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The dangerous magical thinking of ‘this is not who we are’

We can’t fix what’s wrong with American democracy until we acknowledge the problem of white supremacy 

Since the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, there have been statements from white people across the political spectrum, including President-elect Joe Biden, that repeat variations of the same refrain: This is not who we are.

I’ve long found these sorts of proclamations baffling, because if one is honest about the history of the United States, it prominently features white violence, terrorism and revanchism, particularly toward Black people, Indigenous people and women. Such attitudes have been codified within our laws and institutions, and it has taken enormous, multigenerational work to chip away at the bigotry that metastasizes within our nation. Even now, we witness the defanging of the Voting Rights Act or the Violence Against Women Act, attacks on Black churches, synagogues and mosques, and the daily deployment of police officers on calls that originate with racist grievance.

Donald Trump supporters swarm the U.S. Capitol building in Washington on Jan. 6.

Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In so many ways, great and small, we are not honest about who “we” are. Instead, too often, Americans traffic in mythology and denial to the point that we’re still arguing over whether slavery was the reason for the Civil War, and enslaved Black Americans are falsely identified as “workers” in widely-distributed school textbooks.

Even before the election of a president who incited a violent insurrection against the legislative branch of his own government, white Americans, even those sympathetic to civil rights, have had a habit of trying to compartmentalize American racism and thereby deny the enormity of its scale and effects.

Take, for example, this description of the participants in the insurrection of Jan. 6 published in The Atlantic:

Here they were, a coalition of the willing: deadbeat dads, YouPorn enthusiasts, slow students, and MMA fans. They had heard the rebel yell, packed up their Confederate flags and Trump banners, and GPS-ed their way to Washington.

Embedded within this description is an attempt to isolate those who descended on the Capitol as a hillbilly malignancy when, in fact, this was a mob spanning lines of class, religion, education and athletic ability. This sort of specious distancing is so common I refer to it as TROT, as in “Those Racists Over There.” The TROT, fundamentally, is a figment of white imagination and absolution, a tool to avoid reckoning in any meaningful way with The Problem We All Live With.

The evidence for this widespread phenomenon can be found among media interviews and cellphone videos of the people who stormed the Capitol and then reacted with shock when they were treated, rightfully, as criminals. For example, there’s this telling scene, captured by The Nation:

“ ‘This is not America,’ ” a woman said to a small group, her voice shaking. She was crying, hysterical. “ ‘They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.’ ”

These are people who experience whiteness as a protective blanket from consequences. They expect it. They are not crazy to do so. They are following the logic of their lives lived as white Americans — the unchallenged agreement that says white innocence is assumed as a default in the same way that Black inferiority is. And she has not been corrected because the only thing white America is addicted to more than white supremacy is pretending that it’s not as big a problem as it obviously is.

Even after what happened on Jan. 6, there are white people who remain immune to the truth about the United States.

SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Black people have learned to always anticipate white supremacist abuse, because our existence here has been, until the last 55 years or so, one of apartheid (it still is, frankly). We exist in a perpetual state of organizing our lives around and anticipating white violence and backlash. It’s why Biden won the South Carolina primary! What white people call fascism, Black people experienced under a different brand name: Jim Crow.

Repeatedly, when Black people and others aligned with the cause of civil rights have attempted to tell the truth about their country, they are demonized as un-American: Communists. Socialists. Subversives — whatever dog whistle of delegitimization happens to be in vogue at the time.

Nevertheless, artists have been showing us the hypocrisy of the United States for as long as it has existed, through writing, visual art, dance, opera, film, television — take your pick of mediums. Whether it’s Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920) or Watchmen (2019), there have always been those who have refused to fall prey to the gaslighting efforts of Gone With the Wind (1939) or The Birth of a Nation (1915).

As a critic, when I watch a show like Outlander, which heavily focuses on the English brutishness that eventually leads to the bloody Jacobite rebellion of 1745, part of my brain is also wryly considering how Black people and Scots could be natural allies with a common enemy in the British crown, were it not for the fact that when the Scottish came to America, they, too, assimilated into a whiteness that defines itself by the subjugation of Black people.

My surname is McDonald. Some of my ancestors are Scottish. This particular lineage is not one that occurred by choice. Like Caroline Randall Williams and so many other African Americans, my body is a living testament to the enduring reality of white supremacy, and therefore, the fundamental contradiction that lay at the heart of American democracy. This is not something for which I am grateful.

What is frustrating is that even after a deadly attack on our nation’s “citadel of liberty,” as Biden called it — one enacted by people brandishing Confederate flags, fascist tattoos and at least one “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirt — there are white people who remain immune to the truth about our country.

Yet, the truth is all around us. It was all around us before George Floyd, before Breonna Taylor, before Ahmaud Arbery, before Atatiana Jefferson, before Trayvon Martin, before Emmett Till, before Recy Taylor, before Mary Turner, before J. Marion Sims, the “father of gynecology” who repeatedly butchered enslaved women named Lucy, Anarcha and Betsey without anesthesia.

How could they possibly not see it? Most likely because it is to their benefit not to see it.

In considering the falsehood of “this is not who we are,” my mind kept returning to the words of Frederick Douglass, delivered on July 5, 1852: “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”

One hundred and sixty-nine years later, it’s way too late for the compartmentalism and magical thinking of “this is not who we are.” Not when on Jan. 6, the calls for help were literally coming from inside The People’s House.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.