Thanks to Indivisible Lambertville-New Hope for publishing my piece “Why the False Belief that Race Is Biological Needs To Be Confronted.”
Confronting 1619 in 2019 (Part 2)
Could understanding how white people first became indoctrinated into white supremacy help us un-indoctrinate ourselves now? After finishing Ibram Kendi’s smart, accessible, and much-needed recent book How To Be an Antiracist, with its emphasis on actively resisting racist policies, decisions, and other manifestations of white supremacy, I keep going back to when it all began. For guidance, I look to Kendi’s earlier book Stamped from the Beginning as well as the recent attention to the year 1619, when enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia (see The 1619 Project, created by Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times). (Find my Part 1 blog post on this project here.) As I highlight here, we might see this indoctrination several centuries ago in two phases, the first by an elite fueled by their own self-interest and the second by the masses, pressured by the elite.
In Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi makes it clear that when we look at history globally, we see that enslaved people initially encompassed a variety of skin colors and that slavery existed before the creation of what he calls “racist ideas.” How did we go from this period of slavery without racist ideas, if you will, to centuries later in August 1619 with colonial Virginia’s arrival of “more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists,” as the cover of the August 18, 2019 New York Times Magazine explicitly states? Furthermore, how did we go from August 1619 to 1705, when colonial Virginia passed the “slave codes” that identified enslaved black people as “real estate” at the same time as it provided a list of benefits to European servants who occupied the newly-created racial category of “white”?
These are questions I’ve been thinking about for years and that my book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), attempted to consider. In retrospect, though, I think I did not give enough attention to the impact that “racist ideas,” again using Kendi’s words, had already had on the minds of colonial Virginia elite by 1619. Kendi helps us recognize that the early propagators of antiblackness tended to be the elite, first in Europe and then in colonial America: intellectuals, politicians, royalty, clergy, and major landowners. It served their interests to believe in black inferiority because that was a convenient rationale for slavery, which in turn allowed them to carry out their imperial, colonial, missionary, and capitalist ventures, which in turn led to increased power, wealth, and profit. “Racist ideas” were at first generally limited to the elite, not yet indoctrinating the minds of European servants.
How and why did this elite become indoctrinated into a racial ideology? Here are a few highlights, which also reveal the inter-connectedness of this elite:
- Kendi describes a commissioned biography of Portugal’s Prince Henry, completed in 1453 by Gomes Eanes de Zurara, as the beginning of “the recorded history of anti-Black racist ideas” (10). Kendi makes it clear that these “racist ideas” were created in order to rationalize Prince Henry’s slave trading of African people, which had become financially lucrative for Prince Henry. While Eastern Europe had earlier been a source of slaves, that became more challenging at the same time as Portugal began venturing further down the western coast of Africa. Even though Prince Henry’s motivations for slave-trading in Africa were driven by greed and a desire to grow his wealth, his biographer Zurara needed a more palatable justification, so, as Kendi describes, Zurara rationalized the slave trading of African people at the exclusion of anyone else as necessary for their “salvation” and “improvement” (12). Kendi therefore concludes that the “racist idea” of black inferiority was “a product of, not a producer of” Prince Henry’s slave-trading (10). It is essential to recognize this pattern of a “racist idea” being created in order to rationalize elite self-interest.
- About a century after Zurara’s text initiated an ideology of anti-blackness, a second text by Leo Africanus affirmed these “racist ideas” and depicts Africans as hypersexual and less than human (17).
- In 1600, an Englishman named John Pory translated this second text into English (21), less than a decade before England invades what is now Virginia and establishes the colony of Jamestown.
- In 1619, George Yeardley is governor of Jamestown and owner of 1,000 acres (26). John Pory is Yeardley’s cousin and in 1619, he arrives in Jamestown to work as his cousin’s secretary (26).
- Yeardley then organizes a foundational meeting of local elected politicians, which included the great-grandfather of Thomas Jefferson, and they elect Pory to be their speaker (26). In other words, as Kendi spells out, the English translator of one of two major texts spewing an antiblack ideology “became colonial America’s first legislative leader” (26).
- The very next month after this first meeting of what became the General Assembly, enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, and Yeardley bought twenty enslaved Africans (26). The rationale of a racist ideology served the self-interest of the elite.
The elite were using a racial ideology to protect their self-interest and grow their profit at the same time as their racial ideology was not permeating the minds of European servants. After all, if European servants were fully indoctrinated into antiblackness, would there be so much evidence that European servants and enslaved Africans ran away together and engaged in relationships with each other? Would Bacon’s Rebellion have occurred, an interracial uprising by people who may not have focused on their difference in skin color as much as their common fight against the wealthy landowners?
Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 was one major catalyst for the elite to carry out their racial ideology in full force against the European masses. As Kendi writes, “For Governor Berkeley’s wealthy White inner circle, poor Whites and enslaved Blacks joining hands presaged the apocalypse. . . . Rich planters learned from Bacon’s Rebellion that poor Whites had to be forever separated from enslaved Blacks. They divided and conquered by creating more White privileges” (41).
Likewise, as Mary Elliott and Jazmine Hughes of The 1619 Project put it: “In the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion, in which free and enslaved black people aligned themselves with poor white people and yeoman white farmers against the government, more stringent laws were enacted that defined status based on race and class. Black people in America were being enslaved for life, while the protections of whiteness were formalized.”
As I discuss in Dismantling the Racism Machine, the 1705 Virginia “slave codes” not only codified the status of enslaved black people as chattel, as property with no rights, but it also elevated the status of the newly-white servants and granted them specific benefits upon the conclusion of their period of indenture.
In dividing and conquering white servants and enslaved Africans, white servants had to be taught this racial ideology. They had to be indoctrinated into a belief system of white superiority and black inferiority. In other words, they had to be taught that whiteness was real, that whiteness was an inherent special quality that they naturally possessed. This is a lie, of course, and so whiteness itself is a lie. Moreover, it is a lie that taught white servants and other poor whites to accept their low status because at least they were white. This ideology is deeply intertwined with capitalism, a zero-sum game that depends on people believing that they need to fight each other for crumbs, while the elite amass far more than their share. Colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism are all interconnected systems of power that, not coincidentally, emerged at the same time as “racist ideas.”
I don’t believe that in 1619 American racialized slavery was a foregone conclusion, but by 1705 it most certainly was. The colonial elite of early Virginia made a choice to come here in the first place. That choice is not one of innocent “discovery” or “exploration.” It is a choice about greed and self-interest. They built their colonial elite power on a foundation of white supremacy and capitalism, something The 1619 Project makes especially clear. The servants who came to be seen as white also made a choice – they accepted that whiteness. They didn’t have to.
Today, 500 years later, we have another choice to make. Are white people in the US today going to continue to accept the lie of whiteness? The lie of white superiority? Or we going to disavow this lie? If we look back at the gradual indoctrination of the elite and then the masses into a racial ideology, we can see that the group with the least self-interest in this ideology was the group indoctrinated last, which is not a surprise, the masses. Ironically, today, it is often the poorest of whites who are blamed for the persistence of white supremacy when it was and continues to be an elite who creates and perpetuates this system for their own self-interest. Not only do poor whites today not have a self-interest in whiteness, but it is actually hurting them. In fact, Jonathan Metzl’s recent book Dying of Whiteness shows exactly how an ideology of white supremacy is killing white people today. Likewise, Kendi reiterated this point at his recent appearance at the Morristown Festival of Books. The last to be indoctrinated may have the most to gain from becoming un-indoctrinated today.
We need to recognize the lie of whiteness for what it is in order to begin to un-indoctrinate ourselves.
by Karen Gaffney
Confronting 1619 in 2019
Last month, we saw the year 1619 appear throughout the news media and social media, especially through The 1619 Project, an “initiative from the New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.” This work is necessary and deserving of our attention. I also think we need to pay attention to the reactions to this work. On the one hand, it’s not surprising that conservatives like Newt Gingrich called the Times project a “lie” and “propaganda” for focusing too much on slavery and not on the “other things going on.” His response of whitewashing history reveals exactly why this project is so critical, especially today.
On the other hand, the reaction I’d like to focus on here is more complex and nuanced but one that gets to the heart of the need for this project in a different way. It involves language and what happens when those writing about history seek to humanize people who were not seen or treated as human. More specifically, I’m asking: What are the implications of using “servant” vs. “slave” vs. “enslaved” to describe Africans in early Jamestown, Virginia?
On August 14, The Guardian published an article by historian Nell Irvin Painter, who wrote the groundbreaking book The History of White People (2011). The title of the article was: “How we think about the term ‘enslaved’ matters,” and the main heading stated: “400 years ago, the first Africans who came to America were not ‘enslaved’, they were indentured – and this makes a crucial difference when we think about the meanings of our past.”
The same day, scholar Alondra Nelson tweeted a link to the article highlighting Painter’s statement: “This process of turning ‘servants’ from Africa into racialized workers enslaved for life occurred in the 1660s to 1680s through a succession of Virginia laws… In short, the 1619 Africans were not ‘enslaved’.”
The next day, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times journalist who founded The 1619 Project, replied to Nelson’s tweet:
“The bulk of the scholarship disagrees. 1) Those Africans did not enter into labor contracts. They were sold. 2) Slavery can exist without being permanent or for life. 3) From the beginning, African people were treated different by law and census.”
As a white anti-racist educator and writer who has eagerly followed the work of Painter, Nelson, and Hannah-Jones for several years, this exchange gave me a chance to think more carefully about the tension over the language of “servant,” “slave,” and “enslaved” and to reflect on the language I use in my work.
On one level, Painter and Hannah-Jones have different interpretations of the historical evidence, and that’s not unusual. Painter focuses more on the ambiguous status of Africans in early Jamestown, and Hannah-Jones focuses less on ambiguity and more on a clearer inferior status of Africans in early Jamestown. That alone might not seem like a big deal. All academic fields have debates among people who still share fundamental ways of thinking. However, the implications of their debate, especially in the context of today’s atmosphere of white supremacy, put them in an impossible bind, one that gets to the deeper issue of how do you talk about a history of human beings who were not treated as human beings without further dehumanizing them? My impression, based on following their work for some time, is that they both are deeply concerned about the persistence of systemic racism, and they both have devoted their careers, despite the obstacles they have faced as black women, to raising awareness about the history of racism and its continued impact today.
While I don’t believe she said this explicitly, I think Hannah-Jones’s negative response to Painter’s article relates to the dangerous ways in which the word “servant” have recently been used to whitewash the history of slavery, a concern that I think Hannah-Jones and Painter would share. For example, in February, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam received significant criticism when his medical school yearbook page was shown to include a racist photo of a person in blackface and a person in KKK regalia. In a follow-up interview that received additional criticism, he said, “If you look at Virginia’s history, we’re now at the 400-year anniversary – just 90 miles from here, in 1619, the first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores.” The interviewer Gayle King then said, “Also known as slavery,” and Northam responded, “Yes.”
Northam’s use of the phrase “indentured servants” can be seen as a white-washing euphemism that erases the fact that African people were kidnapped and taken by force, very different from the status of indentured servants, who generally became servants willingly, often in exchange, in this case, for travel to Virginia. Likewise, in 2015, the major textbook company McGraw-Hill Education was criticized for using the word “workers” to describe people who were enslaved. We can see this same effort at the erasure of past and present systemic racism in the #WhiteLivesMatter response to #BlackLivesMatter.
When Hannah-Jones questions the word “servant” as a description of African people in Jamestown, it appears to me that she is trying to highlight the existence of antiblackness in Jamestown in 1619, and that’s important because acknowledging the existence of antiblackness relates to acknowledging the full humanity of black people. This reminds me again of the fundamental principle behind #BlackLivesMatter, that black people are human beings. It is significant to note that Painter is also trying to acknowledge the full humanity of black people in her concern about the word “enslaved” to describe Africans in early Jamestown because for her, this word reinforces the problem of thinking that, as she puts it, “enslavement is the essence of black identity.”
Together, Painter and Hannah-Jones reveal that we don’t necessarily have the sufficient language to recognize the humanity of those who were dehumanized. This should not be a surprise, given that we have not acknowledged our history, and we often deny it. For example, I think many, if not most, people in the US, especially white people, would be surprised to learn that, as Hannah-Jones writes in The 1619 Project, “10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers.” Furthermore, this same audience would likely be horrified at her suggestion that “some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.” We have such a long way to go before we have fully confronted our history, especially in an environment where explicit and implicit examples of white supremacy surround us, from violent hate crimes to structural racism widespread throughout our institutions. Yet, even as our language appears insufficient, we do change our language to do better.
With that in mind, I point to the recent shift in language from “slave” to “enslaved.” I think this shift in language is really important, and unfortunately, I had not adopted it when I wrote my book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), but I have since been actively working to make this shift. The word “enslaved” reflects the humanity of the person who is being enslaved because it emphasizes how they are not inherently a slave but that status has been forced upon them. They are humans who are being treated as sub-human. Likewise, there has been a shift from the word “slaveowner” to “enslaver,” and I did not, unfortunately, take that into account in my book either. The former sounds more innocent and passive, not active, whereas “enslaver” reflects the fact that every day a person who owns other human beings has to decide whether or not to keep owning them.
As we reflect on the work of The 1619 Project and the responses to it, let’s consider: Is our language a “master’s tool [that] will never dismantle the master’s house,” as Audre Lorde put it? Or can our language change to be used for liberation?
by Karen Gaffney
In the Wake of White Supremacist Terrorism and Toni Morrison’s Death
As we reel from a weekend with two mass shootings linked to white supremacy and toxic masculinity, we hear about the passing of literary genius Toni Morrison. After the massacres in El Paso and Dayton, many are quick to jump to mental illness as the problem, but to equate mental illness and violence is not only offensive but also simply inaccurate. And to focus on the explanations of a “lone wolf” or even “hatred” misses the systemic nature of domestic terrorism rooted in white supremacy. Now, in 2019, it is the 400th anniversary of the first arrival on colonial Virginia’s shores of people who were kidnapped from Africa. As the 1600s progressed, colonists built a system of racialized slavery. In 1705, Virginia colonial legislators passed the slave codes, which clearly established racial categories and positioned them on a hierarchy in order to protect the power and profit of the elite (as I describe in my book Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox).
While systemic racism has evolved over time and adapted, we are still living with the same core system of racial oppression that we’ve had for centuries, yet white Americans in particular usually refuse to acknowledge–much less seek to dismantle–this system of white supremacy. When, in response to recent shootings, “well meaning” white people say on social media, “This is not America” or “Why is there so much hate?” or “Why does this keep happening?,” the denial of our history is clear. This is America. These recent horrific massacres are a manifestation of the ideology of white supremacy at the heart of America, from our colonial history to the present. Professor Eddie Glaude, speaking on MSNBC after the shootings, said, “This is us.” White Americans, he said, want to see themselves as innocent, and that desire is dangerous because it’s grounded in a denial of systemic racism, past and present. Either we confront the truth of our white supremacy, or this will keep happening, he said.
I was thinking about his statement when I saw the heartbreaking news of Morrison’s death. As someone who has a PhD in English, who wrote about Toni Morrison’s Beloved in my dissertation, as someone who has taught Morrison’s work for years, this loss is profound. However, as a white person, I’ve also been thinking about how important it was for Morrison to center black characters, black experiences, and black readers. In thinking about what Professor Glaude said, I started to wonder, in horror admittedly: how am I connected to Morrison’s white characters? Since Beloved is the novel I’ve read, re-read, and re-read again more than any other novel of Morrison’s (and actually more than any other novel at all), my mind went immediately to the horrific character of schoolteacher. Perhaps Glaude is urging white people to think about not how different we are from schoolteacher (which is what we are so inclined to do) but what we have in common with him. That’s where we get at our complicity. That’s how we can start to confront systemic racism. schoolteacher is the unnamed everyman who represents white supremacy. In an interview, Morrison once described slavery as a “national amnesia.” We deny it so much that we try to forget it, and in Beloved, that history cannot be forgotten and becomes a haunting force. Glaude insists that if we want change, we can’t remain in denial. White Americans need to resist this amnesia, confront how white supremacy is at the core of American history and identity, and work to help build a new anti-racist future, something we can learn more about from Ibram Kendi next week when his book How to Be an Antiracist is released. Until then, Toni Morrison, RIP.
by Karen Gaffney
My Complicity: A White Woman’s Thoughts on “When They See Us”
I’m sorry I thought you were guilty. That’s what echoed through my mind when I finished watching When They See Us. I wasn’t much older than they were. In April 1989, I was a junior in high school, a predominantly white, middle class, suburban high school in NJ. As a white girl, the world recognized my humanity and the humanity of the jogger. She was “good” and “innocent” – that’s what I remember. The teenagers who became known as the “Central Park Five” were “bad,” and I remember thinking that. I don’t remember wondering if they were guilty; I took their guilt for granted because I thought the criminal justice system was fair. I remember thinking I had something in common with the white woman and nothing in common with the boys.
Ava DuVernay’s brilliant four-episode series reveals to me that my mindset was the same one held by the police, by the media, by all of the systems in power that allowed five innocent kids to be incarcerated for years. Her title is so powerful because white people are taught not to see black people as human beings. We are taught to see black people as criminals, as animals, as inferior. As white people, we need to recognize how we are all Linda Fairstein, how–even when presented with irrefutable evidence–we hang onto the false narrative of white supremacy with desperation.
As the 4th of July approaches, I implore my fellow white Americans to confront our ongoing complicity in a system of white supremacy that persists in the US, despite our attempts to deny it. The criminalization of black and brown people is the norm, not the exception. The exception is that these five men were exonerated, and that only occurred because the person who actually committed the crime confessed on his own volition, more than a decade later. We criminalize black and brown people because we see them as inferior, as other, as sub-human, as animal. We are locking up black and brown people, including children, at the border and at detention facilities around the country. My own state of New Jersey has the worst racial disparity in the country when it comes to youth incarceration, as the NJ Institute for Social Justice reports.
As a white girl, I was taught to trust the system, and I did. I thought that if the boys were called a “wolf pack,” that if the boys were “wilding,” then they were “wild,” that they were animals, that they should be locked up. If the police and the jury said they did it, then they did, and that was it. Justice was fair, and my privileged life was safe.
Now, decades later, as a white anti-racist educator, I recognize that they only way to resist systemic racism is to be actively anti-racist. Being passive just reaffirms the systems that perpetuate white supremacy. We must constantly question the systems that surround us and confront the ways in which they uphold unearned advantages for white people, even without the awareness of those involved. I had the mindset I did as a high school junior in 1989 because I was not taught about the history of race and racism in this country. I firmly believed the myths that I now work with white people to debunk, the myth that race is biological, the myth that race has always existed, and the myth that the Civil Rights Movement ended racism. I wrote my book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), to provide an accessible introduction to these concepts, with steps for action.
Systemic racism persists because it teaches white people that we are the only people who are fully human. When They See Us resists that in powerful ways by humanizing the five boys and the men they became. As white people, we need to ask ourselves, what will it take for us to share that vision and see black and brown people as fully human? Just because we have been taught otherwise doesn’t mean we need to continue to be complicit in a centuries-long system of oppression. White children would never get treated the way that black and brown children are treated in the US, whether it’s 1989 or 2019. They would not get shot by the police for playing with a toy gun. They would not be seen as a threat. They would not be vilified by the media. They would not be locked in cages at the border. They would not experience the tragic abuse revealed in When They See Us. If white people have been taught that we’re the only people who are fully human, we need to ask ourselves: where is the humanity in continuing to believe a false racial narrative about white superiority?
by Karen Gaffney
How Amazon’s “Homecoming” Reveals Toxic White Womanhood
Thanks to PopMatters for publishing my piece “How Amazon’s ‘Homecoming’ Reveals Toxic White Womanhood.”
Confronting the U.S. Census as a Weapon of White Supremacy
Thanks to the Public Seminar for publishing my piece “Confronting the U.S. Census as a Weapon of White Supremacy.”
Why White People Should Read “White Fragility,” Especially Those Who Say “Don’t Generalize about White People”
As a white anti-racism educator, I have encountered “white fragility” for years in students, colleagues, community members, and, of course, in myself. I just didn’t have a framework for naming it and understanding it. Robin DiAngelo’s new book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Beacon, 2018) provides just that, with clarity and insight.
At the beginning of her book, DiAngelo explains how the US “is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality” (1). In other words, white supremacy and systemic racism exist, and they are fueled by different forms of segregation. She goes on to say, “Given how seldom we [white people] experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate, we haven’t had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial world-views as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people” (1-2). Hence: white fragility. We know racism is bad. We don’t want to be bad. Therefore, we deny or otherwise cannot effectively acknowledge our complicity in racism and cannot engage in even a conversation about racism, unless it focuses on a far away racist.
One of the core challenges that white readers may potentially face with this book is the very concept of naming “white people” as a group of people when white people have been taught we are individuals. “It’s not fair to generalize about white people,” is a response this book is likely to prompt. But that is exactly the point DiAngelo is making: the fact that white people have been taught we are individuals is actually a function of white supremacy because we are the only ones who have been taught that. We take for granted the normalization of whiteness, and we tend not to identify other white people as white but simply as people, while black people are not identified as people, but as “black.” Everyone else is racialized while we are just “people.”
That way of thinking is something that was invented, and it was only invented a few hundred years ago. My own work, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox, elaborates on this concept of the invention of race (or the social construction of race).
As DiAngelo makes clear, white people have been taught multiple intersecting ideologies that uphold white supremacy while simultaneously obscuring it:
- White people are individuals
- Just work hard and you’ll be successful (the American dream of meritocracy)
- Everyone is the same – be colorblind
- It’s not polite to talk about race
- Racism occurs from intentional acts of malice
While the above ideologies may be taught explicitly, several other beliefs are also taught, though perhaps in less explicit ways, but they still work to uphold white supremacy:
- White people don’t have a race
- White people are superior
- White people belong
Interestingly, at the same time as white people are taught that we don’t have a race, we’re also taught white people are superior and that we belong. Yes, whiteness is a series of contradictions, and I would say one reason for these contradictions emerges because whiteness is not real. It’s a made-up idea to equate light color skin with value. It’s not an inherently natural human quality to have that belief. It’s a belief that was taught, and so it’s not surprising that contradictions emerge when something that isn’t real, whose borders are constantly negotiated, is being desperately protected.
This complex web of intersecting ideologies is so dense that even just trying to sort out one thread at a time is a challenge. However, White Fragility gives us a place to begin by focusing on the psychology of whiteness. What is it white people have been taught about race so that we react to conversations about it in ways that we do? And, why does this occur? One reason DiAngelo gives is that “the majority of white people live in racial isolation from people of color (and black people in particular) and have very few authentic cross-racial relationships” (31-32). I can see this so well in my own state of New Jersey which, despite being in the North and being so diverse, is actually one of the most racially segregated states in the country. DiAngelo goes on to explain that because so many white people experience “racial isolation” then they are especially vulnerable to stereotypical messages in the media about people of color.
White Fragility is filled with valuable resources, including data, as well as lists of strategies for recognizing how white fragility is a form of bullying. Her interpersonal techniques, questions for reflection, and concrete examples of white fragility in the workplace all help ensure that this book does not only present a valuable theory but also a practical set of tools.
I had the pleasure of being interviewed this summer with Robin DiAngelo on WBAI’s Equal Time for Freethought (available here https://archive.org/details/equaltimeforfreethought2018/ETFF2018-07-07.mp3). I believe her work is an important and much-needed contribution to anti-racism.
What Does White Complicity Look Like?
NJ7 Citizens for Change just published my blog “What Does White Complicity Look Like?” which I wrote after visiting the On Whiteness exhibit at the Racial Imaginary Institute hosted at The Kitchen in NYC.
White Americans, this 4th of July, let’s confront the myths we’ve been taught about America
As a child, I remember carrying the American flag for my Girl Scout troupe in a 4th of July parade, loving fireworks, and wanting to celebrate this country. After all, why wouldn’t I? I had all of the unearned advantages that came with my white, middle-class, suburban existence. And just like other white people, I was taught that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were available to everyone in the US.
Now, as an adult who identifies as a white anti-racist educator, it’s clear to me that there is a significant gap between what scholars who study race take for granted and what the public, especially white people, know about race and racism.
We approach this 4th of July with daily reports of family separation, immigrant detention, pervasive racism, mass shootings, diminishing union power, cuts to reproductive rights, a travel ban, voter suppression, a racial wealth gap, lessening workers’ rights, and the specter of a far right wing Supreme Court. Many white people who are disturbed or even horrified by these problems may be wondering: What exactly does the 4th of July mean? Should I celebrate it?
These are likely questions that people of color and other marginalized people are not suddenly asking themselves for the first time. After all, Frederick Douglass asked in 1852, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”
Most white people in the US have been taught that the principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” apply to everyone, at least in the years since the civil rights movement. They have been taught a narrative that depicts their European ancestors as immigrants who became successful because of their hard work. They are not taught that their success in the land of opportunity depended on their whiteness. So, it should not be a surprise that following this narrative, many white people, when confronted with examples of people of color not being economically successful, attribute it to laziness. “Just work hard,” like they did, and they’d be successful. Undocumented immigrants should just “get in line” like their ancestors did, and they’d be successful.
The narrative of the 4th of July is that we should be patriotic, that America is a place of freedom and opportunity. Believing all of that is reassuring. It feels good. It doesn’t disrupt. However, believing that continues to maintain the false narrative that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were and are meant for everyone when in fact these principles only apply to those seen as fully human. Through the invention of race, whiteness was created as a racial category and as the only one that was fully human. This racial ideology established a racial hierarchy that positioned white people at the top as superior, black people at the bottom as inferior and less than human, and indigenous peoples, Latinx people, and Asian Americans in various intermediary spots depending on the historical moment.
Many white people who were upset about Trump’s election and who have resisted his rhetoric and policies ever since support a narrative that our current administration is an aberration and that we just need to get back to the way things are supposed to be, believing that prior to Trump’s administration, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were generally available to everyone. We hear the phrase “This is not normal,” as if what came before was “normal.” In other words, what came before was ok. I would urge people to reconsider this mindset and think about how “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were never meant for everyone: injustice is the norm.
Our nation was founded on European imperial conquest for land, wealth, and resources, and that was made possible through land theft, genocide, and slavery. These are not a stain that can be washed away, leaving behind something pure and just. These oppressive actions and ideologies are built into our institutions, built into our very nationhood. (Please see my blog page “Resources on Race and Racism” for numerous examples.)
White people have a hard enough time reconciling the state of America today with what they imagine it to be in their mind. But to reconcile that America has never been what they imagine it to be is the real challenge. The Trump administration might seem different than what came before, and of course there are differences, but it is just an extreme example of an oppressive status quo we’ve always had.
Like many of you, I recently attended a Families Belong Together rally and march on June 30. That day and on many other days in recent weeks, I’ve heard white people say something like, “This is not the America that I know.” This is not the America that most white people know, but it is the America that people of color and other marginalized people have always known. That disconnect demands our attention. When we say, “This is not the America that I know,” it erases a history of African slavery, indigenous genocide, Chinese Exclusion, Jim Crow segregation, lynching, deportation of American citizens of Mexican descent, internment of Japanese Americans, and so much more.
So on the 4th of July, when we are asked to celebrate America, what if we finally start recognizing that the only way “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are available to everyone is if they are actually available to everyone? We will never get there if we remain indoctrinated to the myths we are so often taught, myths that might provide us with some privileges but are ultimately meant to control us by keeping us at the mercy of a system of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy. (My book Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox explains these false ideologies that perpetuate racism through a divide-and-conquer strategy.)
To unquestionably celebrate the 4th of July means to perpetuate the lie, the myth that maintains the status quo of white supremacy. Confronting what America has always been does not mean I recommend leaving the US. My bags are not packed for Canada. I want to stay here and work for justice. To me, that means confronting the false ideologies we’ve been indoctrinated into, educating others, including white children, having difficult conversations with other white people, and taking action to support leadership from marginalized communities. I strongly believe that it is only when the most marginalized are free that we are all free.
Karen Gaffney, PhD is an English Professor at Raritan Valley Community College in NJ. Her recent book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), is an accessible introduction to race and racism with tools for action. Follow her blog with resources “Divided No Longer” (available at https://dividednolonger.com).