in his view.
Obviously, I greatly reduce his philosophy to make my point, but isn’t that we tend to do with “famous quotes” – we purpose to get people thinking, but without context that can go badly.
Criticizing people as fools who fail to take a radical stance against their oppression and challenge systemic institutions that maintain that oppression is NOT the same thing as criticizing someone who doesn’t wear a pink ribbon or share a Facebook meme. acknowledging that poverty, disability, disenfranchisement, gender and more are tremendous barriers that keep people from standing is a powerful statement, but demanding that they stand anyway is equally important. We can’t victim blame, but we must also recognize that each of us has the ability to help someone stand for their something.
We have to do what it takes to create change, not do what we feel like doing. My case in point is when I ran a volunteer point for the Kerry campaign on Election Day – we were going to overturn the Bush/Cheney regime! I was shocked at how many people wanted to volunteer to drive “elderly or disabled” people to the polls and when told that we had other needs for them to meet, they disappeared or grumbled or simply rolled their eyes.
A good volunteer is someone who comes to the table with an understanding of the relevant issues, has some thoughts and is willing to absorb and learn.
A great volunteer is someone who comes to the table and says “How can I be most useful?”
And the truth is that to truly stand for something – you have to do something. Holding an opinion while you read the newspaper or watch the news is not standing for something. Archie Bunker had lots of opinions, but he stood for his union. Edith Bunker had different opinions, but she stood for her faith, her volunteer work, and her growing feminism. These are television characters, but I think people often conflate Archie’s opinions with Edith’s actually doing something. This was demonstrated over and over again when Archie would do the right thing or the light bulb went off.
To tie this all together, social media activism is a vibrant and dynamic thing but it can breed complacency. Sharing an image or a status update is great, but what are you going to do about it – donate? volunteer? write a letter? Signing a petition is also good, but how will you follow up? Will you join a committee? Will you read up on the issue BEFORE you sign? Or just sign assuming someone else vetted its accuracy?
People do tend to “fall” for things on social media – note the thousands of folks who post ridiculous things “just in case” only to be overwhelmed with friends telling them to check their facts via snopes.com or something similar. I’m appalled at a recent Facebook page called “Not Giving Welfare to Lazy People” – yes. It has over 100,000 likes – and here’s where people “fall” for anything. The sites caveat:
Just a reminder. If you work and get welfare, if you are disabled and get welfare, if you were laid off from a job or let go and get welfare, then this page has NOTHING to do with you. This page is for the people who can work, but refuse to work. People who sit on their ass all day and collect welfare.
The facts are clear. Welfare fraud, food stamp fraud, housing fraud, etc is very small. But people don’t believe facts, they believe anything that makes them feel better. As a disabled person, I don’t appreciate being called “Needy” but I also wold much rather associated with people on welare than any of the 100,000 fools who FALL for this ignorant, rude and completely inaccurate meme. My needs are compassion and respect and dignity, but don’t expect me to sit back and not take a stand against the hate spewed towards a program any of us could need at any point in time.
In closing, Malcolm X said something else in his 1964 speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” that strikes me here:
So it is not necessary to change the White man’s mind. We have to change our own mind
I don’t necessarily agree with this as I do believe people and systems can change, but I do agree that changing our own mind about what it means to take a stand is the *only way* to make those changes happen. We have to do something different.
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