The refrain became so familiar, so quickly. I heard it from Joe Biden on the radio just this morning, talking about Charlottesville. I heard it in the days following the president’s first attempt to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the country. I heard it over and over in 2017, and each time it hit my ear with the same hollow, tinny register, like someone was speaking to me through a tin can and a string.
“This isn’t us,” they said. They seemed to mean it. “This isn’t who we are. This isn’t America.” I wondered if they had ever read Notes on the State of Virginia, in which Thomas Jefferson carefully outlined important tenets and observations of the world as he saw them: local climate patterns and wind currents, the birds that could be found in the region, and the fact that black people were incapable of complex thought, true grief, or reflection beyond the moment of the present. These were the facts of life as Thomas Jefferson saw them, and he annotated them carefully, surely in the hopes that we might read them. I worry that not enough of us have.
It’s my chosen profession to write about how segregated our country is, the many fissures that run between people and buildings and neighborhoods. Mine is often a world of dismal numbers and abstract fractures. But frequently, in much more quotidian ways, I am reminded that Barack Obama was wrong in his rousing 2004 speech: There is not, despite his insistence, one America. This is most evident to me when — well, if I’m honest, this is most evident to me when I hear the rousing, soul-stirring enthusiasm with which white folks sing “Sweet Caroline” at public functions. But second to that, this is most evident to me when I hear this isn’t us and I wonder how so many people have lived this way for so long. How is it that they have been raised in the same America as I and have evaded the fact that our culture is defined by violence?
As far as I can tell, this feat of cognitive dissonance rests on a simple principle: Relegate the experiences of people of color, people with disabilities, and queer people to the marginalia of history. If we are footnotes — never the main text — it’s possible to understand America as a fundamentally just and noble country, wherein violence is the caveat rather than the rule.
This is all well and good until you consider the enormity of what we are being asked to forget. This year, in conversations…