THE MIRROR OF CHARLOTTESVILLE

I do not usually do this: this blog is a silly pop culture review site, and I do not usually post about anything serious, let alone anything personal or political. But I have things to think through—in the wake of events in Charlottesville, Virginia—and writing is how I do that. I have complicated things I want to say to my fellow white Americans, and this is the only blog I have.

Last week, on my personal Facebook page, I wrote the following short post about the "protesters" in Charlottesville:

Because my wife is much wiser than I am, she has pointed out to me that calling them "Nazis" is not only unnecessary, but actually self-servingly misguided. I know, the word "Nazi"—like "Kleenex" and "Xerox"—now seems like less of a specific brand name and more of an all-purpose descriptive. But the word dangerously allows us to distance ourselves from them: they are not "neo-Nazis," they are old-school, old-fashioned American white supremacists who have been and thrived here since the founding. (Hitler admired them long before they admired him.) They are the products, perpetrators, and now defenders of the same system from which I and every other white American ever have benefited. As long as we look at them and see monsters instead of mirrors, we are stubbornly refusing to understand the depth and scale of the ubiquitous nightmare they represent. Don't say "this is not who we are as a nation." This IS who we are, who we have always been. As Baldwin said, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." 

This post has been widely shared amongst my friends, but—and I guess this is my fault—I’m not sure it has been widely understood. I have seen liberal white people respond defensively—"I've looked in the mirror, and I'm no Nazi!"—and I have seen well-intentioned, reasonable arguments on my friends' pages that seem to focus narrowly on the relative appropriateness and usefulness of the various terminologies.

My point, however, was not semantic, or at least not wholly semantic. Though I framed it that way in my brief post, I don't really care what we call the racists and white supremacists. (I confess, I sometimes find myself calling them "Nazis" too: it is so hard not to, especially when they own the label so aggressively.)

My point—which I'd like to take more time to explain now—was about our willingness, as white Americans, to genuinely face what the problem really is.

All across the web I have seen white liberals—among whom I count myself—reacting to Charlottesville as if it was an infestation of cockroaches. It is a reaction of shock, of surprise, of instinctive offense at the sudden appearance of something inappropriate and unclean that wasn’t here before and should not be here now. And so it is comfortable to call them “Nazis,” because that is a foreign word that invokes a foreign force, an invasive enemy to be fought, and beaten, and expelled.

The thing about cockroaches, however, is that they are always there: when you see one, you know there are countless more just out of sight, living and thriving and reproducing in the very walls of your house. We know that, on some level: we just prefer not to see them, because that lets us pretend they're not there at all.

"You're so white, you're caucasian."

I am a white man from a rural part of one of the whitest states in the nation, and I now live in Chicago with my black wife. I have been—to put it lightly—on a long learning curve.

("You're so white, you're caucasian," my wife often tells me—because she inexplicably thinks this joke is hysterically funny, and because it is the truth.)

We have been together 12 years. We have been together through Hurricane Katrina, and Barack Obama, and Shelby v. Holder, and Ferguson, and Donald Trump. We have been together through Sean Bell, and Oscar Grant, and Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, and Jordan Davis, and Renisha McBride, and Michael Brown, and Philando Castile, and Laquan McDonald, and all the seemingly endless number of black Americans murdered by the state for the unforgivable offense of being black.

We have talked about all of these subjects, and a thousand other smaller, less dramatic, more commonplace and pervasive things. We talk about race, and racism, a lot, in big ways and small. We talk about it seriously, and we make irreverent (even offensive) jokes. We talk about race so much that I don't think, most of the time, we are even aware that we are talking about it, or that other people go whole hours or days or weeks without talking about it. We're not even talking about race; we're just talking, and race, always, is there.

I could tell you that I don't even really remember a time when race was not a preoccupying subject in my conversation, but that would be a lie. For most of my life, until I met my wife, I didn't think about it much at all. Oh, being a liberal, progressive, right-minded and well-intentioned individual, I was opposed to racism the same way I was opposed to violence, and pollution, and whale hunting. If you had asked me, I would have said I was unequivocally for racial equality the way I was unequivocally pro-choice, the way I believed in feminism, and freedom of speech, and gravity. These things were all givens, but I had the luxury—the privilege—to not think about them very much, or very often, or very hard.

I could tell you that this has changed, but that would be a lie too. I could tell you that I have come to see the world through the eyes of the woman I love, but you would not believe me, and you should not believe me.

A few years ago, when we were living in Washington, D.C., we spent an evening at a fancy restaurant where we received appallingly bad service: offensively, maddeningly, unforgivably bad service, the kind where you are so angry by the time your food finally arrives that you no longer even want to eat it.

As we left the restaurant, my wife—she was my girlfriend, at the time—jokingly said, "It's because we're black." It was a joke—neither of us really thought this—but I stopped and looked at her, and felt a weird rush of amusement and pride at her use of a plural pronoun. It took her a moment to realize what she had said. "I mean, it's because I'm black," she corrected herself hastily, but I have never let her forget it, and that sentence has become a catchphrase in our relationship. "It's because we're black," I'll say, when the wrong food is delivered, or when the cable goes out, or when we get bumped from a flight. "No, I am black," she'll say. "You could not possibly be whiter."

And—once again—she's quite right: I could not possibly be whiter, and, if we are together another sixty years, I will never get any blacker. I will never experience my country the way she does.

That's what I'm struggling to articulate now. I do not presume to speak for any black person—least of all the one to whom I’m married—but I want to share some of what I have come to imperfectly understand, as a white person, about the wide and fathomless chasm that forever and irreconcilably divides my experience, my perspective, my very existence as a citizen of the United States of America from my wife's.

“How can this be happening in America?”

I don’t believe that black Americans are particularly surprised by Charlottesville. They are not shocked. And they certainly have no need to make reference to any historic events or foreign governments to name these racist creatures in our midst or the reprehensible beliefs they espouse.

What black Americans see in Charlottesville is familiar to them, and I wonder if it isn't almost refreshing: it's an unusually open expression of the reality they have always known in this country. The people they see in Charlottesville are nothing new: whether we call them “Nazis,” “white nationalists,” "Confederates," or the “Alt-right,” these people have always been here, and all they did last weekend is say out loud things that have been embedded into every single aspect of American society for centuries.

These particular avatars of American racism are not even particularly dangerous or noteworthy examples. I do not mean for a moment to diminish the tragedy of Heather Heyer's murder, or the unspeakable brutality of the (still unpunished) assault on DeAndre Harris. I only mean to say that if our collective moral outrage drives all of these loud, violent racists back beneath the floorboards tomorrow, absolutely nothing significant would change in the reality of black Americans. The problem is not the repulsive little roaches scurrying across the kitchen floor: the rot is in the foundation.

I think it is only the existential reality of white people that is profoundly disturbed by Charlottesville, because this blatant and shameless display of racism challenges all of our self-serving delusions about who we are as a nation. (The same thing happens whenever racial injustice momentarily flares into white consciousness: white people can’t stop asking, “How can this be happening in America?” Black people do not need to ask, and the fact that we keep expressing shock is just another reason why they can never completely trust us.)

This is what I was trying to get at with my original Facebook post: the need for white Americans to let our reality be challenged, and even to be irrevocably shattered and reformed. We need to make a difficult mental leap, and put forth the terrible effort to see our country for what it really is. We need to try to see beyond our own bubbles of privilege far enough to understand our country a fraction as well as black Americans do. We need to surrender, forever, the luxury of surprise, for surprise is itself just a shameful confession of willful ignorance. Everything we need to know about racism in America is right before our eyes, and always has been: if we are shocked by it, it is because we have refused to see it.

And—though this is the hard part—white Americans need, most desperately, to recognize what those loud, silly, violent, repulsive racists in Charlottesville really are: they are white Americans. They are not foreign agents, they are not aberrations, and they are not “a few bad apples.” They are the rightful children of the systems that built this country, just like we are. They are noisily demanding and clamoring for exactly what has been promised to them all their lives, nothing more or less than what this country was insidiously designed to give them.

Why should we be surprised by them? America has told them since they were born that they are superior, and they see confirmation of their superiority everywhere they look. They see it in economic and housing policies, in educational institutions, in voting laws, in the criminal justice system. They see their superiority constantly reflected back at them in the media. They have been told, in every way that there is to tell them, that their lives are the only ones that matter.

However we try to distance ourselves from them by calling them “Nazis,” they are just an extreme expression of the white privilege that every white American shares. They are not flukes or aberrations: they are just the sharp and narrow point of our sword.

“If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” — James Baldwin

This is the leap that is so frightening and terrible to make. "Good" white Americans protest it with every fiber of our being. “I’m not like them,” we want to say—and of course, in many ways, we’re not. We are what James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, called “the relatively conscious whites,” the ones who try to treat all individuals equally, and struggle against our own inherent racism, and perhaps even use our privilege in good faith to make this country a little more just. What is needed from us now is not shame, or self-loathing, or self-flagellation. What is needed, now, is not defensiveness.

What is needed is for us to truly acknowledge that—whether we like it, whether we even chose it—we were born white into a society that is fundamentally, pervasively, systemically unjust to anyone who is not. And that we not only tolerate that injustice, but benefit from it every day of our lives. We get jobs more easily and make more money at them. We bank that money in fair institutions that do not even exist in black neighborhoods. We use that money to buy homes in communities where we are welcome, as far from all the consequences of systemic injustice as we can get. We send our children to schools where they might actually learn something, and to parks where they can play safely; most of us never worry about the quality of the water they drink, or fear that one day they will be shot to death by a cop for the unforgivable crime of behaving like children. We stand up for our rights easily, stubbornly, even aggressively, because we have never doubted that they are owed to us, and because we have little fear that doing so will cost us our lives. We have the luxury of thinking of all the institutional systems of American society—economic, educational, democratic, legal—as systems that serve and protect us, not as things designed to protect a more privileged class of people from us.

And the best part is, we never have to think about any of this, because—however aware we try to be, and despite all the evidence of our senses—part of us still believes what we’ve always been told: that this is what America is like for everyone. Most of us have grown up believing that America is a fundamentally good place of security and opportunity.

That's because it is—for us.

Comparisons are always imperfect, but I am trying to articulate something that I have difficulty articulating. So, I offer an admittedly imperfect analogy: South Africa under Apartheid. How many of us are willing to really see our country that way? And—more troublingly, and more importantly—how many white Americans are willing to see ourselves as the rough moral equivalents of the white South Africans? It is a comparison that offends our very concepts of ourselves, but it is not an inappropriate one. There are two vastly different, staggeringly unequal realities in America, and we stand on the comfortable side built by and for the oppressors. As we go about our daily lives, we are the beneficiaries of constant, systemic racial injustice.

(And any lingering moral superiority we feel—because our institutionalized racism is marginally less overt—should be countered by the recognition that Apartheid lasted less than 50 years before it was overthrown and the entire society reshaped. Systemic racism in America is more than four hundred years old, and the fact that we are still arguing over Confederate flags and monuments is proof that we have never really reckoned with it. There has been no Truth and Reconciliation for America, let alone a reimagining, and that is why we are still where we are as a nation.)

"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." — Baldwin

I do not pretend to have answers. All I know is that we will never arrive at any answers unless we can honestly face the problem, and that means making the effort to see America in a way that does not come easily to white Americans.

This leap of comprehension—this fundamental reprogramming of our own concept of reality—is, I believe, what it would mean for a white American to be truly "woke." (That is an overused, trendy word, and it is not mine to define or claim. But—with its suggestion of surrendering a soothing dream—it seems to me a very useful and appropriate one.)

I do not, for the record, claim to be "woke." I am not even close. I have loved and lived with a black woman for 12 years, and all I can say about my own evolution in that time is that—through her infinitely patient presence in my life—I now understand a little more about my own privilege, my own inherent racism, my dreadful ignorance, and my nearly bottomless naiveté. I have always been liberal, I have always been "conscious," and before I met her I thought I understood "the racial problem" in America. That's what I viewed racism as: a problem, an aberration to be fixed, the exception that proves the rule. America was the flag, and racism was the stain. I did not want to see how white supremacy was woven, inextricably, through the very cloth, because then I would need to see the American flag as not substantively different from the Confederate one.

I get occasional flickers of awakening now: flashes of terrible clarity, in which I can almost see America the way my wife does. But they are fleeting realizations, quickly passing, like myoclonic twitches. They are like the images you can make momentarily converge if you unfocus your eyes and stare at one of those "Magic Eye" illustrations long enough. They are like the dark, unfathomable, nearly crushing thoughts and anxieties you have at night, which you desperately push out of your mind so you can go peacefully back to sleep.

It is still shamefully easy for me to push those thoughts down: when it becomes too much, I can stop thinking about it, step away from the news, and go about my normal life. It requires incredible effort to sustain these thoughts, in fact—they do not come naturally, and they are exhausting—and it will probably always be like that for me.

All I can really claim by way of progress is that I now understand that pushing these thoughts away is an option my wife has never had. That, too, is one of the comforting luxuries of white privilege.

"How are you not in a state of rage twenty-four hours a day?" I asked her once, when I momentarily glimpsed the full shape of the country she lives in.

"I am," she said simply, as if surprised by the question.

And in that one reply I began to understand the strength, and the resilience, and the endless, unfathomable patience required to be black in America.

I do not know how to stay, constantly, in a state of rage. I do not even know how to want to. But this is what I believe: there is no hope for this country if "the relatively conscious whites" do not make the effort to stay, just a few seconds longer each time, in those terrible and revelatory moments of awakening, however tempting and comforting the dream. We need to look at Charlottesville, at Ferguson, at the murders of unarmed black men and women all across the country, and try not to see them as exceptions to the rule of what life is like in America. We need to understand that Donald Trump—though atypically open and odious about it—is not new or unique in relying upon and catering to a base of white nationalists. (In fact, that is something he shares with every president who has ever held the office, including the last one.) We need to surrender our illusions about America as a fundamentally just place with just a few unfortunate flaws: it has never been that. We need to stop saying "America is a nation with some white supremacists in it," and start saying "America is, and has always been, a white supremacist nation." There is no making America great "again": it has never been a great nation. Black Americans already know this. If we white Americans do not learn to accept it, there is no hope that it ever will be.

Very early in our relationship, my wife tried to explain to me the differences in how we saw our country, the completely different realities we each occupied in a country where we otherwise lived together.

"When you're black, it's like people have been telling you all your life that the sky is blue," my wife said. "And you're looking right at it, and you know it's gray: it's always been gray. But they keep swearing to you that it's blue, and you start wondering whether you're crazy, or they are. And, after a while, you just give up arguing with them."

I am a white American, a child of privilege: the sky has been blue for me my entire life. But I am trying now to see the reality that my wife has always seen, and understand that I, not she, was the crazy one.

The skies above America are gray. They have always been gray.

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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