Ten years ago I was in an office halfway up a mountain in Israel with a new American colleague from Chicago, expressing the mixture of trepidation and excitement I felt about moving to a country — her country — I’d never lived in before. She looked at me with raised eyebrows and replied, ‘It’s going to be an interesting experience for you.’ Her coworkers at her job in Texas had held a surprise sendoff for her move to the Middle East by serving watermelon and fried chicken, smiling, ‘because you like that kind of food, right?’ She recounted this story with pregnant meaning and looked at me expectantly. I’d recently seen Super Size Me, so I figured she was providing a warning about the amount of meat I’d meet in the standard American diet. She had to explain the racialized angle on such a gesture; the idea that a fruit could be racist was my first disorienting exposure to the culture of my future home.
Ten years later and two months ago, I happened upon the history of this trope from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Instagram account, which captioned a picture, ‘before it became a racist stereotype in the Jim Crow era, watermelon once symbolized black self-sufficiency. After the Civil War, free black people grew, ate and sold watermelon — the fruit became a symbol of freedom.’
Also two months ago, a protest group of white supremacists, Nazis, and KKK members and sympathizers marched in Charlottesville at night, holding lit tiki torches that illumined their faces. Before it became an overnight racist symbol, tiki culture loosely derives from Tiki, the legend of the first man, brown-skinned, created by Polynesian Tanē, the God of beauty and peace.
Light is the thing that’s responsible for our sense of sight, which is a dominant faculty in how humans perceive reality. We saw the faces on the East Coast of those white supremacists, because light was on them as if on a stage. It’s possible to relegate their dramatic anger and violence to the domain of spectacle, as Dr. Ruha Benjamin says, but I would like to metaphorically turn that light on my own face in Colorado, to give evidence for how the themes of racism so visible recently in Virginia are but the tip of the visible iceberg of national white supremacy. Ninety percent of that iceberg is underneath and goes unnoticed and, therefore, unchanged because it is subsumed in the dark. Charlottesville has illumined more of the reality of three experiences I’ve had in my part of America since then.
The first one occurred with a close friend. She is telling me about an incident at our children’s school, providing descriptions of parents and staff I’m not entirely familiar with. One in particular just doesn’t ring a bell, so she provides further clarifying information: ‘She’s looks Jewish; if you think of a “Jewish look” — big nose.’
The second occurred with strangers: I’m dropping off expired medications at a Walgreens drop-box. They’re in my large, half-full grocery-shopping bag, and the alarm goes off as I walk in. The store is empty except for two staff members, who slowly move towards me and explain that the alarm may have been tripped by a label on a prescription. This location turns out to not have a drop-box, but I need to use the bathroom anyway, which is right at the back of the building. As I exit the store, the alarm goes off again. The staff look up at me, and, since I’ve been there for a few minutes, I offer to show them the contents of my bag. The employee who looks like a manager waves me off with, ‘No, no. You look like a trustworthy person.’
The third occurred with acquaintances: At school pickup, some adults overhear me talking and ask where I come from. I tell them my country of citizenship, and they say that they know it’s a beautiful country that they’ve always wanted to visit but ‘don’t feel comfortable traveling outside of America right now. We would be targeted, being Americans.’ I don’t think I know exactly what she’s talking about. She tries to help me understand: ‘The military is saying that terrorists, like ISIS, are targeting Americans, and we are very visibly Americans.’
It would have been possible in all three interactions to draw attention to the white supremacy at work. In the first, thinking of Ijeoma Oluo’s words that ‘everything short of racial justice is white supremacy’, I could have interrupted the presumed shared racist understanding of what a Jewish nose looks like by flatly saying something like, ‘What do you mean.’ Or, more explicitly, ‘That’s not a pleasant thing to say.’ Or, pointing out the absurdity of casually assuming a common knowledge of a ‘Jewish look’, laughing and exclaiming, ‘That’s totally racist!’
When the store manager said I ‘looked’ trustworthy, I could have made transparent how he was indulging a baseless theory of my innocence based on the cultural meanings of how I look by lightheartedly winking, “One of the benefits of being a white lady, right?’
In the third instance, a white, blonde, middle-aged and middle-class suburban mom said that she feels fear to travel internationally to others’ homelands because she may be profiled or violently attacked based on the way she looks, and I thought of the murdered parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, of Charleena Lyles, Michael Bennett, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and Tamir Rice. I could have replied, ‘Really helps you understand how black people must feel in their own country.’
However, disrupting the everyday bonding in all of these social instances — with a friend, a stranger, and an acquaintance — would have required courage and practice. Instead, I supported white supremacy and was complicit in the power of whiteness by being silent. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently said, ‘The struggle, really, if we’re trying to get to this place, this “post-racial”/“post-racist” place that people talk about: it really — forgive me — requires white people to give up “whiteness”. And that doesn’t mean give up blonde hair or give up blue eyes, but to actually give up all of the power that comes with it.’
Yesterday, a young white man came to diagnose a crack in my car’s windshield. The warranty from May of this year wouldn’t cover having to replace it for the third time in eighteen months, but, he said, lots of people drive around with cracked glass: ‘The police aren’t going to stop you for this.’ This time, I was ready: ‘Especially since I’m a white lady.’ He laughed, uncomfortably. ‘Right, that’s true.’
If white supremacy is the cultural framework in which we live, then part of my daily struggle is to learn to turn the light on banal moments of the benefit of whiteness. It is part of my education to interrogate, disrupt, interrupt, and question inequity. It is my responsibility to be vulnerable and sit in the discomfort that arises from giving up my unworthy power. I want to change: my fear into courage, my silence into speaking truth to power, and my preference for my own comfort into the practice of justice.