Who are we and who do we need to be?
The Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party endorsed our next president and praised him for selecting a chief strategist who is known as a White supremacist. In the midst of these headlines, individual acts of bigotry around the country point to an emboldening of a brand of racism that we thought was of a bygone era. In the past week, I cannot begin to tell you the number of times that someone has said to me in dismay that “this is not our country” or “these are not our values.” And every time it has been said, I have felt uncomfortable.
Why? Because this is, in fact, our country, and sadly these are our values. Our country was built from the ground up on the brutal killing of Native Americans and the stealing of their land. This country’s forefathers built an entire economic system based on free labor in the form of the enslavement of Africans and the subsequent cheapening of our labor. Throughout our country’s history, there has been an effective system of intimidation and marginalization through lynchings, Jim Crow laws and mass incarceration of Black and brown people, and race has successfully been used as a wedge to pit poor Whites and people of color against each other. Unfortunately, my friends, this is our country.
I am, however, going to let us off the hook for just a moment. This is also a country of the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement and so many others. This is a country that elected a Black man to the highest office in 2008 and 2012. It is a country that has welcomed immigrants. However, it is uncritical to say that the resurgence of the more explicit kind of racism that we are seeing is not our country and not its values. It is time to accept that we are a country of stark contradictions.
If we are to dismantle racism, we must reckon with how central racism, in all of its forms and permutations, is to our identity as a nation. Denying that has been our canker that refuses to heal. By refusing to acknowledge the profound impact of racism on the lives of people of color AND poor Whites, we have allowed racism to fester as we turn a blind eye, hoping that it will just go away; and as a result, we have blocked the possibility of healing.
As we gather this Thanksgiving with our families to celebrate that for which we are grateful, we also must live in this contradiction: the very holiday where we celebrate family, food and gratitude is also a marker of the merciless intrusion of white settlers on the way of life of native people and has led to some of the poorest health and social outcomes of any racial/ethnic group in this country. We must get savvy at living in these contradictions as uncomfortable and disturbing as they are if we are to have any shot at disruption and transformation.
I hope the dismay that we feel in this current climate will be exactly what propels us to finally accept who we are on the road to becoming who we need to be in order to transform our country so that it works well for everyone. Only then can we act with the courage and conviction required to be and do that which is radically different.