What I hear when people share how shocked they are at this week’s events in #Charlottesville (and #Seattle)
For many nice White people, this week has been alarming. The death of Heather Heyer at the hands of James Fields. It’s not even just northern liberal Whites. Mr. Fields own mother has expressed shock and disbelief that her son, who she ‘doesn’t really talk politics with’ went to a White supremacist rally. I mean, she knew he was at the Trump rally, but he’s not a White supremacist or anything…
This shock may be due in part to the normalization of violent Trump rallies over the last year or two, to a kind of ‘boys-will-be-boys’ whistling past the graveyard about the shenanigans playing out in Washington. About 45’s crazy private paramilitary style security and intelligence forces, led by his super shady Director of Oval Office Operations, (who is not in any chain of command, but was sent to personally fire the head of the FBI), or about his secret plan to delegate all policy issues to the VP and focus on holding regular rallies all over the country (an threatening nuclear powers on Twitter).
But no one knows how to model White shock quite like a northern liberal millionaire entertainer for whom ‘activism’ is so fashionable.
“White people are astounded by Birmingham. Black people aren’t. White people are endlessly demanding to be reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars. They don’t want to believe, still less to act on the belief, that what is happening in Birmingham is happening all over the country. They don’t want to realize that there is not one step, morally or actually, between Birmingham and Los Angeles.”
— James Baldwin, from “I Am Not Your Negro”
The reaction to this ignorance was pretty much what you would expect: immediate and a little hilarious with a side of extra shade. I think my Aniyunwiya (Cherokee) sister, Adrienne Keene put it best back when we tried to close the borders and stuff:
Personally, I was deeply aggravated at the way this kind of cluelessness is so predictable that it is literally built into the #fakenews #MAGA plan.
You cannot unwatch something like that.
This is precisely why all those White people showed up at that second march in Selma, because they saw how the first one went down on national television, and were shocked to be confronted with the way that they were seeing humans brutally beaten.
Here’s the thing: Black and Brown people have been shocked to watch our brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, mothers, fathers — our very children die before our eyes for centuries. This is most certainly what the US has always been, still is now and unless we can acknowledge those two facts and demand change, will continue to be.
Dear White people shocked by Charlottesville (and Seattle, btw): Do you think you are the first White person to be shocked by the brutal violence that is the defining feature of your people’s history? Bartolome Las Casas (who invented the idea of using Africans as slave labor in the Americas) has you beat by about 450 years.
…Las Casas read Gomes Eanes de Zurara’s book. The more he read, the less he could square the African slave trade with the teachings of Jesus Christ. In History of the Indies (1561), released five years before his death, Las Casas regretted “the advice he gave the king” to import enslaved Africans. He saw in Zurara’s writing evidence revealing the slave trade to “be the horror that it is.” Las Casas lamented Zurara’s attempt “to blur [the slave trade] with the mercy and goodness of God.” Las Casas tried to close the door on African slavery, after opening it for so many Spanish slaveholders. He failed. A powerful reformer labeled a radical extremist in his last days — like every antiracist who came after him — Las Casas was condemned in Spain after his death, and his works were practically banned there.
— Ibram X. Kendi, from “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” (page 27)
The idea that anything but violence and exploitation lie at the foundation of American society, underpinned and enabled by the relative ignorance of poor and middle class White Americans is magical thinking. White people have been convinced of the lie that America is for them and that they are better than the other “races,” since way back in 1680, when:
…the Virginia Assembly, after Bacon’s Rebellion, gave amnesty to white servants who had rebelled, but not to blacks. Negroes were forbidden to carry any arms, while whites finishing their servitude would get muskets, along with corn and cash. The distinctions of status between white and black servants became more and more clear. In the 1720s, with fear of slave rebellion growing, white servants were allowed in Virginia to join the militia as substitutes for white freemen. At the same time, slave patrols were established in Virginia to deal with the “great dangers that may . . . happen by the insurrections of negroes. . . .” Poor white men would make up the rank and file of these patrols, and get the monetary reward.
— Howard Zinn, from “A People’s History of the United States”
This is the way the game was set up, even before the Nina the Pinta and Santa Genocidio left that port in Conquista-landia.
This is how we have built, maintained, and defended the wealthiest and most terrifyingly, world-endingly powerful and violent empire in the history of humankind. We just didn’t realize that we were being indoctrinated into a colonized curriculum. We have been taught the history of our conquerors.
This is a society built on the land of a people exterminated in the largest genocide of human history, and built by a half million Africans and their children, doomed to die in bondage for 20 generations, and then to suffer through round after round of indignity, brutality, and violent indiscriminate slaughter.
This is the chief export of America, our voracious appetite for clothes and electronics and products of every shape and size made by suffering women and children in remote corners of the world. Not to mention the oil needed to transport and manufacture all of it, or the bombs we drop on children to defend it. Our appetite for exploitation and violence is as insatiable as the grave itself.
This, my fellow Americans, is US.
A friend of mine made a risky off-handed comment during a ‘how to talk about racism in the workplace’ training a few months ago. As she discussed the need for white folks to get out of their comfort zone and start working through and accepting the inhuman brutality of our history, she said “Or not, you could also continue to ignore it. The revolution will just be waaaayyy more bloody…”
The mood in the room palpably shifted, and though I think everyone in the room wanted to disagree, it was pretty easy to see her point. We are all sort of stuck on this express train toward our violent destruction, and we all feel in our conscience that this can’t possibly be sustainable, that we are inevitably headed toward some violent breaking point in our society. We can deny it if we want to, but I have heard far too many ‘apocalypse preparedness’ jokes to discount it as anything other than the zeitgeist. Here’s the crazy thing we are betraying when we think ‘this is not us’ though: the neo-nazis are not joking about buying guns, growing their own food, and surviving the next civil war or nuclear apocalypse.
You think the NRA is joking about violently overthrowing the government?
You think these guys are just really into pockets?
You think this longstanding genre of photo is some kind cliche or joke?
These people are not playing around, and it’s time we stopped playing around or trying to find a safe and comfortable space for ourselves while other people are suffering.
Baldwin does not need much time to respond. “I don’t think there’s much hope for it, you know, to tell you the truth, as long as people are using this peculiar language. It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro here, or to the Black man here. That’s a very vivid question for me, you know — but the real question is what’s going to happen to this country…”
You see friends, if we really care for the future of this country that we are citizens of, if we want the statement “This is not US” to actually mean anything other than absolution for silent, ignorant complicity, then we have to start getting comfortable, fluent even, with naming the deception that has been perpetrated against the people now living in America. We have been sold a whopper of a lie, that America is this grand progression from glory to ever greater glory, and that our progress and indomitable spirit work carry us forward inevitably into our shared destiny.
It’s not that we haven’t made any progress. We have.
It’s that responding to injustice with statements about progress, attempts to absolve us from taking responsibility for the present. Statements about our good intentions attempt to absolve us from taking responsibility for our impact. Statements about our principles and values as America attempts to absolve us from taking responsibility for the legacy of violence and exploitation that is the foundation of our comfortable lives.
We have neither been great, nor have we been truly free, but what freedom and greatness we COULD have will come from our shared struggle to end the unbroken chain of our inherited trauma.
Abram Guerra: Strategist and entrepreneur focused on driving impact, growth, and value through innovation and partnership. Outside of work, I like talking with friends and writing about the newest gadgets and oldest ideas, experiencing cultures through food, music, and history, and traveling to and exploring new places (i.e. getting lost) with my wife, Lisa. You can follow him here