Dear President Trump,
How was it for you sitting overnight with the idea that all white Americans are racist? Ok, I know, you haven’t read a single word I’ve written you and even if you had, you wouldn’t have stuck with this run of letters for a nanosecond, and even if there was some rent in the time/space continuum and you had read them, you would’ve said the idea is full of shit because you’re white, if not the pinnacle of whiteness, but you are not, and never have been, a racist (sorry about the insanely long sentence). I’m sure you would also maintain that this morning’s pre-dawn Tweet about the break-in at Elijah Cummings’ house didn’t carry one iota of racist malice:
“Really bad news! The Baltimore house of Elijah Cummings was robbed. Too bad!”
I’m also sure I wasn’t alone in wondering if you or one of yours arranged the break-in. And dang, if that isn’t something! The POTUS not only engages in the ugliest forms of racial baiting known to humans on a public platform, but at least one (more likely millions) of his constituents wonders, and not idly, whether he is responsible for having a House member’s home broken into. I’d like off this horrible ride now, please.
Circling back to the central topic at hand, racism, at the beginning of the second day of the Undoing Racism workshop, the People’s Institute facilitators gave us the history on Colonial Virginia that I told you about the other day and talked us through some key additions to the colony’s original code that made clear African slaves’ less-than status. For example, Act 10 said that all persons, except Negroes, could have access to arms (we didn’t go into details here, but I bet this was only referring to adult white males, which is a whole other topic that I’ll circle back to in some future letter(s)….).
We also learned that the first law enacted in the new United States was the 1790 Naturalization Act, which said that all whites of good moral standing qualified as citizens of the US. It wasn’t until 1952 (a mere 162 years, if you were maybe the least bit curious) that the Immigration and Naturalization Act forbade excluding someone from citizenship on the basis of race. How about you sit still for a minute, a full 60 seconds – surely you can give it that – and let this sink in. There are millions of people of color alive today who were alive in 1952 whose country had not formally recognized their right to citizenship based on the specious construct of race. Imagine that.
We talked briefly about the “scientific” efforts to buttress the race myths and various Papal Bulls that granted all sorts of rights to Christians to be able to vanquish “lesser” peoples as long as it could plausibly be claimed they weren’t Christian (pretty f*cking convenient since Christianity and God are culturally and socially bound constructs).
And then it got personal. All the white people in the class were asked to share how we felt about the definition of racism and the idea that all white people are racist (note: even if race is a specious social construct, those of us identified as “white” obviously benefit from this designation so these questions directed to the white people felt completely legitimate to me). We went around the (huge) circle and did this out loud. And I happened to have to go first. I’m not proud to tell you that I panicked a little and said that I was familiar with the People’s Institute’s definition of racism when, as I told you yesterday, I really wasn’t. I am not sure why I did that, but my guess is that I felt defensive and didn’t want to appear un-woke. I went on and said that I accept the definition, but that it feels very heavy to do so for myself here and now and for my future self because I will always be white and thus will always be racist because no matter how much work I do to undo my racial prejudice, I will likely always carry some and I will certainly always have access to the power part of the equation.
As we went around the room and the 20 or so other white people weighed in, it seemed like people were mostly really real. Several talked about what a relief it was to just have the question of racist yes/no settled so they could move on and work on it. Some said they really struggled with the idea that all whites are racist and aren’t sure yet where they are at with it. One was angry that they weren’t taught all this crucial American history and that it still wasn’t being taught in schools. A couple of people focused on how their chosen professions arose out of and still tend to act out the White Savior Complex. And one person talked about their sense that they are going through the stages of grief in coming to terms with their own racism.
When we were finished, one of the people of color in attendance looked around the room and said she’d never, ever been with white people so willing to go there and to admit their own racism and complicity with the system. She said this gives her hope. Her hope feels like a gift and it gives me hope too.
May we all be safe from racism.
May we wish James Baldwin’s spirit a happy birthday today.
May we hold on and take care of our own and each other’s health.
May we have the courage to be peace and to be kindness.