Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Tragedy in Charleston: What Should We Do?


I am tired.

I had planned to be in bed by now, and I am so far behind on so many things people are depending on me to do. But I can’t rest just yet, not until I’ve articulated the thoughts swirling in my mind today while they are still fresh (and before the world has begun, as it always does, to move on.)

I managed to avoid making any comment whatsoever on social media about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who has passed for years as black, because her story itself makes me tired. But today, with all the media attention to the horrible racist attack on the AME church in Charleston, SC (the church of Denmark Vesey, as it turns out), and especially the responses to it I’ve been seeing from conservatives (especially on Fox News, quelle surprise), I keep thinking about what Dolezal’s story says about white liberals, and what Fox’s responses (and many Republican politicians’) say about white conservatives. And how it all ties together.

Most white Americans don’t want to face racism, and the legacy of slavery. Understandable; it’s a hell of a thing to face. Being members of the dominant end of the racial hierarchy, of course, gives white folks the freedom (aka privilege) NOT to face such things, a freedom those victimized by the hierarchy have never had. This deliberate blindness takes different faces, though. One way to avoid facing race is to deny that it exists, or that you personally benefit from it –to say that it is over, it was the bad old days before you were born, and it has all been fixed so just get over it. This denial becomes intrinsic to certain political views, hence you have –not just politicians but “journalists” –saying it is impossible to know the shooter’s motives, or even to deduce them, unless maybe he was motivated by a hatred of Christmas or something.

That’s one way.

Another way is the route chosen by Rachel Dolezal, and by some other white folks in less dramatic ways. It is embarrassing to be part of the oppressive end of that hierarchy. We want to identify with the underdog. There is more honor to be had by playing the part of the oppressed than the oppressor. Dolezal went full-tilt with this approach, claiming not just affinity or empathy with the black experience but… the actual black experience. Which is patently ridiculous, like the prince dressing as a pauper and claiming a full understanding of pauperism… when all he has to do is put his crown back on and he is back on the ruling side, an option denied the myriad paupers. A similar, but less dramatic, example was recently when Ben Affleck –the subject of one of those “discover your ancestry” TV shows –tried to hide the fact that one of his ancestors was a slave trader. That does not fit in with his personal identity as a New England liberal “good guy.” It was embarrassing.

There are a couple of huge problems with this approach (beyond the dissembling.)

Number one. As white Americans, it is absolutely essential that we FACE THE TRUTH ABOUT RACE. It is what this country was built on, and continues to echo into the present. It is the foundation, the chassis, of our society, and simply ignoring that will never change anything. We have to recognize our privilege, and yes, our communal culpability. We weren’t around back then, true, but we’re around now and we are benefiting from the accrued advantages of whiteness whether we recognize or admit it or not. Even if, like me, you grew up poor and disadvantaged in other ways. Dolezal and Affleck did not want to do this. They didn’t want to be associated with the “bad guys.” Again, who could blame them.  My point is: we have to face up to our cultural (and family) pasts, all of us.

Number two. Now, I know Dolezal did a lot of good things (as has Mr. Affleck). But she missed a chance to do it in a much more appropriate way. Rather than culturally appropriating blackness, she could have worked just as hard without fudging on her background. What this would have done: given her the opportunity to take advantage of her privilege… to combat privilege. To deconstruct it, to work against it from the inside. To work in a supporting role at some times, and to step to the fore at others.  Many people of color that I know grow weary of being expected to explain the most fundamental things about race over and over again to a white audience; white folks who get it have a responsibility to keep trying to explain it to those who don’t, but without pushing people of color out of the spotlight when they are talking about their own lived experiences.

What this approach would NOT have done for Ms. Dolezal: allow her to be the victim. What it would not have done for Ben Affleck: allow him to be the scion of a spotlessly heroic family. Well… too bad.

Most American Indian tribes in North America believed (and still believe) in community responsibility, more than individual responsibility. If your group collectively did something to disrupt the spiritual balance of the universe, it was your responsibility to do what you could to fix it, whether you personally had performed the actions or not. I believe in this philosophy. It is not white guilt: it is white culpability and responsibility. Not responsibility in a “White Man’s Burden / Nobless Oblige” sense, tied to saviorism; responsibility in the American Indian sense, the acknowledgement that your people have messed up and it is the duty of all of you to do something about it. It must have been very tempting to Dolezal to immerse herself so deeply into black culture, and into fighting injustice, that she came to view and promote herself as black –but in a very real way, in doing so she was shirking her duty in that fight. That duty: to recognize and acknowledge her privilege, and to renounce the system that privileged her.

What does that look like? On a day like this…. When an acknowledged racist has slain nine black people at a historic black church, and many white people refuse to see race in it all, just as they refuse to see race in the spate of killings of unarmed black men (and children)… what does it look like?

It means raising your voice, fellow Caucasoid individuals. It means saying “No, this IS about race, it IS about privilege. I am benefited by it, but I condemn it, and I am calling for an end to it.” It means standing in support of our brothers and sisters of color- without having what I think of as a “Tarzan moment” when we swoop in and tell them how they should feel and react, and show them the “right way” to do it. And “lead” them (cough cough, Rachel Dolezal.) But most of all, it means admitting, and explaining to our fellow white folks. Especially at times like this.

Again I say: I am so tired. Many of you are, as well. But we have miles to go before we sleep.


God bless the members of the Emanuel AME Church, and God strengthen us all.

5 comments:

  1. Great to see you back, albeit in this distressing context. I admire and support your position.

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  2. Beautiful post Troy. Very very eloquent.

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