This isn’t really something any black person needs to read. They already know it. To not know the sort of things I want to tell you about is to court death and disaster. If you are black (or really any person of color.) don’t worry about this essay. Have a drink somewhere nice, go eat tacos with your kids. For the love of god go enjoy yourselves for a while.
Now I want to make it understood that from this point onward when I use the word ‘we’ I’m talking about us. The people who look like me. White people.
Because there is a soul deep problem with us that’s worked it’s way in, like a thorn in the foot that festers and poisons the blood. Let’s call the thorn racism and the resulting putrid fester a lack of humanity. Now some of this is ignorance, after all how do you pluck out a thorn you didn’t know peirced your heel? But there are two types of ignorance, one is a simple lack of knowledge, easily cured, and the other, willful ignorance which is tricky. The wilfully ignorant see evidence of something unpleasant or disagreeable and wrench their faces away. Try to force their head back around and they’d break their own necks to stay unknowing.
Both of these types of ignorance come into play and it starts young. I attended K-12 in three separate states. Now i’m sure different district have their own curriculum, but I’ll hazard a guess that they were all fairly similar in this regard, that the history of race relations in this country, the unvarnished truth of it, is ludicrously softballed.
And it’s to protect white children from feeling bad.
I am, of course, paraphrasing but basically the facts presented to me as a child sounded a bit like this:
“So the pilgrims came to America and had a lot of trouble with the indians. The pilgrims tried to be nice but there were some problems and a lot of fighting. Black people were slaves but that was mostly in the south, stick a pin in that one, we will get back to it later. So England was tryrannical, we fought a war, and won! Yay us! Here is this part where the indians had to take a long, shitty walk but they got a new home at the end of it! So, okay, African Americans. The north was totally fine but the south loooooooved slavery so we fought another war and it was super tragic and inspiring. Then the slaves were free! America had another little snafu with black people in the 60’s but we got over that and now it’s fine.”
The Trail of Tears, the forced removal of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole from their lands to suffer a long walk to Oklahoma. Between 2,000 to 6,000 died en route out of 16,543. This was the ultimatum the indigenous people were given: assmilate to this new way of life or go elsewhere. Tens of thousands of human beings were forced to weigh cultural survival against individual survival. This upstart fledgling nation that broke every promise it ever made gave five autonomous and ancient nations a rusted broken scale, one side weighted with shit and the other with dust.
Then these upstarts came for the dust too and subsumed their new lands and continued on with their cultural genocide. Look up American Indian Boarding Schools. Look up information on the current day conditions of the reservations.
My college friend was navajo from the Flagstaff rez. She told me about the schools she went to. The catholic teachers took their names and gave them new ones. There are photos of shackles small enough to fit a disobedient native child.
Chattel slavery. The word chattel means personal property. 12.5 million africans sent across the atlantic ocean kept like livestock and stacked like cordwood. 10.7 survived the journey to be put to work under a foreign sky. Stripped of their names, their families, and their culture to sweat and bleed for indigo and cotton. The north and the south did this. The glorious founding fathers of our glorious nation kept human beings for work and amusement.
The Emancipation Proclamation. Where the slaves were given their freedom. You can’t give freedom, everyone is born with freedom. You can take it. At the most generous you could maybe give it back. At the end of the civil war, in which many black patriots fought and died on ground that didn’t love or care for them, brutal sharecropping, segregation and violence continued to thrive.
Tuskegee, Omaha, Rosewood, Tulsa, Los Angeles, Montgomery, St Louis. The reservations, the Japanese internment camps littered west of the Mississippi, the unmarked graves of Chinese immigrants who helped build the transatlantic railroad. A million bloody steps through history. Look into the records, the photos, the personal stories. It’s all there, much of it transcribed by our own hands, a booming pride and exultation to brutality in service of some great civilization we did not ever build. We did this. People who look like me, like you, who share the same color flesh did these things. It’s irrefutable.
We live in a country with a legacy of violence that has built the fortunes of many. It’s not something we like to examine too closely. We like to think it was all our own individual gumption that netted us the job, the nice house, a good car. It’s not that simple and we don’t care to look to closely at the knotted, filthy complexity of it.
When Eric Garner was murdered a tv news reporter was doing a story about his death. I didn’t watch it but I saw a still from it. In the back the background a jubilant white couple was recreating headlock that suffocated Garner. The woman is smiling, the man has his tongue out in a caricature of choking. I’ve never wanted to go to a place and a moment in time to beat someone before. That was cruelty, barbarism, and inhumanity personified that they would do something like that. A pile of cops squeezed the life’s breath from a man for doing nothing at all and it was funny for these people.
Understand this: the violence the black community faces right now, and has faced since they were dragged to these shores, is not a black problem. It is our problem that we inflict on the black community. One that we have been willfully ignorant in understanding and rectifying.
My husband is jewish. Not in a particularly religious sense but in the way I’ve seen a lot of jews identify. If they have the noted ancestry of a jew that would have landed them in the camps back in the 40’s then they claim that heritage. We woke up this morning to news of the Charleston shooting, the Memphis shooting hot on it’s heels. I checked tumblr to see a video of a young black girl in a bathing suit being manhandled and slammed head first into a cop car.
A different young girl in Ohio, not the one in Dallas. How pathetic. It’s happened so often I have to be clear about which young black girl was beaten by the police in the past few weeks.
So my jewish husband says something, he said many things this morning, but this is what struck me the hardest-
“Remember in Band of Brothers where they rounded up the villagers from outside the camps and made them clean up the bodies? The didn’t have a direct hand in it but it’s like… what did you do? You baked bread, you went to work. You didn’t look. It happened right next door and you didn’t try to stop it. That’s us right now. We bake bread and go to work but we aren’t stopping it.”
German citizens were actually forced at gunpoint to visit the killing fields of the camps. Spared their lives but not spared the knowledge of the consequence of their inaction. Maybe those civilians couldn’t have stopped it. However they didn’t try very hard either.
We are all complicit in this thing to one degree or another. This thing that slaughters the young and old, women and men in communities of color. The American system as it stands now and, frankly, has always stood since it’s inception is a vast machine and it’s gears tear apart the undeserving.
I use the words ‘black community’. ‘White community’ is seldom heard. Those of us with pale skin are set up as the default, anything not us is other and thus subject to scrutiny. It’s a blood legacy. It’s our legacy, ugly, bruised, and hateful.
The white race historically has pretended at purity and civilization. All of this is false. Everything I see us doing is just a sick caricature of what I understand humanity to be. It’s cruel, uncaring, inhumane.
Brotherhood is not just a word but a deed, an action. When you hear someone degrade another culture, spit fire. When you see a black child called a man fit for some obtuse punishment throw a fit. When someone with black or brown skin tells you what their life is like, spare your arguments. You can do it. be that guy. For the love of everything holy, don’t split semantic hairs over this kind of suffering. If you want to regard yourself as a good person, one that loves human life, you must speak ferociously against this sort of injustice. You must do it other wise you are just baking bread and going to work and pretending it doesn’t matter.
Your school, your culture has lied to you. It’s to your detriment, which is a shame, but worse it costs the people around you to stay so willfully ignorant. This brutality is unconscionable and unacceptable. Black voices are paramount in this discussion and I desperately urge other white people to set aside defensiveness and upset to hear and understand these real grievances. Horrible things are happening to our neighbors and they must be remarked upon in unwavering terms. For better or worse this country is our home and we cannot allow this sort of suffering to be passively accepted with wry remorse. When an uncle makes a comment about lazy mexicans, fight him at the family dinner table no matter how awkward it may be. A friend makes a crude joke about a black womans body, shame him within an inch of his life. Its small, but maybe it will start to bandage some wounds. Our legacy is blood and it takes active effort to staunch that flow.
In this clutch of words I mentioned things, historical things. I would like to spend more time with them, crack open the fetid heart of it and show you it’s twisted guts. The crimes that have happened I only barely touched on. It’s bad. It’s awful. It’s rarely spoken of.
But I am no scholar. I’m not equipt to give true justice to the horror of these things. Know that they did happen though. This is the digital age and all that knowledge is at your fingertips. Read and listen. Don’t look away even if, and especially if, it makes you feel bad. Once you feel bad you may understand how to do good.