Get Ready: It’s WTF Time, Y’all
I want to tell you a story. The characters in this story came from many lands, but eventually their view of themselves sorted around one fact: they did not come from Africa. Or China…or anywhere “that just doesn’t look white.” I’m a character in this story, the starring role, in fact. Fair warning: I’m not the hero.
Once upon a time, white Americans took the position we were outright supreme to those who weren’t white. Using our church to bless this new revelation (“My race was made by God to master your race”), we went at it. We kidnapped those from Africa to do our work. When we needed another option, we indentured those from China. With God as our shield, we violently exploited anyone we could successfully argue wasn’t white.
Eventually, the country-wide acceptance of white Americans as supreme unto ownership of people died. A war ensued. As a result, white Americans were forced to give up owning people but not our view of ourselves as supreme. Quickly, we re-formed our white supremacy systems (remember Black Codes and Jim Crow laws?). Only when African Americans rolled that Civil Rights rock up hill did we give up legal white supremacy.
(So far, the events of this story might be fairly easy for you to read. After all, the events were so long ago and our white ancestors’ actions were so egregious. Keep reading.)
A Plot Twist
Foiled in our supremacy, we took to viewing ourselves as superior. In post-Civil Rights times, we gave our superior selves all the goodies (“It’s proper for your taxes to pay for my brand-new textbook because I’m better than you.”) If you grew up white during that era and didn’t know this, you’re not alone. It took a Black classmate at North Carolina’s Governor’s School in 1974 to tell me of his used, underlined, torn, hand-me-down textbooks. Only then did I understand that the “public” school system worked for me because I attended a historically white school with white children who “deserved” good things.
Such a lie cannot withstand the light of day. During my lifetime, white Americans’ belief in our superiority ran away and hid. We no longer publicly proclaimed white to be superior. Instead, we resurrected “law and order” and waged a “war on drugs” and constructed the prisons “needed” as a result. All of these actions were (ahem) race-neutral.
When the end result of these actions couldn’t be denied, we did not give up our white superiority beliefs. We chose to deny we were white (“I don’t see color.”) Or we claimed to have Black friends or a gay friends or even to be Black ourselves, whatever was necessary to make us feel special as we turned our face from the truth of our systems. We ignored James Baldwin’s warning: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Slowly, people of color peeled the blindfold from our eyes (peek-a-boo-I-see-you). So, yeah, we’re white. But not really, because when a white American does something bad, we deny we’re a group (“He’s not a white domestic terrorist; he’s a troubled young man.”) We cannot tolerate being labeled as white without the shield of supremacy, superiority, or God-given specialness—it leaves us too vulnerable to judgment for what our white selves have done. And, Lord, do we hate judgment.
Which brings me to white Americans today.
We’re mad as hell because y’all won’t leave our view of ourselves alone. You keep bringing up the past to get us to admit the advantages we created for ourselves. We won’t do that, not willingly. (I should know—I’ve used all kind of excuses to avoid actually researching my family’s past; for good reason, it turns out.) When historians remind us of the chain of events that began with Christian slaveholders and segued to white women spitting on Black school children and lasted through the SWAT teams needed to protect workers removing memorials to white confederacy and entitled white men shooting Asian women, we decry Comminism and Marxism and “you’re the racist” reverse-racism. Or better yet, we slap our palms over our ears and singsong, “I can’t hear you.”
We are in our current WTF?!? moment. That is, the constantly repeating cycle of Black gain followed by a white WTF?!? moment of backlash. After all, we were moving toward progress. Just look at President Obama—a watershed moment in American history when the moral arc of the universe bent more toward justice. Except far too many white Americans viewed the election of a Black president as yet one more WTF?!? Y’all know the backlash to that.
How do I know we’re in a WTF?!? moment? The stampede to voter suppression.
As I write this, our white governments are swamping state legislatures with voting restrictions. Voter suppression worked once, so we’re trying it again. Only this time, we’re refining our efforts (e.g., make it harder to vote in Fulton County but easier to vote in Georgia’s mostly white rural counties so we can claim the bills are actually voter expansion efforts.) If we don’t watch out, every civil rights advancement that told us rainbows were forming in the sky will be lost.
You think I’m exaggerating? In 1876, the number of Black Mississippians registered to vote was 52,705. By 1898, after the state’s concerted voter disenfranchisement campaign, that number was 3573. In 1964, the percentage of Black Mississippians registered to vote still only stood at 6.7%.
Purging voting rolls. Decreasing voting hours. Requiring notarized forms. Closing voting sites. Prohibiting mail-in-voting. Narrowing the time to request and return absentee ballots. When you read of these and other current tactics, I want you to remember that when Mississippi set the standard for disenfranchising Black voters (poll taxes, literacy tests, the grandfather clause, felony convictions, etc.), the United States Supreme Court UPHELD the restrictions. UPHELD them, declared them legal before decades and decades and decades later finally declaring them illegal.
We can’t rely on the courts to protect us from how we operate. Or count on us white folks not being “that racist.” We white Americans need to head ourselves off at the pass.
Find out what your state is doing to make it harder to vote and fight it. Support federal efforts to protect the vote:
- Pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to require federal approval of voting changes that disproportionally affect Black voters or changes in states that have a recent history of voting discrimination.
- Pass the For the People Act to require early voting, automatic voter registration, no-excuse vote-by-mail; limit voter roll purges; increase election security; add transparency to campaign financing; and end felon disenfranchisement—when an American has served their time, restore their vote.
It’s time to give every American the right to vote easily so that when we white Americans start up our supremacy, superiority, specialness shit, others have the power to vote us down. Everything else is just hollering.