Near the end of last year, I became a father. As expected, it’s been full of ups and downs, joys and frustrations, precious moments and sleepless nights. But one thing I didn’t expect to encounter was racism. More specifically, racism in the guise of compliments.
My partner is Mexican and currently we are living here as we wait an eternity for the US immigration system to process her visa request. During this time, we’ve been inundated by visits from her family members and friends. And I’ve been consistently taken aback by how many have pointed out the color of our child’s skin and complimented us on it – as if we somehow genetically modified our baby to meet their racialized expectations. “How light-skinned he is!” or “Oh, what a good color! Congratulations!” are some of the more frequent comments.
To be certain, our child is light-skinned and at this moment can easily pass as white. But the phenomenon of an individual telling my partner that she had “chosen well” by reproducing with me and as a result was “improving the race” was not a response we had been anticipating. Nor the other range of comments, such as our child being smart because “first-world babies are more advanced.” One wonders what words would have been (un)spoken if our child had different skin pigmentation.
Following a calamitous event such as the election of Donald Trump, the first reactions are often visceral. Those who view it positively gloat and interpret it as greater permission to act according to their more base impulses, seen in the increase in anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and racistattacks since November 8. Those who view it negatively experience a kind of shock and anger. In an attempt to process the unexpected, those emotions frequently are vented in the form of projection, utilizing shame and blame in an attempt to shore up a challenged worldview. Social media exacerbates this by permitting us all to become unfiltered pundits, clicking the “post” button to bestow legitimacy upon any thought that may pop into our heads or trying to acquire social capital by presenting oneself as the holder of the correct analysis.
I’m of course of the opinion that Trump’s election is a negative occurrence. The thousands who have been militantly taking the streets all around the United States are an encouraging sign, especially heartening are the youth, disenfranchised by this system yet perhaps the most at risk from it, organizing walkouts of their schools. The immediate and spontaneous rejection shown in the streets establishes an important oppositional framework for the long road that lies ahead and serves as a way to communicate to one another, to those most at-risk under a Trump regime, and to the rest of the world that the fight back is already underway. But as we are all aware, street actions are never enough. From an anarchist perspective, this moment calls for reflection along with action. In my view, I see three main tasks: a) problematizing electoral politics; b) understanding Trump’s victory; and, c) planning for the long haul.
In a recent post – Racism, privilege, guilt and social justice – I say a couple of times that “I was racist,” in relating my process of becoming aware of white supremacy and white privilege. That realization was a powerful moment for me that I’d like to unpack a bit more. In part, I said it for effect, to put myself out there in no uncertain terms, to bring the issue home to self, because that is where it resides. Racism is not something that happens “out there” but inside of me and everyone else in this society. (This is clearly not an exact formulation and obviously racism plays out very differently internally and externally for people of color than it does white people.)
It is easy to find racism in the most heinous of acts, such as the Emanuel AME Church shooting or the burning of Black churches. To point to something outside and identify and judge it as racist also provides a false sense of separation and distance between the ordinary white person and racism. But what of the seemingly inconsequential, mundane racism that daily insinuates and reinforces itself in our society and culture? The type of racism that truly sustains the system of white supremacy and is the cornerstone upon which is based the fanaticism that leads to atrocities such as the one in Charleston? That is the racism that is reproduced societally but also impacts individually, as I encountered at age 17 and what led me to realize that I was/am racist.
I hesitate to write this. I do not feel it is my place to take up space opining on what happened. I would, however, like to attempt to hold a space for reflection in this corner of the internet.
Nine people are dead. How does one respond? For me, the first act is to give space for grief. Lives have been taken, families torn apart, a community terrorized. Those facts easily get lost to analysis and spin. I cannot imagine the pain, loss, disbelief, fear, anger, confusion, sadness, or outrage that this single event has laid at the feet of so many. My heart hurts for those lives stolen and those who now find a piece (and peace) missing in their lives. Those in the midst of this storm must be tended to and cared for.
The next part is to understand. I am not original in identifying this massacre as the culmination of what white supremacy offers. The Charleston killings are only the latest manifestation of a politics and belief structure embedded in the fabric of the United States. One that traces its legacy from the genocide of the indigenous populations to slavery to Jim Crow to the prison industrial complex to Ferguson and countless indignities and atrocities committed along the way. This was not an aberration or a bad apple, it is part – granted, an extreme part – of how the institution of white supremacy unfolds in the United States.