An Overdue Discussion – Ramblings of a Bear (2022)

Willie Lynch Theory. If you’re in the black community you’ve probably heard of it and if you’re in the white community you probably haven’t. So far, so typical. The thing is, the white community should not only know, but really be talking about Willie Lynch Theory, as its namesake and legacy comes from white slave owners. Willie Lynch Theory is considered a theory because there’s no proof that the events it’s based on actually occurred, but the repercussions are flagrant. Willie Lynch was a white, male, slave owner who, in the early 1700’s, gave a speech on the banks of the James River in Virginia on how to control slaves. The premise was to find any and all differences, where the slaves live, how dark or light their skin was, their gender, age, ability, status on the plantation, and use those variations like ammunition. Make them fight each other, while teaching the slaves to only trust the masters and the white people to distrust the slaves. Make sure the only person everyone trusts is the master, and wreak havoc on any other positive social structure to ensure dominance.

My initial introduction to Willie Lynch Theory was while writing a critique of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly for a class in grad school. I was assigned the song “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”. If you’re not familiar, you should definitely go listen to it (there’s a Spotify link at the bottom of this post) and then come back and finish reading. Honestly, if you have the time, just listen to the whole album. Now that you’ve definitely listened to “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”, we can discuss how the first half of the song is about the relationship between two slaves, one, a man who works in the fields, and the other, a woman who works in the masters house. In juxtaposition, the second half discusses loving oneself in the face of pervasive racism and prejudice, and understanding that the labels put on us by others don’t define our worth. Best summarized by the last line of the second verse, leading into the chorus “Let the Willie Lynch Theory reverse a million times with…/Complexion (two step)/ Complexion don’t mean a thing (it’s a Zulu love)”. This is the transition from the first half of the song that highlights the origins and repercussions of Willie Lynch and the divisiveness it instilled, and the second half as reconciling those ingrained thoughts and feelings, both internally and externally.

At this point, some of you may be thinking “If this was never proven to happen, why does it matter?” Well, it doesn’t matter if this happened or not, this idea permeates every aspect of life. I think Willie Lynch Theory plays on a very primal way of thinking and interacting that we don’t always recognize we’re participating in, our in-group versus our out-group. Who do we know, identify with, interact with both directly and indirectly, share similar values, hobbies, or activities, and they would be considered our in-group. People that we perceive to be similar to ourselves. On the other hand, our out-group is composed of people we perceive as being different from us. For example, if we think where people live or grew up, their race, gender, age, ability, socioeconomic status, cultural background, religious beliefs, hobbies, or interests, differ from ours, we may see that individual as separate from our group or click, other than, and different. Sometimes these feel like fundamental differences, when really the person in question is just that, a person, with the same basic wants and needs as ourselves. This is what the slave owners played on, the fear and distrust of “others”, the “unknown”, fear we all have. They recognized fear as something we all experience and turned it against everyone else and inevitably, themselves. This is why we see violence being perpetuated by young black men, on young black men. Why identifying with the LGBTQIA+ community as a black or brown person is more dangerous and socially rejected, than white people who identify similarly. Why being considered a light-skinned person of color is viewed as being more desirable than darker-skinned people of color. Why “you’re not from this block” can have dire consequences. These are the continued effects of a society being pitted against itself, also known as historical trauma.

White people aren’t exempt from this. Willie Lynch Theory is something talked about in theblack community, but not the white community. Like I said, I didn’t know what it was until I did research into the meaning behind Kendrick Lamar’s song. When I was twenty six and in grad school. I consider myself to be relatively educated and someone who tries to understand as much about the world as I can, so if it took me until I was in graduate school, I have a feeling this is the first time a lot of white people have heard about Willie Lynch too. My guess is that it wasn’t an accident. Just as communities of color carry on the legacy of Willie Lynch, so does the white community. If people who are black and brown continue to fight within their communities, white communities perpetuate Willie Lynch by continuing to believe and preserve the idea that black, brown, and immigrant communities are lesser than, whether covertly or overtly, through systematic means. Believing that predominantly black neighborhoods are “doing this to themselves”, clutching our purses tight or to the side when someone of color walks by, the increased rate at which people of color are incarcerated compared to their white counterparts, the substantial difference in the way black and white people are treated by the police and other persons of authority, the increased rate of black and brown children being labeled as developmentally disabled, or the fact the white people, conservative and liberal, wealthy and poor, trans- and cis- gendered, straight and LBGQ+, so on and so forth, all have language that perpetuate the status quo of being white. All of these examples are fueled by the distrust sowed so long ago. It’s not only baked into our thoughts and actions, but also the systems and institutions we engage in on a daily basis. No wonder one picture of power, wealth, and success has dominated the collective consciousness, it’s the only image everyone was taught to trust.

So what do we do about it? Sure, we can point out injustice all day, but unless there’s some sort of action taken, what good is it? Well, I would like to direct you back to those three lines I mentioned earlier, “Let the Willie Lynch Theory reverse a million times with…/Complexion (two step)/ Complexion don’t mean a thing (it’s a Zulu love)”. When I first heard this song and started breaking down its lyrics, I immediately noticed a phrase I had never heard before, a Zulu love. Using Genius to begin my investigation, they linked “a Zulu love” to the philosophy of Ubuntu, something else I had never heard of. Digging deeper, I found an explanation on the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation website. Due to the west’s individualistic ideologies and values, there’s no direct translation into western language. Ubuntu is about the collective, how we are all bound together by our humanity and the influences we have on each other. “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” is stating that Ubuntu is the antidote to Willie Lynch Theory. Recognizing our pre judgements, false beliefs, and uninformed opinions of others, setting them aside, and really trying to understand people on a deeper level. Judging someone on their collection of unique, profound, and insightful experiences, just as we would want others to treat us. If Willie Lynch Theory preached of how to dehumanize and divide people based on external, superficial labels, Ubuntu provides discourse on how to bring people together based not only on the basic principles of being human, but also the idea that we can’t develop into who we are without everyone else being their truest self. Only when we engage in honest, open conversation, while listening to others point of view, can we understand who a person truly is. Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean it’s an affront to the core of who you are. There’s growth in disagreement because we are able to solidify our values and opinions, but there is no growth in blind rage, fear, and anger. Those only leave hurt and pain in their wake, which fuel more rage, fear, and anger. Nothing said here is easy, as we all have been taught to behave in divisive ways. It’s really no wonder everyone feels like they’re at each other’s throats and no one can agree, that’s our system working as it was designed. Such an ingrained way of thinking will take time and energy to shift and by no means will we all become lovey-dovey overnight. If we want a more positive world, one where people can actually come together and discuss important issues, we need to focus more on the Ubuntu philosophy of “I am because you are”, than I am, so fuck you.

Thank you for spending your time with me,

Bear

References

Kendrick Lamar. To Pimp a Butterfly, March 16, 2015.

Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation. Striving for Ubuntu, October 6, 2015. http://www.tutufoundationusa.org/2015/10/06/striving-for-ubuntu/

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