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We don't get to say "This isn't us"
It's ok to be angry right now. But here's why white people can't stop there.
A small mob of conspiracy-mad coup attempters stormed the U.S. Capitol yesterday. They are directly responsible for at least four deaths as well as for filling an entire nation with grief, disgust and despair.
A larger scrum of Republican politicians, operatives and media personalities spent five years wishing on a monkey’s paw of white nationalism and resentment because it delivered a short-term dream of political power. We are here, of course, thanks to their cravenness and commitment to The Art Of The Grift.
An even larger law enforcement apparatus did its part to deliver yesterday’s outcome as well. Their contribution was institutional— centuries of disproportionately accomodating the needs of white people while terrorizing Black, Brown and Indigenous communities.
It’s ok if, even after sleeping it off, you still feel apoplectic. It’s ok to grieve. It’s ok to be confused or exhausted or frightened for the future. What happened yesterday was designed to stoke anger and fear and confusion. It was the banshee cry of a group of white men with all the power in the world live-action-role-playing as oppressed freedom fighters. There is no more dangerous identity than that of the deeply privileged person who is convinced that they, in fact, are the ones who are under siege. When an action is literally designed to trigger a visceral, painful feeling, there’s no victory in suppressing it.
But then, for those of us who are white, we’ve got a decision to make. After the initial grief, rage, what-have-you, are we ready to ask “what are we actually angry at here?”
It isn’t hard to condemn perpetrators and enablers. In the days to come, so many will get credit for doing exactly that. Conservatives will continue to throw the immediate coup participants under the bus (likely doing so smugly and with tossed-off references to the Left’s “inability to disavow Antifa and BLM”) but will stop there (some will blame Trump as well, others won’t). Liberals and leftists will say all the right things— about how Trump and the GOP’s rhetoric enabled this, about white privilege and law enforcement and how they pack the Capitol steps with armed troops when the protestors are average, every day Black folks but how the welcome mat is rolled out when the crowd in town is the Great White American Treason Squad.
And yes, each of those groups are more responsible for this immediate atrocity than the vast majority of good, progressive, anti-racist-newsletter-reading white people. We are more in the right than they are. Good job, us. But again, what is actually accomplished by congratulating ourselves for not actively attempting Die Hard On A Capitol Building?
We’re angry right now not because anything new was revealed yesterday, but because when an entire system is ugly and dumb but deeply invested in putting on appearances, we abhor outward, unignorable manifestations of that dumb ugliness. Even when we know that this whole deal is rotten, we still enjoy not being reminded of it all the time.
You know where this is going. This is where I turn from an empathetic “it’s ok to feel what you need to feel right now” tone towards something that sounds more like moralistic scolding. It’s where I remind you of other facts you already know— that this is simply the long tail of a country whose founding ideals always came with the escape clause that white people don’t have to do anything that might inconvenience us. We have always allowed various white fusses to ruin the whole damn country whenever things haven’t gone our way. It’s why we had a Civil War. It’s why we had a “Reconstruction Period” rather than a “Completed Reconstruction Process.” It’s why every single collective action process in American history (the New Deal, the Great Society, School Desegregation, etc.) was either curtailed or stopped in its tracks when white people realized that the government might actually be trying to help folks other than ourselves.
I promise, though, that I’m not just being self-righteous for the hell of it. You see, if the question we’re asking is merely “how should we orient towards the folks who most brazenly held the country hostage?” then the answer is both simple and deeply unsatisfying.
If the question we’re willing to ask, however, is “how should we act if we, ourselves, are the hostage-takers?” then the answer is more difficult but leaves us with much more agency. Because here’s the thing. Your local school board is just as much under siege by white parents as the Capitol building was yesterday by MAGA commandos. Your mayor is just as hemmed in by white fraternal orders of police and white development groups as your elected officials were by the gun thugs in DC. The same is true for your local zoning board, your State Legislature’s Revenue Committee or your local transportation authority. Just as not all heroes wear capes, so too is it true that not all hostage-takers carry flash bombs and wear deer-hunting camo.
I train white people on how to organize their communities for racial justice. As you might expect, my phone was buzzing yesterday-- from friends, family members, readers and coachees. People I love, care and respect deeply were all asking, essentially, why I keep imploring them to organize other white people when their behavior is so boarish and abhorrent. In the short term, my message has solely been one of empathy. Yesterday’s actions were designed to shut down forward progress, to make hope unimaginable. I get it.
Over the next few days, though, we’ll wake up with a choice to make. And it’s not actually about how we orient to the most aggressive white nationalist Trump supporter (there is organizing to be done there, but only because there is organizing to be done everywhere). It’s whether or not we actually want to build a world beyond white hostage-taking. It’s whether we actually dream of a day when the Truth of America is revealed on the world stage and the picture it presents is finally less abominable than our present visage. If so, the amazing news is that our first move doesn’t have to be proselytizing to an active Capitol coup participant. It isn’t to personally change Ted Cruz’s heart. It’s to find your local group of Nice White Hostage Takers and start organizing them.
The reason why I don’t feel hopeless in moments like this has nothing to do with what did or didn’t happen in Washington yesterday. It is, of course, because I get to watch and learn from the Black, Brown and Indigenous organizers who are most radically dreaming of and creating a better world. It is from them that I am reminded that my work isn’t to lead the way out of this mess, but to take responsibility for my corner of it.
It is also, however, because I get to watch glimpses of white people quietly trying to learn a different way of being with one another, one that’s less violent, less reactionary, one that might someday create less collateral damage for Black, Brown and Indigenous America. I’m lucky to know groups of suburban moms who are organizing each other to rethink the entire concept of suburbs. I’m lucky to know white nonprofit leaders telling philanthropists “actually, we’re not the organizations you should keep funding any more.” I’m lucky to know neighborhoods whose entire identity has been rooted in their enviable property values organizing for radical affordable housing plans. I’m lucky to know white people in small, rugged individualist towns who’ve started mutual aid funds and who now actually know their neighbors. I’m lucky to know parishioners at hip megachurches who’ve started asking openly if a Gospel of liberation has more to do with supporting reparations and amnesty than their pastor’s enviable sneaker collection.
If what you’re actually angry about is our intense white selfishness and entitlement, the violence of our hissy fits, the craven way we risk the country to get our way, then the answer isn’t just to condemn what happened yesterday. It’s to practice doing the opposite of that in your corner of the world. We didn’t get to this coup because of anything that happened in the past month or four years. So too is it true that we won’t build a truly better world in a day, month or year. Take a beat to be mad or sad. But when you’re ready, set your gaze not on the Capitol building, but on the corner of the world you can transform and build. And then let’s work patiently and steadfastly together.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to organize white people in your corner of the country to support (not lead) racial justice efforts, you can learn more about The Barnraisers Project here. If you’re interested in becoming a member and/or supporting our work (thank you) you can do so here.