On Wednesday, President-Elect Joe Biden tweeted, in part, “Let me be very clear: the scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not represent who we are.” And while he is right that the vast majority of American citizens do not believe that donning arms and storming the Capitol is an acceptable way to act, there is actually something harmful about denying that these rioters are the direct products of America’s lasting legacy of white supremacy. The sentiment of “this is not who we are” is one that gets used a lot after terrible things happen, ostensibly to boost morale and promote a return to common decency. But downplaying reality and pretending that our nation has always been one that promotes all things civil, just and equitable, is wrong. It is whitewashing the history of violence that has very much always defined America for anyone hailing from any marginalized community in the States.
Make no mistake about it: White supremacy and racial violence are ingrained into the marrow of our country’s bones. Lest we forget (and as a nation, we sure do try hard to), America was founded on the genocide of millions of Indigenous peoples. Manifest Destiny depended upon the death and destruction of existing societies and ways of living. Race itself is a social construct that came about after the Black Death wiped out an entire class of white indentured servants, so as to justify stealing and enslaving people from Africa. Remember Jim Crow. Remember segregation. Remember the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Yellow Peril. Vincent Chin. Japanese concentration camps. How white people living in the parts of Mexico that are now California and Texas straight up seceded from the country. Because they could. Remember Puerto Rico, because the U.S. so often chooses not to. Of course, this is only the most cursory of lists of all the ways white supremacy has dictated our history. And, importantly, this is only what’s taken place on our soil—this doesn’t even begin to touch upon the problematic issues of missionaries, the white savior complex, and neocolonialism, which continues to peddle lies in order to give old white businessmen access to resources in less well-off nations.
This is who we are. As a nation, this is the legacy our forefathers left for us. America as it exists today came to be this way because of white supremacy, not in spite of it.
Think about segregation again. We now know, in hindsight, that there was nothing “equal” about the “separate but equal” way that our nation was divided at the end of the 19th century. And yet, our schools are still segregated today, more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education. Think about the prison system. Redlining. Voter suppression. Women’s rights. Unequal pay. Boys’ clubs, Ivy Leagues, discrimination within hiring practices and the language with which we speak about these inequities. This is not the past we’re talking about here. This is present-day, current-policy, proud-to-be-an-American America. We define who we are by how we talk about ourselves, and what we choose to leave out or distance ourselves from.
White supremacy is still who we are.
It’s baked into the fact that Trump’s supporters were given wide berth when they forced their way into the Capitol Wednesday, while peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors were tear-gassed, shot at and manhandled last summer. It’s obvious in how plenty of liberal white folks were appalled by the entirely predictable actions of the conspiracy-theory-wielding mob. (Because willful innocence is part of white supremacy, too.) And it sure as hell is present in the accusation that anyone who dares to criticize America’s white winner-take-all mentality is “unpatriotic.” White supremacy is not just people in white hoods and angry rioters with guns. When we assume there is a “them” to deal with versus an “us” to fix, we perpetuate these cycles of harm.
Sports are huge in America—and around the globe—because we want to have something to root for, to rally around. We thrive on competition and winning and teams. We want to believe in people, things, ideas and possibilities. This is who we are, too. But when we accept the false claim that this “isn’t who we are” when it comes to white supremacy, we’re distancing ourselves from ourselves and inevitably failing to do the hard work of examining our own complicity within an unjust system. No one likes looking at themselves in the mirror after a rough night, but maybe we have to start to do that in order to learn our own limits.
We as human beings are primed for an “us vs. them” mentality; it’s how we’ve survived thus far as a species. But when fellow American citizens have in fact been dying at the hands of white supremacy for millennia, hearing politicians claim “this is is not who we are” rings false. It’s the same as white people standing on their soap boxes to say “hey white people”—it’s well-intentioned, but you can’t separate yourself from who and what you are. Doing so places the blame on outliers and individuals, and ignores the systems and foundational beliefs that continue to encourage white supremacy rather than combat it. And if we don’t first acknowledge this fact, then we won’t ever actually take the steps to address our societal ills. Just ask anyone who’s been through a 12-step program.
So instead of retorting that “this isn’t who we are,” maybe what we can proclaim instead is that “this isn’t who we want to be.” Because as much as we want to distance ourselves from the rioters in DC, they are the product of the very systems and policies that have given rise to America in the first place. History is holding up a mirror to us as a nation again and again, and we have to stop looking away.
As the late and great Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” White supremacy is who we are as a society, and it’s time we stop deluding ourselves so we can actually, actively, get to work dismantling it.