The Unbearable Whiteness of Being, Part II

Let’s be honest with ourselves about ourselves, America.

For a very long time, many of us United States citizens gallumphed through life with a certain grinning arrogance. Contemporary Don Quixotes, we donned relentless positivity like custom suits of tinfoil armor. As tourists, we were known abroad for our loud cheer: a skin-deep friendliness completely detached not only from the darker realities of life, but often from our own feelings. We paraded our baffling naïveté from work to home and back again as though it were purity. Each dollop of optimism carried an indelible strain of stubbornness (of which we were also unduly proud). Underneath that façade, we have been ignorant, greedy, pushy, angry idiots, impervious to critique and relentlessly bored by debate.

What is it that makes us so sure we’ll win every argument—to the point that we won’t even bother fighting? Where does this certainty of our own superiority originate?

Power. Power that, in our minds, we possess supreme, that we sport like expensive sneakers on a visit to Windsor Castle.

In my younger days, a teacher of mine introduced me to a book entitled The End of Victory Culture; that phrase resonated in me like a plucked string. I had the uncanny feeling of seeing myself for the first time. For power, to us, has become equated with an inexorable weapons cache, and indomitable currency. We have also claimed the moral authority that comes along with the idea of Democracy—one person, one vote, everyone’s equal—although many of our own legislators, operators, and citizens have actively worked to stymie that ideal abroad and at home, over and over again. The “American Dream” has become conflated with bald capitalism, self-righteous monotheism, and worship of the kind of power that can be bought by the barrel of a gun and the shadow of a nuke. Patriotism, for many of us, has devolved into little more than fascism. But let’s be real: It isn’t shocking that a nation unwilling to confront its own history bravely and honestly should become a haven for demagogues and hypocrites.

Those who have historically wielded power have always rushed to call themselves the Real Americans. The rest of us—even the clear majority defined by the democracy hypocrites claim to revere—are traitors. By default. By necessity.

But the dichotomy itself is rotten. The worldview we learn to take for granted is a capitalistic binary. There are two parts to the whole: winner/loser, greater/lesser, better/worse, right/wrong. Almost every American I know walks around with this set of scales, and almost every American I know uses it constantly, for everything. We are doing well, or we are poorly. The weather is fine, or miserable. Dinner was fantastic, or it completely missed the mark.

Ex-President Huckster is easy to mock in a few obvious ways—one of those being his childish handling of language. In stark, hyperbolic pronouncements, he habitually rendered judgment on whatever or whomever caught his attention in any given second. He came to truly believe in the persona created for and popularized by reality TV, wherein he could disinherit other desperate celebrities with a two-word phrase.

If only those other people, the ones who aren’t white, would just stop pretending they’re as good as white people—and while they’re at it, they should stop being so mean to white people, because they’re really hurting white people’s feelings.

And just think! If only people would stop telling men not to be men. We all know men have needs, and when they express those needs, that’s a good thing! It’s a compliment! Let them get back to doing the fighting and hunting for everyone else, girls being sweet is the least they should be able to expect. The very least.

And it’s about time we stopped letting these criminals come on over the border! We set the global example, sure, we are the best, we know, but they can’t really expect us to let them live here! Not unless there’s fruit to pick or bathrooms to clean—and even then, they should probably cross back over the border at the end of the day. But mostly, they ought to take their gangbangers and get out, once and for all! Or we can let the cops do their jobs and just exterminate the bad guys, like all those black guys on those videos! They sure don’t look innocent! They’re obviously criminals, all of them, and they need to leave all the decent Americans ALONE!

This kind of rhetoric sounds idiotic coming from anyone, but it’s worse than idiocy: It’s pathology. Hate speech drives those who hear it unquestioned and those who use it insane. It rends a sociopathic wound into the fabric of our culture, and disturbs all of us to a profound degree. I mean to say that white supremacy, patriarchy, and fascism genuinely harm every one of us. It’s all too evident that, for many Americans, one minor incident would be enough to send us careening off the edge.

Evidence abounds in video of “Karens” shrieking at whatever poor worker behind whichever counter can’t fulfill her latest unreasonable demand; or “Kens” ranting and frothing at Spanish speakers in public spaces for having the gall to converse within earshot; or, most telling, in people calling the police on fellow citizens on the smallest pretext—typically, for Breathing While Black. We’ve seen too many people behaving this way to deny a pattern exists.

So many factors make us who we are, of course, but as a whole, I worry about what I see as a growing tendency to dehumanize each other. Perhaps that seems funny given the caricatures I’ve sketched above—but I seriously do hope to understand how all of us contribute to the worst parts of our collective identity. I don’t want to stop seeing anyone as human, regardless of whether they’re capable of returning the favor.

We find a similar pattern among men. In the “Nice Guys” whose faces suddenly twist with bitterness when the women they’ve pretended to befriend decline to fuck them, those whose catcalls quickly transform to curses and threats when their demands go unanswered. When what they see as theirs by right has the gall to exhibit any sign of free will.

So many of our interactions with other people are transactional these days, a rote exchange of goods/services for whatever’s deemed their equivalent. We determine other people’s worth by what they can do for us, or give us, instead of viewing them as individuals in their own right.

The most egregious public examples can be found online, in forums where trolls gleefully trash people’s most cherished beliefs, or the viral videos that reveal us at our tantruming, entitled worst (to say nothing of any given “comments” section, of course). This is the stuff of everyday life, online most of all.

I learned long ago how wildly my social worth can fluctuate, for the most superficial reasons. How I dress. The depth of my tan. The company I keep. My manner of speech. My hairstyle. The measure of civility I’m afforded by the white societal status quo largely depends on my willingness and ability to assimilate, to “pass,” to conform to the governing ideal.

I’ve had cooperative stretches, even for long periods of time, but all told, I have not successfully conformed to the dominant paradigm (insofar as a person like me is capable of such), and it costs. When I transgress too far, I am punished.

But to me, the alternative is far worse: To be a successful member, or even leader, of the mob. To be that is no luxury, no matter the reward. It costs everything that actually matters.

Tell it like it is.

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