I was born and raised in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I lived for 22 years of my life. My mother is from Charlottesville, and her mother was from Charlottesville. I am made of Virginia clay, and Blue Ridge Mountains, and smallmouth bass in the James River, and wild blackberry patches on the sides of dirt roads.
I am also made of stolen land from the Eastern Siouan and Saponi people. I am made of confederate flags flying proudly in front yards, of (legally) segregated schools and churches and neighborhoods. I am made of a certain type of Virginian history: the first state to receive and embrace slavery; the state with one of the longest (and longest lasting) lists of racist laws; a state where violence against black and brown people is literally as old as the state itself.
In my town today, white nationalists with torches are marching, a car has just driven into a crowd of protestors, killing at least one person, and there is a declared state of emergency. My home is a hashtag. And there, in Charlottesville, white supremacy is doing what it does best: creating violence and disconnect, so that we cannot see our shared humanity.
When I use the phrase “white supremacy” I do not mean these white nationalist folks and burning crosses. I mean: every day people and culture that seeks, even if (but often not) unconsciously, to center whiteness. White supremacy functions to make white people and values and culture associated with white, Judeo-Christian heritage the way we define “normal” in this country. So white supremacy in Virginia — both as a form of horrific violence supported by law AND as a casual way of being, a subtle system of values — is as old as the state itself, and as prevalent and rooted as our magnolia trees.
When I think about Virginia’s past and I look at the news right now, a few things strike me:
1) This is nothing new. While it might surprise some people and serve as their wake up call, all of what you’re seeing makes deep, historic sense. There is no immunization shot against white supremacy. We are a state with habits, values, and attitudes formed over hundreds of years, and those do not go away just because a court of law says we’ve moved on or because a black man made it to the White House. History forms habits. And while those habits can shift and evolve over time, the belief systems ingrained in the history and habits do not automatically disappear just because we wish they would, or just because we intellectually believe they should, or just because we hope they will.
2) It’s not just Virginia. It’s not just the south. It’s not just those “poor, ignorant, rural white folks.” What I just wrote about Virginia is true about our entire country, including the most “progressive” cities. And it is about you and me.
Take a moment to reflect, particularly if you’re white. When is your most recent memory of rejecting some part of another human being because an aspect of who they are didn’t seem “normal” or “acceptable” or “polite” to you? For me, it was yesterday. This is a manifestation of white supremacy. This IS white supremacy. It’s the tendency to judge another human against an invisible code of acceptability, and to create distance between yourself and them (physical, emotional, or otherwise) so as to separate yourself and — even if you don’t mean to — solidify your worthiness, your goodnesss, your rightness by making some aspect of another human less worthy, good, right, or acceptable. We do this all the time with folks of all races; we even do it with our families, our friends, and our children.
3) We must turn our guilt to grief and our grief to action, for our own liberation. I’m calling to my white brothers and sisters. As best I understand it from my research and my own lived experience, transmuting our guilt to grief is a critical step that cannot be — yet often is — skipped. The problem with guilt is that it’s another form of oppression. Because guilt’s motivation is absolution, it becomes another tool of disconnection separating me from my own sense of worthiness (and I cannot hold your worth until I hold my own) and keeping me in a state of inaction. Conversely, there is usually hope when someone has the courage to FEEL their guilt, and to learn to grieve their intimate relationship with white supremacy and the way their self-worth and how they understand the world is stacked upon white supremacy. But, it’s hard and rare for folks to get here without it being a performance. It requires extraordinary courage. As uncomfortable as guilt is, it keeps us safe, immune, apathetic, and able to turn off to others. Taking responsibility and processing the grief associated with it is the first step to moving through and past guilt to recalibrating our values, beliefs, and actions to ones centered on shared humanity.
Once we mourn and grieve (which looks unique for each person; sometimes we are grieving past/current actions, sometimes we are mourning family history, sometimes we are grieving the daily, lived reality of black and brown people in this country, which is one of continued oppression, violence, subjugation to white bodies/power/culture/law…), we can begin to take action from a place of contributing to liberation. But. If the motivation is to liberate other people — to do something on behalf of or for people of color — we are not working for liberation. Work to liberate yourself from white supremacist thinking and being. This doesn’t mean to avoid taking action for justice out in the world, but it does mean to be hawk-like about scrutinizing your intentions for taking action. Is it on behalf of others? — If so, pause. There’s an innate sense of self-righteousness there, which means there’s still some belief that separates you from others. Is the action because you want to do something for people of color? — Pause. Examine where guilt may be a motivator, and take a look at the beliefs that undergird guilt. Also examine why you believe that people of color need you to help them. If someone “needs” your help, what do you believe about them and about yourself? As white folks, if we truly want to contribute to justice and liberation, there is no short cut. We must counteract racist educational systems, we must provide resistance against systemic violence, we must interrupt racist jokes … We must take urgent action. But we must do that because we want to be free, alongside everyone else, and there is no freedom when our worth and self-love and power comes as a byproduct of history, habits, values, and beliefs that pushes others down so that we can rise up.
White supremacy is not just an angry group of men with torches and hoods working to preserve a racist statue and marching up and down the streets of my hometown. It’s the culture you and I live in every day.It’s the desire to be right and make others wrong. It’s the choice to be surprised when a bigot is elected president. It’s the preference of your right to comfort over others’ safety and freedom. It’s the belief that your good intentions equal immunity from racism. It’s the guilt we act from. It’s the drive to find self-worth by being better than others. It’s perfectionism. It’s the urge to conquer and own. It’s the air you breathe. And yes, it’s Charlottesville — the one I grew up in, the one that is rioting now. But most of all, it’s a choice to read this, see the news, look the other way, and to say, “oh gosh, I never knew Charlottesville was such a racist place. Thank goodness I don’t live in a town like that.” You do, and always have.
Their white anger comes from a belief that their worth and freedom is threatened by the pursuit of equity and justice for all people. When we are quiet and still, the common notion that we are less than or not good enough, or that our own freedom is at risk when others receive protection or equity, is the same vein of white supremacist thinking that, when exaggerated, looks like an angry mob marching through my hometown. I implore us all: do not disconnect. Find where it’s true in YOU that someone else’s worth or freedom threatens your own. Find where it is true in you that guilt and shame keeps in you in apathy and inaction. Find where it is true in you that you’re unwilling to acknowledge someone’s worthiness and make space for all of them. That is where we must do the work. From love, toward liberation.
This blog was originally published on Medium and received over 10,000 views. The original can be found here.