the white liberal’s burden
The only event to uniformly blanket social media since the inauguration is what happened in Charlottesville last weekend. I don’t mean to downplay the tangible fear, frustration, and grief of Virginians and other Americans when I tell you that I am exhausted. But I am.
I’m worn out by the soul-searching, the temperature-taking, and the critiques. You, like me, have probably clicked on several of them throughout the past week. The first one to resonate with me came from the Still Processing podcast, which I’ve mentioned in earlier columns. Its hosts, Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris of The New York Times, discuss culture and tech through their own black and brilliant lenses. And in this week’s episode, in which they mourned Charlottesville, Morris broke down and cried multiple times. Overwhelmed, he explained to Wortham that he is routinely surprised that black people still exist in America.
It was truly shocking to hear such a depressed and depressing thought spoken out loud. Shocking because I thought maybe I was the only one who thought it.
I’m surprised the racists let us live sometimes. Sometimes I’m surprised the black variable of the American experiment didn’t reach some violent but largely forgotten end during Reconstruction. It’s not as though the American spirit wouldn’t accommodate the crime: it has accommodated violence on larger scales since the 15th century. But as Morris pointed out, capitalism’s need for us was greater than society’s hatred of us.
Some days passed. I read more. Listened more. But I’ve been processing these events differently. With a greater remove than I normally do. I think my distance comes from the optics of the counter-protests themselves. They were whiter.
If Charlottesville is some kind of turning point—which I doubt, but I would love to be proven wrong—the promise of its moment can only be fulfilled meaningfully by white people. White men and women need to have the conversations and the confrontations that will beat racism off Main Street and back into bunkers and mountain compounds and dank corners of the internet.
Lara Witt explains this complicity better than I can. In her essay, “White Liberals Still Don’t Understand White Supremacy,” she castigates the center-left complacency that has underestimated the breadth and depth of white resentment and racial animus. She writes,
This has always been you. It has always been on white people to end systems of oppression that their ancestors either started or were complicit in at one point or another. We need white liberals to confront how white supremacy protects them, how they have a privilege which allows them to see blatant racism and still debate the merits of a dialogue with white supremacists and Nazis who want people of color and Jewish people dead. We need white liberals to confront racism in its many forms with courage and persistence, because racism isn’t going to die off with younger generations.
Part of what is shaking some of the cobwebs loose for people in this debate, and prompting them to pick a side, is that there were so many white faces on both sides of the protest. A casual viewer of the news of the day can’t just look at photos from Charlottesville and use subconscious bias to know that, sure, those men with the torches look bad, but those young black people look dangerous, too. When both sides of a conflict are white, suddenly, magically, the ideas at stake matter to a larger segment of the population.
That is deeply messed up.
But I think it’s true. And I think the sustained pitch of conversations around Charlottesville, a violent clash in which the only people who lost their lives also happened to be white, indicates that people are more willing to engage in beating back racism when they see people who look like them at risk.
As I write this, news bombshells about Steve Bannon are dropping all over our newsfeeds. The soap opera that is our executive branch is clamoring to drown out a moment that is only a week old. A groundswell that has only had about 100 hours to gather itself. I hope the realizations don’t founder in the next week of critiques and analysis.
We can’t afford it: there are eight more rallies scheduled for this weekend. All over the country, until we wake up on Monday morning, we’re at heightened risk for repeating the violence in Charlottesville. Reasonable people of moral clarity have unglamorous, tedious, and sometimes dangerous work ahead of them. That’s what this summer, and this country, and this administration require of us.
But there’s some good news. There are more of us, right now, than there have ever been. The burden has never been lighter.