Muhammed Ali’s words on white prevalence in America still ring true to the U.S. today, writes Jasmine Razeghi.
“Why is everything so white in America?” , Muhammed Ali asked in 1971 on the BBC show, Parkinson. He reflected on how whiteness played a huge role in everything and listed examples of the prominence of Whiteness in everyday life. The list included black cats bringing bad luck, Miss America and Miss Universe being White, and the term “black mailing”. “Why don’t they call it white mail? They lie too!” he said..
While the talk discussion he had drew laughter from the audience, his points were eye-opening. Why is Whiteness in the U.S. embedded in everything? While his appearance on the show is just shy of 50 years ago, Ali’s discussion is hauntingly relevant today.
Was Jesus White?
One of the points that Ali stated is one that continues to be discussed today. Was Jesus White? Shaun King recently called the statues of a European Jesus Christ, a form of White Supremacy. He tweeted, “yes, I think the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down. They are a form of white supremacy. Always have been. In the Bible, when the family of Jesus wanted to hide, and blend in, guess where they went? EGYPT! Not Denmark.”
In 2001, medical artist Richard Neave led an effort to create a new image of Jesus. Israeli and British anthropologists created an image of Jesus with dark curly hair, dark eyes, and dark skin. Scholars today see this image as one of the most accurate depictions of Jesus.
While King’s tweet sparked outrage on Twitter, it brings up this point of White fragility. A more truthful depiction of Jesus will not alter anything he has said or done. Why is the image of a blue-eyed and blonde haired Jesus held onto so tightly? Whitewashing Jesus has not only misrepresented him but perpetuated this idea of Whiteness being good and darkness being bad, a form of colorism and anti-Blackness.
The “Bad Is Black” Effect
Many of the terms that Ali brought up like Angel food cake, Devil’s food cake, and even the term “blacklist” do not have a racist origin. However, it does perpetuate this continued association of White as good and Black as bad. The association is racist and harms Black individuals.
In a study done by Adam Alter at New York University, the “bad is black effect” was an idea conjured up because research showed that a general, but unproven, implicit bias that someone with darker skin is more likely to commit an immoral act. The “black versus white” or “dark versus light” language that we use reinforced this notion and weaves it into what becomes our own biases.
The connotation associated with Black and White embed themselves in society in the way people view things, including Black people or those with darker skin. Even in Black individuals, this issue of colorism remains alarming when those with lighter skin receive fairer treatment within a variety of systems in the U.S., almost every aspect of life: the criminal justice systems, the healthcare systems, the school systems, the housing systems, the social welfare systems, academic and professional settings, scholarships, employment opportunity, etc. To critique our everyday vocabulary may seem a bit too far. However, because the harm done is not blatant, does not mean it is not important.
What Has Changed Since Ali’s Talk?
Since the interview, Vanessa William’s was the first Black Miss America in 1985 and Janelle Commisiong from Trinidad became the first Black Miss Universe in 1977. Additionally, a more accurate depiction of Jesus revealed that he had dark skin.
The progress that the U.S. makes is important. However, we should continuously push against and challenge the values of this country because the well-being of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) depend on it. While Muhammed Ali spoke about these issues decades ago, his words remain prevalent due to U.S.’ close ties to Whiteness. While his reflections on White America received a chuckling reaction in Parkinson, in the 21st century we can reflect and act upon his words to change society.