Given their history of firing newscasters and pundits that color outside the lines of corporate editorial policy, it’s amazing that MSNBC allows Princeton professor Eddie Glaude Jr. to speak so plainly, so passionately, so holistically, and so un-tribally about current events. His presence on the network is truly energizing, which is why, I suspect, so many news outlets and people on social media have been sharing this clip of his response to the racially motivated mass murder (as the killer’s manifesto reveals) that was recently perpetrated at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas.
As Glaude opined with a mix of clarity and grief that was extraordinarily difficult not to be moved by, I felt a jolt that took me back to when I first began reading James Baldwin (whom I believe Glaude was, in part, channeling) in high school. And later, when the Internet came along with all of its attendant uploaded videos, I had the opportunity to watch Baldwin speak at length about Americans’ deep cultural need to see themselves as innocent, of innocence framed in whiteness, and, ultimately, the utter lie that underpins the construction of race itself. In fact, Baldwin often used the phrase “people who believe themselves to be white” to upend assumptions about why the value-laden concept of race exists at all.
An important two-volume series on this matter, The Invention of the White Race, by Theodore Allen, should arguably be required reading in this country, along with the entire Baldwin oeuvre.
Glaude’s comments also rocketed me back to another of my pasts, my second year in college to be exact, and an event that has stuck with me for 30 years. If you’ll indulge me, I want to tell you about it because it illustrates the issues Glaude raises in a more everyday and less extreme way—one that doesn’t involve bloody murder.
But first, I think it would be helpful to slow things down a moment, not merely burn through the video of Glaude speaking, but also read what he had to say in a contemplative state. I’ve highlighted some key portions in bold that connect thematically to the story I’ll tell after.
Here’s the transcript of Glaude responding to a question about El Paso from one of his co-hosts, as shown in the above video:
“It’s a very difficult question, Nicole. I mean, America’s not unique in its sins. As a country, we’re not unique in our evils, to be honest with you. I think where we may be singular is in our refusal to acknowledge them—and the legends and myths we tell about our inherent goodness, to hide and cover and conceal, so we can maintain a kind of willful ignorance that protects our innocence.
See, the thing is, when the Tea Party was happening, we were saying (pundits), ‘oh, it’s just about economic populism. It’s not about race’. When people knew, and social scientists were already writing that what was driving the Tea Party was anxieties about demographic shifts, that the country was changing, that they were seeing these racially ambiguous babies on Cheerios commercials, that the country wasn’t feeling like it was quite a white nation anymore.
So people were screaming, Yo!, from the top the top of their lungs, that this was not just economic populism. This is the ugly underbelly of the country. See, the thing is this—and I’ll say this and I’ll take the hit on it: There are communities that have had to bear the brunt of Americans, white Americans, confronting the danger of their innocence. And it happens every generation. So somehow we have to kind of go…’Oh God, is this who we are?!’ And again, here is another generation of babies. Think about it. A two-year-old had his bones broken by two parents trying to shield him from being killed. A woman who has been married to this man for as long as I’ve been on the planet lost her husband.
For what?! What we know is the country’s been playing politics for a looong time on this hatred. We know this. So, it’s easy for us to place it all on Donald Trump’s shoulders. It’s easy for us to place Pittsburgh on his shoulders. It’s easy for me to place Charlottesville on his shoulders. It’s easy for us to place El Paso on his shoulders.
THIS IS US! And if we’re gonna get past this, we can’t blame it on him. He’s a manifestation of the ugliness that’s in us. I had the privilege of growing up in a tradition that didn’t believe in the myths and the legends because we had to bear the brunt of them. We’re going to do this again and again and babies are going to have to grow up without mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts, friends, while we’re trying to convince white folk to leave behind a history, or embrace a history, that might set them free from being white. Finally. Finally.”
We’ll connect back to Glaude’s comments in a minute. First, here’s my little story that might prove to be relatable connective tissue.
I attended a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. It was, on the surface, pacifist, feminist, anti-racist, and filled with white kids who today might presumptuously refer to themselves as “woke”. During my second year, there came an event that caused a multi-month uproar. In truth, it was a small event. But I’ve never forgotten it and what it taught me about “those who believe themselves to be white”, myself among them.
One afternoon, as I was studying and chatting in a friend’s dorm room, our door was flung open by an agitated young woman who told us we had to come see what was going on right away. Skeptical and irritated at the interruption, we yet dutifully followed her downstairs to a bathroom, the walls of which were scrawled with fresh graffiti that screamed a well-worn “N-word go home” kind of message.
Word spread. Campus-wide outrage ensued and in less than 24 hours a mass outdoor meeting was assembled. I’m not a joiner by nature, but I am naturally curious so I ambled over to see how things would unfold. A huge circle of students and professors had convened, with an elevated area at the center for public speaking. The vast majority of those assembled in the circle were white. A small coterie of African, African American and other non-white students observed from the outskirts of the gathering.
And then it began. “How could this horrible thing happen at our beautiful, egalitarian school? Who could do such a thing? We are good people. We live the values of our institution. Who could even do such a thing? It can’t happen here.”
I remember distinctly how one young woman got up, tears streaming down her face, and exclaimed amidst uncontrollable sobs, “DON’T HATE ME BECAUSE I’M WHITE!!!!!!”
This sentiment was overwhelming among those who gathered. No African or African American students were invited to speak. They were hardly mentioned at all by my “woke” fellow students. They remained on the outskirts, quite literally. Some of them, friends of mine from parties and class, were doubled over in laughter at the spectacle being played out in front of them. I knew why they were laughing. Even though I was a sheltered kid from ultra-homogeneous northern New England, I wasn’t naïve enough to miss that my friends’ experiences of racism were a lot more damaging than some clichéd graffiti written on a bathroom wall at a milquetoast college in the Midwest.
I waited and watched. Nothing practical was offered by those gathered on how to respond to hateful prejudice at our college. The entire event, rather, revealed itself to be an emotional proclamation, a guilt-ridden defense of white innocence. When Eddie Glaude talks about “communities that must bear the brunt of white Americans confronting the danger of their innocence”, this was a small instance of that very dynamic. My fellow students’ inability to conceive that people within their midst could be racist (that they, we, I could be racist) and their desperate, narcissistic need to verify their own innocence, guaranteed that the alienation African, African American and other non-white students felt at my college would not be meaningfully addressed.
The only material consequence of the event was, for months after, prominent Black students on campus endured—while I’m sure they had 300,000 more urgent things to do—collections of self-professed “well-meaning” white students nipping at their heels and begging to be taught how to be less racist. Then they got to enjoy the anger of those “well-meaning” students after rebuffing their insulting and insistent requests to be their soothing teachers and consolers, their Magical Negroes. Within months, many of those prominent Black students, whose voices were an important part of the healthy socio-political cacophony that was our campus life, were being called out as “too angry”. Many pulled back from public college life until graduation, while some simply transferred to other schools. I have never forgotten it.
Needing to be innocent
consciously or unconsciously equating whiteness with innocence
especially in a country
with a history that shows very little innocence credibly exists
It’s all a self-deception that, while it impairs the self-deceiver, can quickly be turned into a weapon that attacks the very people our un-innocence already marginalizes and hurts.
As Glaude said, “THIS IS US”.
Failure to recognize and confront the motivating cultural white supremacy and tribalism in so many of the mass and individual murders that plague our country (and here’s my one quibble with Glaude, it’s not dangerous when white folk confront our so-called innocence, it’s dangerous when we refuse to confront it), placing the blame on individual symbolic figures like Trump, ensures that we will never heal this multi-century sickness that the Civil War and Civil Rights did not even come close to resolving.
The amount of unity we’ll need to overcome oligarchy, to survive climate change, to remake this country into one that works for everyone, requires that we let go of whiteness as a baseline value or a desired norm. This privilege isn’t worth defending. On the contrary, it’s literally and figuratively a stone killer.
P.S. At my college, it came out months later that the racist graffiti was written by a disabled young student who felt socially ignored and left out at school. In anger and loneliness, he wrote the graffiti to rile up the campus and externalize his hurt. He wrote a public apology, left the college and never returned.
As always, thanks for reading.
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