Until you find the emotional point of inflection that breaks apart your White fairy tale and gives way to a reckoning so personal it breaks every facet of who you have been in this farcical fable, you don’t really get to credibly say much about what is happening now or the divisions now bursting into full view.
Rebeckah Eggers, “White Fairy Tales: When I Lost Abraham Lincoln“
I know exactly when I had my personal reckoning: March 2017, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. I’ve never written or talked much about it because I could never find the words to convey what happened for me, and maybe I never fully understood it until this week, reading Rebecka Eggers’s essay.
I’d had other experiences that helped me begin to learn and intellectually understand the role of race in our country, and my own socialization as a white citizen of it. I’d unpacked my invisible knapsack. More than a decade earlier I’d read Lies My Teacher Told Me and given my own children A Young People’s History of the United States. In the months since August of 2016, I’d read Waking Up White, and Between the World and Me, and The New Jim Crow. I’d absorbed “The Case for Reparations” and watched Rukaiyah Adams’s powerful TED talk on the enduring economic impacts of being Black in America. As part of a year-long equity certificate program for educators, I’d explored the racist history of Portland, Oregon and written my own racial autobiography, a 6,500+ word essay exploring how I’d spent my life largely color-blind, an easy thing to do having never lived anywhere but the Pacific Northwest, home to “sundown towns” and “The Whitest City in America.”
I thought I’d gotten it–and the learnings I’d gleaned from those experiences had been painfully acquired–but my day at the Portrait Gallery, somehow, broke through something in me that my earlier learning hadn’t penetrated. I cannot tell you why or how, but seeing wall after wall after wall of wealthy white men, with just a smattering of white women (many of them wives of said men) and people of color, in the early months of the Trump presidency, in a city of so much power, where there are such stark, visual lines between people of color and people absent of it, brought the truth of our history home to me in a way that nothing else had, and I felt the fairy tale–all the myths about America that I’d been raised on and believed in and loved–shatter. It didn’t just break my ideas about my country; it broke my ideas about myself.
It was the first of three days touring the capitol, and in everything I saw afterward, I saw the white supremacy that permeates my country. It was not simply a thread running through its fabric. It was the frame, the foundation, the underlying structure of every story I’d been told. I didn’t just understand it; I felt it in a way I never had before. I remembered my twentysomething self eschewing the idea of a diamond engagement ring because most diamonds came from South Africa, home to apartheid, which had not yet fallen in the late 1980s. My fiance and I had wondered how whites in that country could live with themselves, could live in that country, benefitting from such injustice and oppression. Thirty years later, I thought maybe I understood them. I wondered if they, somehow, had been as blind to their systems as I had been to ours. The cognitive dissonance I felt was akin to vertigo, and it was beyond disorienting to realize all that I had never seen that had been all around me, for all of my life. It was humbling. It was shameful. And it hurt. Losing Abraham Lincoln hurts.
How had I been so ignorant and unaware? What else might I be missing now? What else wasn’t real?
It was not unlike the awakening and reckoning I’d experienced when emerging from an abusive relationship, when I began to realize truths that had previously been too threatening to see. From that earlier, personal experience, I could see that my education, my culture, and my country had–like my former partner–been gaslighting me for the entirety of my relationship with them. The terrible thing about gaslighting is not only that it messes with your perceptions of reality, but also that it messes with your perceptions of yourself. You learn not to trust yourself, a lesson that rings even more true once you finally start to see all the ways in which you’ve failed to understand things fundamental to your life. You lose whatever sense of yourself you’ve had and have to build a new one.
That is where, collectively, we are now, and it all hurts. That rebuilding is also hard, hard work.
Being the person I am and have been, I don’t generally feel that I have a lot that needs saying in the current conversation we’re collectively having about who we are and are going to be, and–honestly–I’m still in the process of rebuilding my sense of self. I don’t always trust that I really understand the historical moment we are living through. In recent weeks, I have been doing much more listening than talking. Still, I can attest from my experience to the importance of having that reckoning, and that it’s not a thing you can read or think your way to or through; it’s a thing you have to feel and endure.
If you haven’t yet had that reality-breaking reckoning, I hope you will seek it, even though it is painful and is one of those things you can never take back; it’s a kind of seeing you can never un-see. I’d like to draw some analogy to slivers and their removal, or perhaps the lancing of wounds, but honestly, that metaphor is too simplistic and doesn’t really hold. The reckoning isn’t going to draw some contaminant out of you and leave you, individually, feeling all better. I don’t expect to ever feel as comfortable again as I once did–in fact, it often feels as if I will spend the rest of my life doing nothing but digging deeper and deeper into the body of it, never fully removing the shards of all the -isms embedded in it–but I still hope every white person I know, especially those of my own generation or older, will seek that reckoning, will see ourselves as just one part of a larger organism, will know that we are doing it not so much for ourselves but for those who come after us.
I know now that much of what I was raised to believe about my country was, frankly, crap–but I’m looking for the parts I can reclaim. The idea that our country was designed to evolve and become continually better is one of those things. The idea that we do hard things to make better lives for others is another. Saying that White Americans should endure the pain of this reckoning because it is so much lighter than that of those who’ve experienced genocide and other forms of oppression contains important truth, but that’s not why I hope we all seek our reckoning and endure it. We shouldn’t endure suffering simply because others endure a greater one. We should do it because it serves a purpose greater than our pain. We should do it because of what Eggers states:
“…people don’t change based on theory. People change based on a deep, lived experience of reality. In this reality, you come to understand that you have been robbed too.”
Sometimes, I feel such a nostalgic sort of longing for my earlier life, my earlier ease–but I know it was an illusion and it was a trap, too. Sue Monk Kidd tells us, in her Dance of the Dissident Daughter, that “The truth may set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”
Just look at our country and where we are–really look at it. As a result of our chaotic and ineffective response to the pandemic we are dying in larger numbers than any other country, and in the face of that we are fighting each other over something as simple as wearing face masks rather than demanding better from the government we fund. Our police are shooting unarmed black citizens without consequence, as well as bullets and tear gas at people protesting peacefully. Our legislatures increasingly fail to function and are threatened by armed vigilantes. Our citizens are living on our streets, unable to afford housing and health care in an economic system we are so wedded to that we are choosing it over our own lives. We have a President who lies to us every day, fires those who investigate his likely crimes, and fosters violence among us. All of this hurts far more than losing Abraham Lincoln.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Clinging to false ideas about who and what we are isn’t going to fix it. The safe, sweet way so many of us once lived is gone. We are all being robbed, and the pain of that is greater than the pain of releasing the shackle of lies that have been told to convince us to hand over our valuables, not the least of which are the lives of countrymen who have never lived with the ease and security I once took for granted.
Go get yourself free, and then come back for the rest of us.