Cleaning Our Own House

Anyone bothering to keep half an eye open in the last 10–15 years knows that fascism has, again, come prowling around the door. Only it never really left to begin with, but for argument’s sake, let’s say there’s been a resurgence. And boy howdy, we did not see it coming.

Except, who is this “we”?

In the aftermath of the mockery of an election that took place in November 2016, one thing i have not seen very much of is white people calling other white people to task about oppression. It’s one thing to gesture at a screen, one thing to say “well, I’m not in DC!” and feel helpless, but we did hand Himself a lot of votes. White people pretty much handed an idiot the election and white women placed a platter under that dish. These were people that knew better. These were people given every advantage in education, employment, social capital who still pressed the button under that name.

I know far better than to believe that every supporter of Don the Con is a caricature of white trash. Completely intelligent, well educated, advantaged white people — my own people — turned out for the most irresponsible and dangerous candidate I have seen in my lifetime.

We need to do far, far better than we’ve been doing. We need to cut the crap, cut the white guilt. We do not need to post for a few weeks then let this subside. We do not need to throw up our hands and reblog another think piece about the death of the USA.

We need to do better. We need to clean our own house. We need to do that by looking at what we allow to happen: We need to look at how our men behave and how we co-sign that as women. We need to talk to ourselves as white people and figure out what we can do to improve and drag our “regressive” elements kicking and screaming into reality.

What we allow as white people:

Whiteness is the luxury of well-crafted illusions. As part and parcel of whiteness, we get to pretend we are part of “pure” racial and ethnic traditions (see tired St. Pat’s celebrations for one). We get to pretend that there is an endless table stocked with land, jobs, and resources and we get to sit at it (Manifest Destiny). We get to pretend we’re at once connected to a (sanitized) ethnic tradition, heirs to ideals of warriors and kings. At the same time we get to be blank slates, writing our stories afresh with each generation, each job, each move, with no one to judge us.

When the illusion is so complete, it becomes reality. White people are genuinely surprised to learn of the achievements of other ethnicities, the interiority of other races, the history, art, and passions of “others”. This is because we do not have to. We do not have to monitor a dominant group and adopt its mind into our own. We do not have to live under the stress of double consciousness — but we also lack the mental/emotional/cultural acuity that brings.

We do not have to learn, we do not have to question. We can “safely” go our entire lives unchallenged on anything. This ensures that as a whole, our intellectual and moral development stops unless individuals take it upon themselves to go beyond their comfort and learn. The problem here that that while individual white people can and do certainly make this journey, this is an “individual solution to a collective problem”. There is nothing in white culture that encourages this, and definitely nothing that demands it.

Therefore dismantling the effects of whiteness becomes, for the white person, a strange territory. This is talk of race, and race is “impolite”, don’cha know; not something white children should have to hear and not something white parents are prepared to unpack. I come from women that, while genuinely of good will to many different races, believed acknowledging that difference was rude. “Colorblindness” was a virtue while “white”, “black”, and so on were very nearly dirty words. I know I am not the only one here.

Here’s the thing, though. In my grandmother’s day, in my mother’s day, one could get away with not knowing history or discussing race because there were fewer channel to learn. It was possible, but feasible to avoid. In 2016, where many (not all, but many) people have a damned computer in their pockets, there is no more excuse. We have the tools to aggregate and search information like never before, and better synthesis new information from that. Not to mention the rest of the clear-thought toolkit: libraries, books, community events, so on and so forth. Integration, which continually stymied in large parts of the country, has still become natural to enough people. You can’t “not” know someone who is a different race than you. But as a whole, we still do not take it upon ourselves to learn.

We allow ourselves the luxury of pretending that all is ok. Racism was a nasty thing, but MLK, “I have a dream”, “contents of their character”, and bada-bing: we’re now colorless. Add Obama’s election to that list of middle class historical “refusionism”, and you have the magic words that we chant to avoid having to see the ghost at the feast. We let ourselves remain ignorant because it’s easier.

Dr Nell Irvin Painter says, “An essential problem here is the inadequacy of white identity. Everyone loves to talk about blackness, a fascinating thing. But bring up whiteness and fewer people want to talk about it. Whiteness is on a toggle switch between “bland nothingness” and “racist hatred” (“What is Whiteness?”) Whiteness is predicated on division, as Dr. Painter points out in her op-ed and her book “The History of White People”: white vs not-white, free vs slave, ‘true’ white vs muddled ethnicities. Whiteness is terrified of those boundaries breaking. This is understandable, as they are not based on science but instead aspiration which evaporates when critical thought is applied. Other races, other ideas, other perspectives are “pollutants”. We’re not only moral infants, blinking in placid ignorance of our actions, but we are also continuously frightened — what are we letting in? Who are we letting in? Will this change us? We have no blueprint for change, so this fear is, in a perverse sense, understandable. We maintain language, a nominal culture, a religious pattern, a deep root system of economic power — and it hasn’t been challenged — or we haven’t cared to see — until now.

“Much has been written about financial hardship turning afflicted white communities into breeding grounds for white supremacist politics, but what about when dissatisfaction has little to do with economic circumstance? It’s hard to know what can be done to combat this phenomenon, but surely we have to start by taking the link between online hatred and resentment of women and the rise of neofascism seriously.” — We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men by Abi Wilkinson

If young white men are disaffected, if they feel they lack an identity, a cause, a purpose….I have two things to say: One, welcome to the human condition. We must make our own purposes, construct our own identities. The world has always been this way, except at one point, a small percentage of you would have been gifted with that identity in terms of land or titles or something similar. But this was never the norm even for white men. You have always been in the soup with us.

My second point to tell these “disenfranchised” young men is that your answer is under your damn nose. Women, POC, LBGTQ — all manner of groups have been asking for help for generations. The internet has opened worlds of possibility for informing yourself, finding causes that need help, and pitching in. Even offline, there are problems in your communities that need fixing: children aren’t fed, schools are struggling, infrastructure needs repairing. Even on the microlevel, in your own individual towns — what precisely is stopping you from (to use a very loaded term) “manning up” and fixing what’s broken? Clean a park! Fix a car! Volunteer at a shelter! These are the sort of things people to because they are not only morally right, they give life purpose. Just because there is no red carpet doesn’t mean you are unneeded.

But that’s the rub, isn’t it? Anything less than adulation is taken as hatred. Instead of saying “how can I help?” or starting a project of their own, enough of these men and their willing female compatriots would rather (again, another loaded term) “bitch” online.

And white women put up with this. Some of us even encourage it. More of us simply tolerate it as the price of privilege. We laugh at the jokes, clean up after, hide the broken bottles — we make the excuses and the choices to enable a culture of abusive masculinity because we don’t want to be so liberated that we forfeit our place at the foot of the table. At least we are at the table, so the logic goes. So white women — old and young, educated and not — make the choices necessary to preserve whiteness above justice. We do it on the sidewalk, in the bar, in the voting booth, in our homes. What do we think we’re going to get?

What we can do:

I’ve been turning these ideas over with a friend for a while. In the course of her experience as a mixed race woman, she gets to have a bird’s eye view of race. White friends and acquaintances, especially in the raw days after the election was declared, vowed to her (possibly forgetting her identities) that they “better not catch” anyone using epithets or spray painting hate signs. They’d kick ass, they would. No one better try that around them.

She made an excellent observation about how these newly-fired-up white people often put their foot in their mouth. They all think they’re going to be the ones punching the nazi, and that’s not what we need right now. The white middle class wants to be heroes but once more, that would put us at the center of the narrative.

We are not Captain America, and no one needs us to be. We need to put aside these fantasies of heroism, which are really domination with a softer boot. We do not need to go on about how we’d show “those racists” if “they” tried something. We are those racists. We benefit directly from a system that is designed to oppress anyone not white, heteronormative, cisgendered, middle class, and earning X amount a year. We benefit from the pain of our own people as well — consider all those “People of Walmart”. Poor white trash. We call our own people garbage.

Uncomfortable yet? Good. We should be. Now what?

Many white people are aggrieved about the election, many are galvanized. This is a good start. But we need to learn how to do this for more than a few news cycles. We have to learn.

We have to not just pay lip service to learning. We have to dismantle whiteness outside and inside of ourselves. We have to understand the million little ways we are protected simply because of how we’re born, and how we subconsciously cleave to those roles.

We already know how to do this, we have been told over and over. Here’s a starting point from Mikki Kendall at xojane.com. You can find similar lists all over and they are all going to share certain points: read, speak out, examine yourself. Use the tools at your disposal and find more voices. Do not let your critique of whiteness begin and end with me. I’d like to add to their ideas. I don’t want to erase or duplicate the work of these other writers so take it upon yourself to read more widely than my article.

We have to take books off the shelves, subscribe to blogs, follow feeds that have POC authors. But we have to not talk back for a fortnight. Two weeks — keep your own counsel as you read and absorb, before you think of approaching a writer of color. This is to ensure that you have time to find your legs in the discourse, understand the basics, and avoid asking those writers to educate you — this is a self-driven process.

We have to talk openly amongst ourselves first, and not at other groups. We are not here to collect antiracist merit badges. We have to be honest about whiteness and how it affects us, and we have to share that with our own first.

We have to examine our motivations when we take actions — especially when we take actions. This is essential if anyone is going to take up the label of anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc. Political progressiveness is no guard against racism, sexism, or other forms of oppression. To subscribe to a theory is one thing, but how you embody (or do not) is another. If you subscribe to progressive politics, what are your principles and how can you use them on a daily basis to improve your corner of the world?

We have to sensibly decide what we can share, whether it’s money, time, or both, and give regularly. But quietly. Again, we are not here for merit badges. Sharing valuable resources is simply a moral good, even if it’s kicking 5 bucks to a writer that opened up your mind. Likes and RT’s are cheap, but time and money are, well, time and money.

Whether or not our country can come to its senses in the next few weeks, I have no idea. Regardless, we’re going to have to change how we operate as a country, and what we do with the vast amounts of social capital at our disposal. We can be better than we are.

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