So as some of you know I wrote this book about schizophrenia. It’s not quite done but it’s real close. Anyway I mention it only because when you write a book about schizophrenia, you end up reading the whole time about eugenicists. How the Nazis tested out gas chambers on asylum patients. How the Americans castrated hundreds of thousands deemed to be imbeciles or insane.
ICYMI: eugenics is a belief system, based in 19th century white male pseudoscience, that argues, basically, that white men are better than other people and other people, therefore, deserve to be segregated, tortured, killed, etc. It was invented by Charles Darwin’s cousin. It’s British and American. It was made most famous by Hitler.
They don’t really teach about American eugenics in American public school (or at least, during the course of my exceptionally good American public school education the topic was grazed at best), opting instead to kinda imply that re: WWII, the German people were somehow extra bad, did bad stuff, and the Americans were the heroes. A headline or tweet I’ve encountered often during the last year or so, often written by a German, boasts that in Germany, people are taught that of course people are rarely inherently evil or inherently good. That populations can slide, totally, in the direction of evil.
Today, because of genetics—the study of genes—we know that these categories—races, genders—don’t actually mean much, when you look under the proverbial hood. Genetic variance within ‘black’ or ‘white’ is higher than across groups. (I’ve said this before, but read The Gene.) Never the matter, of course: these ideas rooted in 19th century white male pseudoscience are of course unbelievably socially powerful.
I am a white American and I am evil. I’m not sure when or how I began figuring this out (because they don’t want you to figure it out). My childhood was spent in California, in the backseat of a car, passing through poor neighborhoods where black people lived, passing rows of Hispanic men waiting for work outside of Safeway. I was a child buckled in, being driven back to our neighborhood, our idyllic white hideaway. What separated us was money but what really separated us was race and when you’re a white child it can take a while to figure out that that’s what’s going on. White people, the white people I was raised around at least, don’t really talk about race; that topic, it seemed, was impolite.
I was a child, on vacation, in Mexico. I saw poverty and I saw race even if I did not know what either was. I saw the other people whose lives weren’t like mine and I saw them looking at me.
I was a child of seven, in a school that was almost entirely white. We had a teacher, a black woman. She taught us table manners. She taught us Spanish. She held us each to a high standard and I worked especially hard to please her. She talked to us about race. She explained to us what her childhood had been like. She once, crumpled, wept with us because in somewhere called Oklahoma a man had killed some children with a bomb. I knew then that she was the smartest person I knew.
Through the years, we were taught about slavery, which was something that bad people in the south had done. We weren’t taught about the Great Migration; our teachers didn’t much acknowledge the black people who did live in the Bay Area. We were taught about racism, of course; racism was bad. Being racist was bad. Nobody I knew was racist and everybody I knew was racist. We were taught us about what was called “manifest destiny,” and how it was sad that the native people had had to die back then. I still have only a vague idea of how the white people on my father’s side came to the Bay Area, but I know it happened sometime in mid the 19th century. I have no idea what blood is on my hands.
On a field trip, they took us to what they called a “Miwok Village” some 45 minutes north of the town where I went to school. We sat cross legged in a hut on earth made of bark while a park ranger spoke. We talked about eating acorns and used drills to bore holes in abalone shells. The indigenous people of the Bay Area were referred to only in the past tense. We weren’t told about the ones who are still alive, whose ancestors were enslaved, killed, first by the Spanish, and then by white Americans. They didn’t talk about their continued fight for recognition from the federal government.
We pledged allegiance to the flag. I was a singer; I can sing you every patriotic song, and every conceivable song about Christmas. We didn’t have Jesus, really, in my white America; I didn’t go to church, nor did anybody I knew. (I knew one Catholic, several not-very-observant Jews, and my hometown happened to have a large Buddhist retreat so I was accustomed to seeing Buddhists walking down the highway.) But I remember after 9/11 especially, this one girls’ choir I was in — we wore these big pillowy pants, and halter tops with gold and black sequins—we had to go to so many retirement homes and do so many renditions of “God Bless the USA!”
My high school combined a large wealthy white district and a much smaller, much poorer black district, and though we walked the same halls we were still segregated from one another. They had already decided some of us had the potential to become something and the rest were left to become something else. Again we didn’t talk about this.
I learned I was evil from people and experiences but mostly from books. Books about history. Books written by black and brown people — black women especially.
When I was a teenager, I became for a while obsessed with the siege of Sarajevo. I don’t remember how this came about. I turned 18 right as I graduated, and I flew, with my savings, with a boyfriend, to Sarajevo. My parents were not thrilled. I wanted to see the sidewalks with plastic mortar pressed into them—the books I’d read had likened them to roses. I wanted to see the line of trees on the edge of the city, the bowl of a city, that commemorated where the line had been. We arrived there and I still cannot tell you why I wanted to go. I think I went because I suspected that my own life had been steeped in privilege and peace and I knew anywhere I looked I could instead find the mark of my own evil. I did see the ring of trees. I did see the plastic mortars pressed into the sidewalks, too, and they were unsettlingly beautiful.
I learned I was evil when I went to Manila, the capitol of a country America had invaded, taken for our own. I tried to wrap my mind around the statistics, around the sheer volume of human tragedy we had created there.
I learned I was evil when I went to the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, in Santiago, Chile. Our country had shot a democratically elected leader there, sending that country into turmoil, and this was a memorial to the thousands who were disappeared, tortured, in so many ways ruined by us.
In my early twenties, I taught freshmen and sophomores at a big public state university in the Midwest. Generally speaking my students didn’t like reading or writing, but I can tell you, assuredly, that they were moved by Maus. They had, evidently, never contemplated the Holocuast or what that truly means. I have thought often of my students lately, and I hope that I made even a few of them not become Nazis now.
I’ve written before about the experience of teaching uncurious people — especially white people who suspect that they have little to gain from allowing their minds, their hearts, to engage with how the world actually is and, therefore, who they are. As long as I’m alive, this will continue to be my work. I do not have faith in what America has been. I can, however, continue to listen to its promises, however unmet, and hope, despite everything, that a better world is possible.
I have been laughing at this for several weeks now:
Read Solange be interviewed by her *ahem* older sister.
Listen to Solange break down “Cranes in the Sky” on Song Exploder. This contains a really good description of a principle I also like to (try) to follow, which is if really bad shit happens — like really, really bad shit — it’s important to mourn for two days and then on the third day rise.
Side bar, from this profile of their mom, check out this epic tale about what it’s like to try to interview Beyoncé:
Second side bar: something very disturbing happened to me the other night:
I was hanging out with two white men, and it became clear that they had not listened to Lemonade. They both half-indicated they were aware of it — one of them boasted he had watched the video the night it premiered. I told them what I’ll now tell you — because apparently this hasn’t been made very clear — you have to listen to Lemonade.
Listen to Young Oprah.
Are you a white woman who feels threatened by the notion that white people as a whole are complicit with white supremacy? Sounds like you’ve got some reading to do. Via SMI’s newsletter, MHP’s black feminism syllabus and another list from Tracy Clayton.
Here’s a place to start. Do what you can. Do more than you have ever done before.
p.s. I was trying to find a bigger version of one of the shots of Rihanna in her protest looQ and Google was like ‘oh is this a photo of the concept of cool’ and then suggested some ~other cool things~ like MATH GAMES and THE DICTIONARY:
p.p.s. I think this one’s my favorite: