We’ve got another awesome Sex and the State guest post! If you would like to submit a guest post, please fill out my contact form with an brief outline of what you want to write about.
Halfway through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel, Americanah, the protagonist, Ifemelu, writes a blog post, perhaps a better one than I am able to write here. She writes with the lived experience of a non-American Black woman, one who is frequently asked whether “they eat dogs in Africa,” one who must sear her scalp with hair relaxant just so she can look “professional” enough to get a job. She writes with an unaffected wryness I can never have when writing about race.
She writes something, a piece of advice to other Black people in the United States, which breaks my whiteness in two: “If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Otherwise you get no sympathy. This applies only for white liberals, by the way. Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.” This survival guide for victims of racism speaks volumes, not just about Blacks’ lived experiences, but about the nature of whiteness.
I have wanted to write about white racism for a while now, but every time I do, the subject seems so daunting. It’s a slippery, burning thing, this white racism. I think I will never fully understand it. But a white friend told me recently that he was insulted by the slogan, “Black Lives Matter,” because, he said, it implied that he didn’t already agree with the statement. And when he said that, my whiteness shuddered, like when I read Adichie’s words. I thought, “Maybe I will write about this white racism. Maybe I’ll say something, and see if it makes sense.”
White people do not listen to Black people, because we do not think that Black voices speak any kind of truth. We put stock in white institutions, white publications, white celebrities – and white racists. My first impulse, when someone tells me that their grandfather has just died, is to console them. My first impulse, when a Black friend tells me that someone has said something racist, used to be (to an extent, still is) to tear down their story. To ask: “Are you sure they said that? Are you sure they meant that? Are you sure you didn’t imagine this?” At best, I think this impulse results from a desire to be certain that no one has actually done harm to another person. At worst, I know that it is a socially promoted belief that racism is dead (or gone, vanished to somewhere “else”), and that Black people overreact, fabricate, and belong to a culture which cannot be trusted to produce any kind of truth.
Why, for example, is it entirely believable, almost a matter of fact, that Darren Wilson would never have shot a Black teenager because of implicit bias against Black bodies – while it is also wholly believable that a Black teenager would, for no discernible reason, charge and beat a white police officer immediately after allegedly committing a robbery? Why is it unbelievable that a white police officer is lying, but so believable as to be automatically factual that a Black teenager would be stupid and violent enough to beat the living shit out of said cop? How has this claim been maintained, despite the fact that Darren Wilson emerged from the encounter with barely a scratch
Certain narratives are always credited from the start. The narratives of white cops are one instance. What else can explain the media reporting that twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by a white cop in Cleveland for holding a BB gun, was the product of an abusive household? What purpose could that information possibly serve, other than to further legitimize a narrative of white cops saving dumb Black people from themselves? Why is it that when a prominent Objectivist intellectual wrote a Facebook post about Michael Brown, he referred to him as “Big Mike” throughout and included the teenager’s height and weight – but called Darren Wilson “Officer Wilson,” and didn’t include any similar stats about the rather man-sized cop? How is this “objective”? How is it that the privileging of one narrative over another, despite evidence and voices to the contrary, is not only acceptable, but natural?
White people have been raised to accept some sources of knowledge more quickly than others. Because we have been represented in every major legal, political, scientific, academic, and commercial institution in this country, we have no distrust of these institutions. They have always been our institutions, speaking with voices that sound like ours, representing interests that have (sexuality, gender, class, and disability aside) always been in line with ours.
White people, since the inception of “whites” as a class of people distinct from Blacks, have by definition, been those who owned, and were not owned. Non-Jewish white people have never been experimented on en masse by scientists looking to test new medications. White people have never been sterilized for being white (forced sterilization being a practice that extended into the 70s and ended in 1981). White people have never been barred by law, as a punishment for being white, from living in certain parts of the country. In short, white people trust this country’s institutions, because we have never had a reason not to. We can easily claim that these institutions have changed, that Black people are not slaves, may own property, may go to university, may live wherever they want. We can claim that these things are true – and we do claim it, regularly, when we complain about Black people complaining about racism – but in doing so, we reject the legitimacy of Black voices.
We assume from the start that Black people who say, “I was discriminated against,” or, “The TSA let my white friends go through but strip searched me,” or, “I was fired from that job because I wore my hair in braids, instead of relaxing it” – are lying. We assume this from the beginning. Because it is not supported by white institutions. And the funny thing is that when these institutions do produce research, at long last, proving true what Black victims of racism have always said – proving that a white man fresh out of prison is likelier to get a job than a Black man who has never been to prison, proving that resumes headed by “Black-sounding” names are passed over for more “traditional” names with equal or less experience – white people denounce these findings, ignore them, call them “Marxist” or “collectivist.” And so the cycle of racism is complete: mostly-white institutions identify and discriminate against Black people as a collective, and when Black people seize on the trait which is the object of that discrimination, white people accuse them of racism, collectivism, “tribalism.”
Socially epidemic racism functions so smoothly by blaming the victims of racism, and removing from those victims the central tool of resistance: the ability to identify your oppression. In Objectivist terms, we might call this thesanction of the victim: “the willingness of the good to suffer at the hands of the evil, to accept the role of sacrificial victim for the ‘sin’ of creating values.” In feminist terms, we would call this victim-blaming. In any terms, it is unjustifiable.
My friend, the one insulted by the statement that “Black Lives Matter,” is a good man. I like him very much, he is intelligent, he strives to understand the world around him, and he’s so unlike most white people I talk with about racism in that he’s willing to accept that it might, in fact, exist. But he believes that white people already know that Black lives matter. He says that a better chant could be found, one which doesn’t seem to imply that all white people are racist. Ari Armstrong, an Objectivist writer I usually respect, has written that saying “Black Lives Matter” is collectivist, because it implies that all Black people are blameless, and all white police officers are monsters.
How do I explain what I am still learning? No, not all Black men are blameless. But this is not the point. Yes, most white people, if asked, would agree that Black lives matter. But that, too, is not the point. What does it mean to say that you believe Black lives matter, and then refuse to believe it when your Black friend says, “Something racist happened to me”? What does it mean to say, as Armstrong does, that we must value all individual lives equally, regardless of race – and then ignore the mounting evidence that police are readier to shoot darker complexioned people than lighter? What does it mean to say that, “I, as a conservative – a libertarian – a liberal, am opposed to racism,” but to accept only white narratives and white voices as the “objective” voices?
The truth is that white people do not think that Black lives matter. We have never been taught how. And our individualist ideology, though valuable, can ironically become a pernicious kind of collectivism when we ignore the persistent influence of old ideologies, old racism, and how this racism still informs our biases. A consistent objectivity, a consistent individualism, would be reflective, introspective, and always critical of assumptions. It is always astonishing to me how white individualists who claim to be critical of government institutions can suddenly become the most fervent defenders of big government when race enters into the discussion.
Anyone who lays claim to individualism and objectivity must confront where they come from, how they were raised, what sorts of narratives they were always taught to believe, and which other narratives they were taught to discredit. Objectivity is not a state of being – it is a practice. And white people have failed to keep practicing.
Brendan Moore is an undergrad studying English and French. He lives all over the place. He enjoys a good beer and subversive feminist stand-up. Both at the same time.
Photo from VICE.