It is interesting, and a bit disconcerting… how COVID-19 has helped create white headspace and newfound resolve around issues of racial justice. I can’t help but feel cynical about that development — I wonder, would large groups of white people care so much if social distancing rules didn’t generate new stores of spare time + a stronger, more visceral desire to physically gather and unite around a shared cause?
In the episode, “Why Now, White People?” the co-hosts of NPR’s Code Switch podcast, Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, examine similar questions. Referring to the large uptick in white subscribers to their content about race, they joke, “Code Switch. We’re like the gym on New Years Eve. Except for racism.”
So they asked a bunch of white folks about the new level of white participation in the fight against systemic racism. Respondents pointed to a variety of factors, including the blatantly racist actions of President Donald Trump, feelings of heightened vulnerability that have led to increased empathy during COVID, and the fact that anti-racism posts were trending among their white friends on social media.
In other words, an amalgam of factors that don’t necessarily amount to a significant shift in consciousness. Right?
I recently picked up James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, published in 1955, and it feels like they were written for this cultural moment. Is that a comment on the eloquence of James Baldwin or the ass-backwardness of the U.S.A.?
Perhaps a bit of both.
I have the impulse to copy and paste several of the long, ambling paragraphs of the last essay, titled “Stranger in the Village,” because it feels SO very prescient to the deeper reckoning with racial injustice that is currently taking place within so many white Americans.
Baldwin recounts his experience being the first Black man some children in a remote Swiss village had ever seen, which then leads to a conversation about the different relationships Americans and Europeans have with Black people.
“All the physical characteristics of the Negro which had caused me, in America, a very different and almost forgotten pain were nothing less than miraculous — or infernal — in the eyes of the village people.”
In other words, when the Swiss children call “Neger! Neger!” after him — the German word for Negro — they do so with the innocence of “genuine wonder” at a sight unseen, he argues.
In America, he goes on, it’s a different story:
“There is a dreadful abyss between the streets of this village and the streets of the city in which I was born, between the children who shout Neger! today and those who shouted “N—!” yesterday — the abyss is experience, the American experience. The syllable hurled behind me today expresses, above all, wonder: I am a stranger here. But I am not a stranger in America and the same syllable riding on the American air expresses the war my presence has occasioned in the American soul.”
He asserts that colonizer and colonized remain separate in Europe, whereas they have always been mixed, albeit segregated, in America, forcing white Americans to consider their treatment of Black people in deeper ways.
I’m pretty sure this assertion about Europe is false, at least in the year 2020, based on what I know about the large population of North Africans and Muslims in France and Italy, how they are treated, and the rise of right-wing extremism on that continent.
But this essential, salient point about America — that every white American has to come to grips, albeit in varying forms and to varying degrees, with their participation in America’s ongoing racist history — feels like, however it’s come about, what’s happening with many white people right now, both the “liberals” who are blacking out their Instagram feeds, starting white fragility book clubs, and making a point to call out their privilege on Facebook, and the racists who are drunkenly waving guns at protesters outside their door.
“At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself.”
The historic effort of doing this, Baldwin says, have included a variety of violent measures, including segregation and “terrorization.” It has infiltrated American religious life, as explored in the article, White Supremacist Ideas Have Historical Roots in U.S. Christianity.
(The article is not, as the title suggests, a critique of Christianity, but rather a commentary on the limits of churches as institutions, aka, their tendency to uphold the status quo, as well as another story in a long line of stories of individuals using the Bible to justify what’s convenient.)
Say nothing of the rise of racism and extremism in the U.S. and the prejudice that is propagated by our president, I’m struggling a bit with what’s going on on the “liberal” end, and I implicate myself in this. Hashtags of #justiceforbreonna mingle with #procrastibaking… It’s all so surreal… and again, I find myself asking, why now? What about the centuries of silence?