I don’t know about you, but I am tired of knowing the same things. I slip into drowsiness by the lullaby of comfortable concern with things I already know.
I don’t about you, but I feed on the lie that ignorance is bliss. And maybe in some ways it is, but it is not the sort of bliss we ought to seek for ourselves.
The truth is there is a bliss that robs, cheats and utterly ravages the people I call my neighbor, my fellow human beings. It robs them of their very humanity. It cheats them of their status as creatures of a Creator claimed to only love parts of His creation. It utterly ravages their very bodies. It is white bliss. Ignorance is, more times than not, white bliss.
I am a white woman. I grew up in white suburban America. I cannot even remember how old I was before hearing such terms as social justice, social injustice, or civil rights. I would like to think my education before high school enlightened me about such topics, but regardless, I am afraid any so-called enlightenment was a frightfully white painted picture. Rather than repairing the learned damage or revealing the established structures, high school and possibly most of my higher education only proved apt in further concealing a reality meant to stay hidden. The only discussions in my life that hinted at this concealed reality came through a carefully crafted curriculum, hushing live voices begging to be known fully and acknowledged properly. I was (and still am) in the majority every moment of my life, guessing at what diversity was. Talking of social injustice or civil rights through this curriculum kept the reality at a distance from me, kept it impersonal and something like a story in a book, meant to be read and pondered but not lived in. It was merely a lesson of history or the evil villain in a fantasy already conquered by the forces of good, the valiant knight saved the day and restored order. Peace is at hand.
However, in this fantasy, the narrator fails to include that the villain and the valiant knight are the same person. The villain, incapable of escaping his indictment, acknowledges his guilt and vows he will change his ways. He takes on the identity of the shining knight. The deeds of his “darker days” can be forgotten and the impact left in the unspoken places of the past. His vow of goodness and new found morality frees him from responsibility of the wounds he once created. Just as he escaped being forever identified as villainous, he, too, thinks he can escape responsibility for past inflicted wounds. Hopefully, mistakingly so, but also very possibly so.
White America is the villain and the valiant knight. I am the villain and the valiant knight. There is no escaping the dehumanization of slavery. There is no escaping the demons of our treatment of people of color, specifically black people, from the past. So we acknowledge it to soften it, to claim not only guilt but also new, redeeming ways. What we fail to acknowledge, on purpose, is that the structures are still presently and very powerfully intact. The wounds don’t just vanish at our acknowledgement of these past wrongs, though we may wish or pretend they do. They are not stains that can be laundered. Wounds are not hypothetical afflictions; they are at the same time fleshly and soul deep. Scarring human beings with astounding purpose and a divine thumbprint. Our very brothers and sisters.
Though the street dog is taken from the street and groomed with all the comfort of domestic life, his past survival habits are not so easily forgotten or let go. His understanding of the ways of dominance and hierarchy so explicitly taught in the arena of survival remain forever learned. Though this understanding may manifest differently in his new domestic life, it remains subtly active, always on guard and manipulating. The horrifying brilliance of the villain is just this. Renounce former ways by putting some shiny armor on, all the while continuing to employ the same devices of oppression. Most white people now, myself included, renounce slavery as evil. We acknowledge it and thus wash our hands of it for the world to see. We claim to be moral people, valiant knights teaching about civil rights, racism, and social injustice; we are not racist as our villainous forefathers. This is the domestic front, the grooming of white supremacy. We distance ourselves from our identity as the villain, attempting to avoid confronting the demons we created in ourselves. The demons of superiority, greed, comfort, fear, envy, pride, hunger for power and authority. As white people, we no longer put physical chains on black people, but we enslave them nonetheless because our hearts have not been changed nor are we all actively seeking to change them. The structures subtly keeping us at the top of the hierarchy we created remain intact because we as individuals do not take responsibility for our complicity in white dominance and supremacy. Terms like social justice and civil rights put the responsibility on the backs of political figures and those involved in social activist groups, keeping it at a safe distance from my own heart.
“But all of our phrasing- race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy- serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that is dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” Between the World and Me pg. 10, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Humility means confronting what we don’t know, asking questions and seeking answers, not to validate our morality and goodness but to know our deep capacity for evil. Not settling with anything but the truth of who we are, ugliness and all. Some of us (white people) will continue to validate our morality and goodness, fighting tooth and nail to protect lives built on the backs of fellow human beings. Some of us will chalk up the hierarchy white people created as the way of the world and dismiss any responsibility in it or capacity to change it. Some of us will slyly work to keep things as they are, fully knowing the unjust structures and fearing any threat to the superficial comfort secured by their existence. Then, hopefully, there are more of us that will confront the demons in ourselves, unlearn our whitewashed ways of thinking, listen to and reveal the voices of the concealed reality, unveil the structures of white supremacy, take responsibility for the scars of our black brothers and sisters without expecting forgiveness, and seek to know what we don’t know.
Seeking to know what we don’t know is a small, daily choice with reverberating effects. Taking ownership of knowing brings the seemingly mighty and distant phrases of racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, white supremacy, etc., down to my level, makes them personal. We don’t know what we don’t know, so let us choose to know.