I Was a Social Justice Asshole: or How I Learned to Hate White Supremacy and Love the Bomb*
There are two essays I’ve been meaning to write for awhile. The first is one on my history (and present?) as an SJ Asshole. The second is on why I may not hate white people, but I sure as hell hate white supremacy.
Then, while watching a movie on an airplane home from teaching at a conference, I realized they were the same essay:
White supremacy is everywhere. We are bathing in it. We breathe it. We eat it. It surrounds us. There is no escaping it.
Like all other forms of self-absorption, white supremacy means we never have to consider anyone else’s viewpoint. We never have to notice what the world might feel like from someone else’s experience. Because, in our self-absorption, we assume that our experience is universal.
Our jokes are everyone’s jokes. Our pathos is everyone’s pathos. Our lies are everyone’s lies.
Except they aren’t.
And we’re assholes. Unwitting assholes, but assholes just the same.
What’s the difference between run-of-the-mill, garden variety self-absorption and white supremacy?
White supremacy kills a lot more people.
Through suicide. Crushing poverty. Incarceration. Package bombs on door steps. Hiring discrimination. Redlining. Lead paint. Assumption of guilt. Government supplied crack cocaine. Educational disparity. Heart disease. Diabetes. Bullets. Firebombs. Despair.
White supremacy tells us that white people are beautiful.
White supremacy tells us that white people are smart.
White supremacy tells us that white people work harder.
White supremacy tells us that white people are more trustworthy.
White supremacy tells us that white people are…superior.
White supremacists crow about white superiority. They carry tiki torches in midnight marches. They burn churches. They administer beatings. Some of them burn crosses.
The rest of us? We smugly say “We’re not like them.” We’ll even say we don’t believe in the superiority of whiteness.
But we really do. And how could we not? It is everywhere, and it forms our comfort zone. A nice buffer between ourselves and the rest of the world.
And that comfortable buffer –that barely conscious belief system– is killing people. All the things that keep white people comfortable drain the life away from everyone else.
Sometimes its slow death from a thousand micro-aggressions. The constant chipping away at self-esteem, the constant questioning, the asking for an explanation that you never listen to, the hair touching, the dismissal, the rewriting, whitewashing, and erasure of history. The constant asking of “can’t you take a joke?”
Other times it’s a 17 year old cellist and honor student opening his front door and being blown to bits. Or a teen asking for directions to school getting shot at.
Other times it’s Trayvon Martin not making it home from the store. Or it’s Emmett Till. Or Oscar Grant. Or Alan Blueford. Or Kayla Moore. Or Yuvette Henderson. Or Larnelle Bruce. Or Rekia Boyd. Or Sandra Bland. Or all the women raped by Officer Daniel Holtzclaw. Or it’s Quanice Hayes. Or Sarah Lee Circle Bear. Or Mesha Caldwell.
Knowing I’d be brain dead en route home from teaching at a conference, I downloaded an old film I liked – Easy A – one that I’d found clever and funny. Then I noticed that there was a stupid, fucking, racist joke embedded in it.
So much white-made art hides those loaded package bombs.
Like the gleeful recitation of the poem, The Congo, in the oh-so-touching Dead Poet’s Society.
Like books written in the 21st century that still reference “darkest Africa” or “swarthy complexions” or “inscrutable eyes,” or “exotic looks.” Or Asians who know martial arts or get all As. Or Muslims who are terrorists. Or Black kids who are abandoned by drug addicted mothers. Or Indian women, all versed in the Kama Sutra.
Once you see this, or hear it, or perceive it, you can’t not perceive it anymore.
And hopefully, you can’t not see the way all of this leads directly to twelve year old Tamir Rice –or thirteen year old Andy Lopez– being shot dead because they had the temerity to play, just like white children play.
Or that it also leads to bombs being dropped on brown children in countries no longer so far away. Because we perceive brown people as inherently more of a threat than white people.
Because they threaten our concept of white supremacy.
I want to talk about this centering of whiteness and why I was a social justice asshole. I’m not going to detail my past sins of racist bullshit, which are many. I want to focus on my more recent activism.
I’ve been an activist since my teens. I thought I was committed to the cause, although for a long time I was more focused on peace than on justice. That’s okay. It was all I knew. We all need to learn.
I thought I knew that love was the answer and we needed to treat people as individuals and yes, work for justice and an end to class disparity, state violence, and war.
For a brief interlude, I also thought that Occupy Oakland having “Fuck the Police” marches was a bit much.
Luckily, that didn’t last long.
And then, once I figured out that not only Occupy, but Black and Latinx and Indigenous people in Oakland had every right to say “fuck the police,” I started doing something about it.
Except, some of the time, I was doing it wrong.
A group of white interfaith folks met once a month to read the names of those killed by police in California in front of the Oakland Police department. This was a list I spent hours of time compiling, and that I shared with whomever asked for it.
That was a good thing.
We also showed up to protest the militarization of police. We blockaded and risked arrest. We showed up to support the families of those killed by police, at courthouses, the state capitol, and City Hall.
That was also a good thing.
But I will never forget, that at two events protesting extrajudicial killings, and mourning the dead, I had been asked to bring those lists of names of the dead…and arrived, thinking I would be the one to read those names. At least some of them.
That was highly incorrect.
I still hadn’t figured out that there was no fucking way I –a white person– should be on the mic in the middle of a group of Black and Latinx people.
Despite being used to being on the mic in other communities. Despite having compiled those lists, and all the other things.
Because, though my heart ached and I was filled with fury, though I had been showing up, I was not the one at risk. My family was safe. Yes, some of my dear friends were on the firing line…but I was not. And I never would be.
I had to realize that I was still centering whiteness. Thank all the Gods and Goddesses there were amazing, strong, fierce, and patient Black and Latinx people in leadership that I was privileged to work with. They looked me in the eye, thanked me for the list, then gave the list –and the microphone– to someone else.
I gave those lists over and also learned to uncenter myself a few degrees more, and to step back.
I learned to show up at meetings and not be in leadership.
I learned how to listen. Again. And again.
And I’m still making mistakes. Still centering myself. But I also listen a little better now.
Unlearning and dismantling white supremacy within myself will probably take my lifetime.
Dismantling white supremacy in society will take generations.
Where am I heading with all of these threads? Back where I began: White supremacy is everywhere. We live in it. We breathe in it. Currently? There’s almost no escaping it.
Every single day, we have the opportunity to notice.
Every single day, we have the chance to point out the operations and expressions of white supremacy, to ourselves and to others.
Every day, we have the opportunity to have the conversations. To change our own self-expression. To ask non-marginalized artists and writers and film makers to do better. To do the work necessary to begin dismantling systems of oppression and terror based on the assumptions of white supremacy and on Black and brown laziness, ineffectiveness, and self-inflicted poverty.
What else can we do? We can support art that is not centered on whiteness and white supremacy. We can amplify the vision and voices of more marginalized communities. We can pay Black and brown and indigenous people what they are worth. We can question our hiring and on boarding protocols and “company culture”. We can question mostly white “best of” lists. We can insist that conferences increase the percentage of non-white speakers.
I could continue listing possible action items for another page but know that humans are resourceful. Once we start noticing how the world really works, and how white supremacy really operates?
We can each come up with a list of our own.
We can stop being assholes, invoke some empathy, compassion, and outrage, and get to work.
*I don’t really love the bomb. All my anti-nuclear and anti-war protests and arrests have been in earnest. I stand by them. The subtitle is just a little homage to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
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