I have been in a blue funk since the Charlottesville uprising. I have been in this kind of funk too many times now because if in fact Black Lives Matter, how do we explain and morally and spiritually reconcile the deaths of Tamir Rice holding a toy gun (2014), of Jordan Davis playing music too loud (2012), of seven-year-old Aiyana Jones (2017), of pregnant Charleena Lyles (2017), and of Korryn Gaines shot as she held her infant (2016)? How do we explain with judicial and moral clarity the murders of Philandro Castile (2016), Freddy Grey (2015), the Atlanta Child Murders (1979-1981), Sean Bell (2006); Oscar Grant (2009), Laquan McDonald (2014), Eric Garner (2014), Emmett Till (1955), Jeremy McDole (2015), Alton Sterling (2016), Michael Brown (2014), and Sandra Bland (2015)?
If Black Lives Matter, why the atrocity of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment by the US Public Health Service (1937-1972) and the miscarriage of justice for the nine Scottsboro Boys (1937)? I did not have to live through these moments in our American history to experience the psychological trauma and spiritual funk they have created for so many African Americans and conscious others. Because I teach, study, and write about American race relations and have done so for thirty years, the deep racial and social division that too many are just witnessing now in our “United” States in responding to Charlottesville and these other tragedies listed above do not surprise. I am out of sorts now because of the sheer repetition of these tragedies, misrepresentations, and miscarriages of justice. I am especially wary because of this continued expectation and presumed responsibility assigned people of color — the alleged “race experts” and culture leaders — yet again to provide “a solution to American racism,” to offer a solution to “where we go from here” all in the space of a fifteen-second radio sound bite, a two-minute news broadcast segment, or a 700-word essay.
As for Charlottesville, I have declined several media interviews about American race relations, violence, progress, Confederate monuments, and even local culturally derogatory street names because I am frankly tired, actually sick and tired. I am declining not because I have nothing to say, but rather because I have nothing new to say about the “same ole problem” of white privilege and white supremacy — overt and covert: lynching, Jim Crow, American slavery, hate crimes, swastikas, the KKK, the Nword, burning crosses, church bombings, racist jokes, racial and ethnic slurs, neo-Nazis, Confederate flags, nooses, nonsensical “colorblindness,” victim-blaming, tokenism, indigenous mascots, cultural appropriation, and allegations of “reverse racism,” among so many others.
I am tired because my race expertise has put me on speed dials for race crises. I typically show up locally and nationally much like first responders. While I could be flattered by this and potentially puff up with self-importance, I am exhausted by the repetition of having to speak to this same thing — American racism - over and over again.
American racism, white privilege, and white supremacy are not challenges people of color either created or can be expected to resolve, no matter our areas of expertise. However well-intentioned these mostly white “expert seekers” are and how well-meaning good progressive white folks are or believe themselves to be, what I want to see in this present conversation about Charlottesville and its aftermath - as well as ongoing ones about the current state of American race relations - is white people talking to each other about solutions and strategies, if in fact white allies are truly committed to diversity, inclusion, equity, and “difference.” I do not recall seeing a single person of color in the throngs of young white male Nationalists marching and chanting intentionally, eerily, and threateningly across the University of Virginia campus.
However, I am convinced that those marchers have friends, families, employers, neighbors, students, employees, colleagues, peers, partners, and acquaintances who know them and their positions and even their intentions. Are those committed to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all” talking to these supremacists about their actions, attitudes, and irrational behaviors? My voice means little to those, but another white person’s likely would. In addition, if these conversations are happening, I want to know about them and see them more visibly alongside the “teachable moments” people of color, as the teachers, are expected to render.
I am not imagining this funk. Nor I am the only one fatigued and distressed by this funkiness, this racial, social and political messiness. It is also risky and dangerous business and means personal and for some even professional sacrifice to do this work that we cannot leave at the office at the end of the day. This perspective is not coming out of a place of victimization, contrary to what I hear some mistakenly contending. After all, this work is our lives. This work is our living history. This trauma for people of color is real: “The Physical Damage of Racism Inflicts on Your Brain and Body”; “Six Ways White Supremacy Takes its Toll on Black People’s Mental Health”; The Cost of Racism for People of Color: Contextualizing Experiences of Discrimination; and “After 60 Years, Girl’s Experience at Whites-only Gas Station Still Hurts.”
I live in America. Vestiges and manifestations of white privilege and white supremacy are ubiquitous — discriminatory lending, mass incarceration, Eurocentric curricula, English-only initiatives, crisis as “teachable moments” and people of color always the teacher, white paternalism, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, bootstrap theory, anti-immigration policies; and claims of being “post-racial,” to name a few others. And please do not relegate these concerns people of color are registering as “political correctness.” That constitutes a macroaggression to those experiencing this fatigue after sharing our stories over and over again. I hate to disappoint those inviting me to lend my voice to this current moment—those insisting that “mine is a voice others (presumably other whites) — want and need to hear,” so say my expert seekers.
I do know that there are white colleagues and friends doing this important work credibly and effectively. I work closely with some of them. I am not asking any white person to speak for me or on my behalf but rather to be that ally doing the work to engage all in their respective corners. Indeed, if we are seeking a solution to the problem of American race relations, it is imperative that the voices of those directly impacted be front and center, but people of color cannot be expected to do the work of solving a problem people of color did not create. Moreover, I am not at all convinced that white people really need people of color to tell them that American race relations are bad. Racial and social inequity have existed since the inception of this country when European immigrants stormed an already inhabited land violently and unremorsefully, and claimed this land as their own, forcibly bringing others along to create this “home of the brave.” In the context of American history generally and of Charlottesville more specifically, playwright Eugene O’Neill reminds us: “The past is the present. It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that, but life won’t let us.”
In times like these though, I meditate on author Audre Lorde whose culture work expresses my current state: “[People of color] are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men…. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.” Herein is my truth… for now, and I am choosing to live in it.
Neal A. Lester, PhD, is Foundation Professor of English and Founding Director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University. He has been an Ahwatukee resident since 1997.
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