Like many (like most I believe) I watched in horror last year as videos were uploaded from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. As stories came out it turned devastating. It was hard to know what to do with feelings of anger and sadness so far from Charlottesville. On the opposite coast, in Portland, we were still aching from a hate crime aboard a Max train a few months earlier in which two good Samaritans were killed and a third narrowly escaped. They had stood up against a white nationalist with a knife who was threatening a couple girls wearing head scarves. In the wake of Trump’s election and inauguration it seemed as if all gains made during the Obama years in regard to race and religion were quickly unraveling.
The question in my mind, as I tried to understand it all, was where had this come from? The America I knew was not like this. Not this hateful. I knew our past, better maybe than most, but that was all so long ago and we had done so much work. The answer from my Mexican husband was simple: it had always been like this, people just felt brave now.
I began to hear similar opinions from other minorities and I began to realize one of the privileges of my whiteness had been blindness. I was never a target, so I didn’t have to see.
This weekend, a year after Charlottesville with another Unite the Right rally on the horizon, this time in DC, I realize that as life has continued under Trump, hate has continued to thrive. It seems as though a different people group is being attacked at every turn. Stories from the border are heart wrenching, many minorities live in fear, and the statistics say that hate crimes have risen across the nation.
As a white person it is hard to know what to do. It has even been hard to acknowledge my whiteness in the first place. It has never been anything I’ve had to think about. Sure, I’ve checked boxes on forms, but it’s really never meant anything to me before. In many was I think my whiteness has left me bankrupt. I’ve been white washed into the landscape of America. A landscape where color is what sets people apart and I am simply another number in the shrinking majority.
I have only a vague idea of where my ancestors hail from and when they came. I am something like an Irish Scottish English German American. Or simply, European American— which is certainly less of a mouthful. And when you put it that way it does seem a little silly that we insist on calling some people by their country of origin while others are only white. Why the difference? No one ever calls me European American and my ancestors immigrated around the same time Africans were brought in chains. I believe this is why whiteness has so much power. If you are white you are above needing a specifying label. You are the alleged norm, the people who belong. If you are any shade darker than Sun Beach Ad tan or Trump orange, then you need an explanation. Humanity has a tendency to label things that are perceived as other, so if you are not white you are given a label like African American, Latino American, or (maybe most absurd in context of who belongs here) Native American
The real question is, now that I am aware of my whiteness and the problems with it, what do I do? Do I reject the label?
For a few years now I have stopped checking those ethnicity and race boxes on forms. It’s sort of a lame way to protest I suppose. Although I have been to a few protests too (the Women’s March and rallies against ICE). I also find myself going out of my way to try to put anyone of color or wearing a hijab or turban at ease. I make sure to make eye contact and smile; to say hello. I want to make sure I come across as a safe white person. When I see police pulling someone over I check to see if the driver is a minority and check for the location of my cell phone. Downtown and in Hispanic neighborhoods I keep my eyes peeled for ICE. It’s all pretty ridiculous really, that any of these little things makes any difference, but I feel like I have to live in a state of constant apology for the color of my skin. That I have to go the extra mile to prove I am not a Trumpeter. I think my attitude, right or wrong, may get at the heart of the problem. As a nation there has never been any reconciliation, no apology from one people group to another. South Africa and Germany have had truth commissions. Many other nations have done similar things; launched official inquiries into past wrongs. Commissions and official inquiries are not a perfect solution, but I think there is some power in, as a nation, recognizing wrong. Bringing everything out to the light and making all the worst known, so that the most sincere apology can be given. It is after all sincere apologies that beget sincere forgiveness and from that kind of reconciliation comes the best chance of true healing.
It’s easy for white people to say it’s not their fault. They didn’t own slaves, they weren’t in the KKK nor did they march natives down the Trail of Tears or intern Japanese. But I believe all of us have been complicit in some way. For most of us our error is just in our ignorance and in the way we think. We have been so conditioned to certain norms that we don’t stop to question why we do what we do. Maybe it’s an off color joke, maybe it’s where we choose to buy a house, maybe it’s where we sit in a waiting room or how we avoid certain neighborhoods.
But even if most of us do ask ourselves those hard questions and admit there is a problem, how do you work for justice when white nationalists are marching in DC? When the leader of the country consistently spews racist rhetoric? When “Make America Great Again”, really means to make it whiter?
I don’t know the way forward and I don’t know what more I can do, but maybe that’s where I need to be? Maybe that’s where all us ‘white’ people should be— in a place where we don’t have the answer, where we are letting the ones we’ve hurt take the lead. We can’t know how to make it right, but the ones who’ve been hurt…they might have a few ideas. The way forward might be as simple as asking: what can we do?