The souls of white folks

At this moment, it would be easy to say that America is broken, but the truth is we are not. Yes, these United States are dysfunctional. But we as a nation are the natural progression of how the U.S. was created and what happens when you never acknowledge or deal with the sins you committed to get where you got.

What happened on January 6 in Washington, D.C., is the natural consequence for a country built on lies. A country that, as I said years ago in my TEDx talk, was built on stolen land with stolen people. The United States has functioned as designed, filled with systemic divisions and oppressions that truly benefit a very few, coddle a certain portion, and largely disempower the rest. If the country seems broken now, that’s because flaws were built into it that you’re only just now seeing.

America, for generations, has painted herself as being exceptional. The lie was so powerful that it was believed in all corners of the globe. The myth of American exceptionalism has been so powerful that people all the world over came to this country seeking to get a slice of the American lie.

Of course, they didn’t know it was a lie, because like all good lies, they stay hidden if they are well told. But there is always someone who knows the truth. In the case of America, Indigenous people and Black folks have always known this country was a big pile of deceptions. But this country for many years did a great job of not allowing our full truths to really be heard no matter how loudly we proclaimed them. Or, when the tales were told,  presenting white-washed versions.

The lie of American exceptionalism has been so powerful that the majority of white Americans didn’t even know it was untrue. It was taken for granted as an absolute and it defined their place in the world. When confronted with evidence of America’s raggedy reality, they refused to accept the truth, because to understand the truth about America is to realize that your very existence is a fiction. For white folks, to accept the truth about America is to invite a reckoning that most white Americans are not ready for.

However, no matter how good the deception, rarely can a lie stay hidden or sustained forever. In the case of America, the economic collapse of 2008 and the election of our first Black president, Barack Obama, were the slow beginning of the end for the illusion of American exceptionalism.

Obama’s presidency was the start of a shifting consciousness. Despite millions voting for the man and him being one of the least scandalous presidents ever in terms of his personal and family life—despite bringing us back from the brink of economic disaster created by his predecessor—his election and presidency revealed ugly truths about our nation. A large portion of the country wasn’t ready to allow a Black man to wield power, and this resentment eventually allowed failed businessman and reality TV show host Donald Trump to rise to power as Barack Obama’s successor.

Despite this rather striking sign of our lack of true exceptionalism, most people still couldn’t face the truth and for years we told ourselves that Trump’s success was really about the economic fears of working-class white people.

Countless books have been written since Trump came to power, almost all upholding this myth that Trump appealed to a certain type of white person—that he was just some aberration. This allowed millions of other white people to deem themselves “good” white people. These were the white people who since 2016 have dived deep into racial justice and other related social justice work.

We labeled Trump and his sycophants white supremacists; we talked about white supremacy culture; we allowed fields such as anti-racism to come out of the academic and activist corners and into the public view; and we turned diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work into a multi-million dollar industry. Many careers were made and talks given and millions deluded themselves into feeling as if they were moving the needle on racism and pushing back against the Trump rhetoric.

Make no mistake, there were minor shifts and people did learn, but our learning was too basic and too crude overall. And for white people in racial justice, anti-racism or DEI spaces, they were on fire but too often, they still were buying into the myth about who really supports Trump.

As we learn more about the people who took part in the insurrection on January 6, what’s clear is that these are not all working-class white people. In fact, given how hard the economic collapse from the pandemic has been on working-class people, we are forced to realize something: Many of the people who showed up at that insurrection were not Ashli who works at the Walmart in Lincoln, Maine, and who is struggling to keep heating oil in the tank and food on the table. After all, a trek to Washington, D.C., requires resources.

This is not to say that there are no white working-class people who support Trump; absolutely there are. But what is emerging is something that many don’t want to face: a lot of the white people who support Trump—and who support or at least sympathize with those who stormed the Capitol—are white people you know and love. On the outside, they look just like you. They hold professional positions, they are doctors, lawyers, and business owners; they hold government positions; and they often have access to power. They are found at all levels of society. They even exist in new-age “enlightened” spaces, as evidenced by one woman who ran a yoga studio but also decided to storm the Capitol on Trump’s behalf.

Over 159 million Americans voted in the 2020 Presidential election. Biden won 51.3% of the vote, Trump 46.4% of the vote. We know there are people who supported Trump but in many cases people felt his handling of the pandemic was their tipping point, so they went with Biden. I am convinced that if Trump had even attempted to act like he cared about the pandemic, he would have won again. Given the reality of 2020 in the country, these numbers are close.

What I am trying to say is, years have been spent avoiding the fact that in a racially and ethnically changing country, white people are at a crossroads and for many, they are not interested in a racially equitable country. They want to maintain whiteness as the way, at all costs—and Trump was their man to achieve that goal.

Even for white people who do not see themselves as racist or wedded to whiteness, many are still very much vested in systems of whiteness. Hence why people prefer ideas of “equity” and “inclusion” to alternatives that require acknowledging that the entire system eventually must be dismantled and rebuilt. Some old homes cannot be saved; some require us to raze them and rebuild. But in a world where many white people cannot talk to other white people honestly on racism and how they as white people are spiritually bereft due to racism’s hold on them, this is a long game and one that maybe our children or grandkids might see an end to. Maybe.

The events of this past Wednesday showed the world the brokenness of America and her white-bodied people. Even in the aftermath, lawmakers cannot reach consensus on whether to impeach Trump. There is talk of unifying and far too many white people truly believe that the Biden-Harris administration will wash away the stench of the Trump years and we will go back to normal.

Normal, though, is not an acceptable option, because normal was simply hiding our truth away and walking on blind faith. The truth that it’s not just some nameless “other” white people who are wedded to white supremacy, ignorant of how divided we truly are, and convinced of the illusion that this country is both uniquely exceptional overall and somehow immune to political collapse and overthrow. It’s people who are close to you. People you trust. There’s a good chance it’s you yourself, too.

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