We all deserve something better than this
Nobody's doing well. So what better time to build something more beautiful together?
All pictures by my very talented sister-in-law, Olivia Bucks
Nobody tells you that, when a virus has killed nearly two hundred thousand people in your country and the skies are a menacing orange and a national reckoning with racism-in-our-bones has already faded away like so many stridently pastel activist Instagram stories, your life just goes on. You wake up and respond to email. You fold one pile of laundry only to discover a second one mocking you from the other side of the room. You buy a shark-shaped bean bag in order to create a “reading corner” in your son’s bed/classroom. You smile when he tells you that he’s named it “Clark the Great White Shark” both because that’s truly an exceptional name and because it’s another distraction.
Nobody tells you that the moment you’ll feel second-most helpless won’t be when some new image of devastation and cruelty comes across your screen, but when you drive your kids across the county line to go on a hike. You navigate your car through your own dense little neighborhood (“diverse” but getting whiter by the year, filled to the brim with craft breweries and Black Lives Matter signs) to a far-flung exurb where each individual lot seem to go on forever and the flags are all Thin Blue Line and Make America Great. It feels all very sound and fury, a proxy war ostensibly about social justice and compassion but that seems to be more about different white peoples’ antipathy for each other.
Nobody tells you that the moment you’ll feel the most helpless will be when you sit in another “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” space and you discover that, as a professional managerial class white person with a liberal arts education, you have learned how to be “Very Good” in these meetings. You know when you’re supposed to be silent and contrite. You know when to speak forthrightly, lest your silence be taken as non-engagement. You know how to stare into your Zoom rectangle with the proper air of gravity and concern. You know how to not replicate all the ways you used to take feedback poorly. You know how to thank people for calling you out.
Nobody tells you that when the training is over you’ll unplug your headphones and check your phone and find out from your friends on the West Coast that the sky is still orange. You’ll go do a few distracting things and then hear from other friends, people who work in organizations that have spent so many thousands of dollars on DEI trainings like the one you just performed so well in. Separately they’ll tell you that everything is pretty much still the same. Old patterns of racism have been papered over with new patterns of racism.
This isn’t working, you all. We’ve tried this particular version of an American experiment for a few hundred years now. And of course I’m talking here about how little this has ever worked for those who’ve been most excluded from our country’s promises. We know that Blackness and Brownness and Indigeneity have never been welcome in America, that the only true variable is whether that alienation also comes with a death sentence.
But here’s the thing. Who IS America working for right now? What has actually been “won” by those on the flip side of America’s hierarchies? A country where we’re all sick and scared and pretending that a nation of Chromebooks can be a school system? A society that must keep recalibrating which apocalyptic natural disaster it can process as being normal and fine? A ruling political party whose only promise to its voters is that they’re allowed to deride anybody who asks them to care about others? An opposition party whose primary offer to its voters is that you can feel better and less evil than those other guys?
And yes, I’m sure you could say “well, as always, the super rich are doing just fine” but are they? I mean, it would be wonderful to have a lot of money right now. If one has to be stuck in their own back yard it’d be great to have a much nicer backyard. But it’s also significantly easier being white than Black, a man rather than a woman, cis rather than trans, straight rather than gay and yet… do you know anybody who is doing objectively well right now? Do you know a single person whose instinctive “fine” when asked “how’s it going?” is truly honest?
I say this not to minimize the gargantuan distinction between the ways that “not well” is experienced on different sides of societal hierarchies, but to challenge our assumptions that this is anywhere near the best we can do.
We’re not fine because we don’t actually live in community with each other, both practically (we have no social safety net, no sufficient means of helping folks weather individual or collective storms) nor spiritually. We can’t solve shared problems or ask each other to sacrifice for the common good because it’s the opposite of the individualism that we’re told is our national DNA. We can’t build a welcoming community for all because our very first idea as a mercantile capitalist country was to name that only some people belonged here and we’ve never actively decided to have a second idea.
Anti-racism work for white people usually means one thing and one thing only: Can you be more right (or at least less wrong) than other white people? Can you say and do fewer bad things than your pale compatriots? Taken to the extreme, can you pretend that you are so conscious so as to no longer even be white?
I’m over all that. I don’t want anti-racism to be a pose or a competition. I don’t want to pretend that I can sneak my way onto a fictive last-train-to-liberation only by shoving others onto the tracks.
I want us to welcome each other (all of each other) into the art of building the world we all deserve.
I want to dream of a world beyond police and prisons because Black and Brown and Indigenous people are under siege AND because I believe all of us, including current law enforcement officers, deserve to live in full, non-carceral relationship to our neighbors.
I want to dream of a just, anti-racist education system because Black and Brown and Indigenous students are unjustly pushed into a school-to-prison pipeline AND because all families deserve a school system where they can live anywhere they want, send their kid to the nearest public school and never have to worry that it’ll be great and loving.
I want to dream of a world built on caring, redistributive economic principles both because communities on whose back America was built deserve reparations AND because we’re going to all be stronger and healthier and happier if nobody is sick, nobody is hungry, nobody is on the street and everybody has what they need to flourish.
I spend my time building relationships and organizing with other white people (including and especially white people who don’t say or do the “right things”) not to forgive or coddle white supremacy, but because our endemic inability to be in community with one another has brought us all to a breaking point. If white supremacy breeds individualism and complacency, I can neither combat it with self righteous jeremiads nor through pretending I can just “live my life like normal.” If all this isn’t working, I have to try something different. We have to try something different.
We all need each other right now. We need to welcome each other into a more expansive vision of the kind of community we can be. We need to do so not out of pity for oppressed groups nor an attempt to rid our conscience of silence and guilt. We need to do so because we’re all miserable right now, but none of us have to be.
We could have something so much more beautiful.
But only if we build it together.
And only if “we” means all of us.
Note: If you’re interested in learning more about how to organize white people for racial justice and collective liberation, I just finished a set of cohorts but will be offering another five session (biweekly) training sometime this fall/winter. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll contact you when registration is open.
This week’s song: “Fire on the Mountain” (Marshall Tucker Band).