I’ve had this conversation with enough people by now that I think it’s worth putting down in some more permanent form. The audience for this piece is specifically white academics, or those who consider themselves educated (whether self- or formally-) white allies, though of course anyone can read it.
Like most of us, I woke up stunned by the news on November 9. Luckily the bouts of weeping and disassociation were interspersed by email after email from the women I’m proud to call my friends, notes which were in turn terrified, angry, heartbroken, irreverent, funny — sometimes all of those things at once. I had the day off and felt fortunate to be spending it in some small digital way with people I loved, who I knew loved me. It wasn’t long before I started feeling ready to mobilize, to make a plan. To figure out what tools I had and use them, following the advice of a very wise woman.
The answers were immediate and obvious: I can write, and I can teach. The writing I was already doing, deep in a manuscript of poems and some first drafts of essays concerned almost exclusively with power. I was glad to know, too, that the teaching I’d been doing also spoke to the crisis at hand; I’d spent the last few semesters diversifying all of my reading lists and teaching the history of colonization, slavery, Jim Crow, and housing discrimination alongside the literature in my American lit survey, which, fortuitously, I’d structured as an ongoing dialogue between the descendants of Emerson and Thoreau. It felt pretty good to know I’d armed a bunch of young people with a thorough understanding of civil disobedience.
Last semester, though, I was teaching only creative writing. One of my classes, when asked if they wanted to talk about the election results, responded with an emphatic NO! The other class wanted to talk, so we did, for almost two hours, sitting in a circle and trying to find the words to say how it felt to be American on that day — trying to find the words, of course, being the primary subject of any creative writing course. It was difficult, and also good. Uncomfortable and scary: I had not gotten teary in front of a group of students since September 12, 2001, when I was 22, barely a college grad myself and two weeks into the first university classes I’d ever taught. As they were leaving, several students thanked me, and thanked each other, for being open and for listening, and said they felt better to know they were not alone with their worries and fears, which had been the goal, of course: to start carving out a place from which each one of them had the courage to speak, to write.
I felt worse, myself. Driving home I entertained all my favourite fantasies: students were writing angry emails to my department chair, the dean, Fox News. Students were telling all their friends how awkward and weird I am, how uncomfortable I make them. Students were telling their parents I was trying to brainwash them. Virtually every undergrad has a videocamera in his pocket and an audience ready and willing to dismantle a vulnerable person for the sake of what seems like sport. None of that happened (that I know of, anyway) and by the end of the day I’d gotten over it, as I always do. So much of teaching is just letting go of the fear that comes with knowing you’re going to screw up. That you’re going to get something wrong, probably every class. That despite your best intentions, you’re going to do something that just doesn’t help. The next time the class met, we were back to our old selves — maybe a little more thoughtful, a little more ready to go deep with each other in discussing the workshop drafts. After all, we knew one another more fully now. At any rate, when the semester ended a few weeks later, I was deeply sad to let that group go.
In the meantime, I was trying to find a way to use another tool I’d realized I had: a unique position between the academy and the white working-class base whose support had been instrumental in the election results. As a first-gen college grad — a first-gen PhD — from a farming community that, when I was in school, included exactly one family of color and not a single house of worship that wasn’t a church or a Quaker meeting house, my life in academe has often been . . . trying. When I was an undergrad, the difficulty was my own insecurity and vulnerability: I didn’t feel like I belonged, I didn’t know how to be a college student. I’d had no one to teach me that, and, if I am any example, that’s a body of knowledge that can save a young person all sorts of grief. By the time I finished grad school, the alienation was more pronounced, underscored by the fairly constant beating taken by communities like mine: the jokes in class about rednecks and hicks, the novel’s racist character — “of course it’s the plumber.” Haha haha haha. Now, though, I had language for it, the training that allowed me to see the ways in which any form of power creates hierarchies that exclude and control in order to protect itself.
So I decided I would use Facebook to talk to white people about racism. I would talk to working-class whites I knew from back home, and I would talk to white academics who were trying to be allies. If you are thinking you know how those conversations went, you are probably wrong. What I found, immediately, is that there is no one it’s more unpleasant or futile to question than a white academic who thinks himself an ally. Still, it was painful to break into those talks with old friends. It hurt to really listen to what the president-elect’s supporters were saying, not just mentally take apart every misused word or assumption, but actually hear the struggle they were trying to bring into words. Their criticism — not overt, but in the subtext of their anger and pain — was incredibly hard to take. Not because it was mean-spirited — it wasn’t. I doubt most of them realized they were, in a roundabout way, insulting me by association when they railed against Democrats or liberals, protestors, whiners, thugs. It hurt because it was valid and I knew it. I found myself feeling like I had failed these people, my people. For the most part, I’d gone along with the jokes. I’d forgotten, in the relatively public sphere of most Facebook pages — when we’re all friends with everyone we ever knew and only really interact with our current circle, we forget who’s paying attention, getting thrown pretty regularly under the bus. If you have enough of the right kind of friends, you’ll get lots and lots of “likes,” the reward centre of your brain lighting up with each post.
It seems that no white person on the left is willing to believe that a white population feels marginalized, which, intellectually, I have no problem with. I have the critical knowledge of racism and whiteness in America that lets me to understand that the statement is a theoretical impossibility; that racism is prejudice plus power and whiteness is always, always, always power; that the default setting of whiteness is racist, not by virtue of the acts of individual whites but by virtue of the benefits we continue to reap from having invented the very concept of race to serve our own interests and allowing it to go on and on and on. I know. I know. I know. But I also know that a person’s feeling of marginalization, of being dismissed, dehumanized, shamed for the person that she is, has nothing to do with whether or not my very educated brain supports the hypothesis that it turns that living, breathing human being into. The heart doesn’t know — it feels. When it’s vulnerable, it tries to find a way to protect itself. Some people look to a leader who says he can do it. How did this happen? the left keeps asking. My answer is a short one: in part, because a lot of people were assholes for a long time. Myself included.
Do we consider how we sound to people unlike ourselves? Do we know that when we use the word “racist,” that word conjures up not an idea, a system underlying every institution we have, but the image of a person who would hang a noose in someone’s front yard? Wouldn’t we each be appalled if someone we didn’t know, representing an institution we maybe rightfully suspect uses us as the butt of jokes, called us, or our beliefs, or our choices by such an ugly word as that? I know that’s not what we mean. But I also know that I know that. Is there a subject other than race about which a population of educators is more willing to reduce, belittle, and shame those they themselves recognize need to be taught, or another population of people so immediately dismissed as too far gone, unreachable, unwilling to learn? Why is that? What’s the pay-off? I am beginning to suspect it’s simply white fragility: the more loudly we condemn racism and racist behaviour, itself a moral act, the better we feel about ourselves. We protect ourselves from confronting our own culpability, from owning up to all the ways we’ve failed. In that way, we continue to benefit: racism becomes an opportunity to affirm how moral we are.
Even now, when we are in the thick of it, trying to do the same work but with the added pressure of pragmatic reality chanting it’s too late, we’re still up to our old tricks. The number of white educators and allies I have seen or heard outright refuse to engage in conversation about how to do antiracism is staggering, instead ignoring or intellectualizing away questions about their methods or language. And every time I try, I feel myself moved quietly onto another list of people who don’t “get it.” I assure you I get it. I also assure you that I do not care, in this fight, what you think of me. It’s not my life that’s at stake.
The heart doesn’t know — it feels. Some people turn to the mind to protect them. In “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” Thoreau writes: “The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things.” Surely this is our shared work: to cleave and discern, to see the secrets so we might undo them. Yet the cleaver is not the most efficacious tool for examining a beating heart. My favourite line from all of Emerson, and one my gen-ed students always love, is from “Self-Reliance”: “Nothing at last is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” What does it mean, to have integrity of mind? Isn’t it a little odd that a profession as old as ours, as much a helping profession as any other, has no code of ethics? If it did, might it not also begin: Primum non nocere — First, do no harm?