The Shame Is Not Ours
Roots and the Responsibility White American’s Have for Donald Trump
Like many Black Americans, I tuned into The History Channel to watch the groundbreaking series Roots enter American homes once again. I have never fully watched the original Roots, and I know now more than ever what a travesty that truly is. This piece, however, is not about Roots, not really, but about the placement of shame.
On the slave ship crossing The Atlantic Ocean, Kunta tells his Uncle Silla that he’s ashamed: ashamed he didn’t fight the slavers harder, ashamed he didn’t live up to his own vision of a Mandinka warrior. In one of the wisest lines of the series Silla tells him, “The shame is not ours Kunta”.
I have had an ugly relationship with shame my entire life, and it is only recently that I have decided to try and shed some of it. My most recent musings about shame, and who should carry the burden of it, revolve around the 2016 election. The fact that a toupee wearing, orange, brash, overtly racist, Islamaphobic real estate robber baron is a stone’s throw from The White House, has confounded many. There are a myriad of explanantions across the web for his ascendence; I can think of only one: Whitness is a helluva drug.
I, along with many “young idealists” that support Senator Bernie Sanders in this election, might not vote for Hillary Clinton if she is on the ballot with Donald Trump come November. There are many reasons for this, most of which are discussed here by these two brilliant young feminists. There is much fretting in The Democratic Party about the “Bernie or Bust” movement or folks like me who are contemplating a Green Party vote. They worry that this will tip the scales in Trump’s favor.
I have thought about this a great deal. What if Donald Trump becomes the president? Further, what if it’s partly attributed to the progressive folks who didn’t want to back Clinton? Is it my fault? Then I remember, “the shame is not ours”.
Donald Trump is not an inexplicable phenomenon. Throughout history, advancements by minority groups, especially Black Americans, have been followed by aggressive backlash from White America. The phenomenon of Donald Trump is a direct response to not just Barack Obama’s election and tenure in the White House, but shifts in who has access to opportunity and resources and conversations across platforms about whose lives matter and whose voices should be heard. As Gene Demby details on NPR:
When Trump’s supporters aren’t being written off as intellectually incapable of knowing a huckster when they see one, their motivations are often ascribed to their being “working class.” But the working class today is nearly 40 percent people of color — and among people of color, Trump is profoundly unpopular. His coalition is nearly entirely white. Even the class part of the “working class” narrative is inaccurate; Trump’s supporters are wealthier than most Americans, and have higher incomes than supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The “working class revolt” explanation for Trump’s rise is overstated — and it can be a useful dodge to avoid talking about explanations involving racial grievance.
Donald Trump should indeed illicit shame. He’s not just an embarassing baffoon who discusses his own dick on a presidential debate stage, he represents imminent danger to large groups of people from Syrian refugees to young, Black protestors. American history is full of shameful acts, from slavery and the genocide of the indigenous population to Japanese internment. Regardless of whether or not Trump wins, many people believe that Americans will look back on this moment in shame. However, like slavery, genocide, and internment, that shame belongs to White America.
I still remember U.S. History in 5th, 8th, and 11th grade. It was shame that made me shrink in my seat, that kept my gaze down when we covered slavery. It was not me who should have felt the shame, but the White students learning about the legacy they inherited.
Donald Trump is steeped in Whiteness. He vows to “Make America Great Again”, but whom has America ever been great for? White people are responsible for Trump. However, it is not enough to just feel shame; it’s what you do with that shame. White folks, go get your people. The next time you are in Supercuts (is that what you have instead of the barber shop?), tell the White person next to you, fear over White people not being the majority in 2042 is not a valid reason to elect a fascist. Strike up a conversation with the man in the checkout line in front of you in your local Walmart with that stupid red hat on his head and explain that an undocumented immigrant didn’t “take his job”. At the 4th of July BBQ this year instead of making a beeline for the beer cooler when Uncle Jack sets in on a tirade against “the uppity Blacks”, tell him he’s a racist to his face and send him some books. Many people reading this would never in a million years vote for this insidious cretin the Republican Party is nominating for President (to be clear the options were all insidious cretins of varying degrees, yes you too Jeb!™). Despite this, they must have a stake in bringing him down.
White America has a lot of work to do; it has taken centuries to create the foundation of White supremacy Trump now stands on. It will take a lot of work to dismantle it. This work does not include harassing young people of color like me, who for a myriad of reasons don’t back Secretary Clinton, it does not include Bernie Bros finding women who support Clinton to harass on Twitter, and it doesn’t involve voting for Satan himself to bring about the “revolution”. This requires having incredibly difficult conversations about the role of Whiteness in American life, using networks and access to power to redistribute resources more equitably, and yes, it requires a bit of shame.