In a blog post in January, I listed several reasons why I find it so difficult to know how to speak into the current political realities that I find so upsetting. Those reasons still apply: see the list in “I Don’t Know What to Say Anymore.” I also listed a few issues that were deeply troubling to me, including this one:
Racism, white supremacy, and xenophobia are wrong, wrong, wrong. We are in a moment in the U. S. where all are being sanctioned, whether explicitly or implicitly, at the highest levels of government, with really nasty results in all kinds of places. All human beings – regardless of race, country or nationality, political party, religion or ideology, economic status, or whether they’re “legal” or “illegal” – deserve to be treated kindly and with dignity and fairness.
I still don’t know what to say, and now we’re in another moment. Over the past week, I have felt particularly depressed and disturbed as I have watched and listened to more attacks by the President of the United States against people of color. He came to political prominence in large part because of his embrace and dogged promotion of the racist “birther” movement that questioned whether President Barack Obama, the first black president, was legitimate, whether he was actually born in the United States. Trump then launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and criminals. Right from the start, he has appeared to deliberately foment fear that “the other” – people who are not like us – will destroy the America we’ve always known (or thought we knew). The “us” and “we” are white people who still constitute the majority this country but are likely to become the minority within a generation or two. For some reason, this is such a scary prospect that more people than I could ever have imagined are buying into the fear and supporting and praising a president who stokes racial resentment.
The latest evidence of racism came in the president’s tweets and his subsequent doubling, tripling, and quadrupling down on what he said in those tweets, when he told four Democratic women of color to “go back to the countries they came from.” Those words have been used in racist and xenophobic ways for centuries. Then came the rally in North Carolina where he condemned the four women in ugly and dishonest terms, and in response to his comments about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar in particular, the crowd chanted, “Send her back. Send her back.” He just stood there and let it happen (contrary to his later assertion that he tried to stop it by “speaking very quickly.” No, he didn’t; I saw the video). Switching the emphasis to “love it or leave it” didn’t help either.
While it’s bad enough that the office of the presidency of the United States is being degraded like this, what I find almost more disheartening and sad is that so many people, including many of my fellow Christians, don’t appear to be at all disturbed. I heard one supporter say, “I’d probably say the same thing,” as though that makes it okay, and I found it particularly chilling to watch people standing behind Trump at the rally enthusiastically joining in the chant, “Send her back, send her back.” (To be fair, there were some who looked uncomfortable and didn’t join in.)
In response to accusations of racism, the president often says, “I’m the least racist person you’ll ever meet” or “there isn’t a racist bone in my body.” To which I respond: Then why does he keep saying such awful things? Why does he repeat racist tropes that have been associated for decades with white supremacy? And where is the evidence of “not a racist bone” in his policies? Certainly not, as just one of many horrible examples, in his apparent lack of compassion toward brown people desperately fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries, or in the policies that separate families and confine children in conditions that have been condemned even by his own administration. (Aside: Yes, immigration has been an incredibly complex issue for many years, comprehensive solutions are elusive, and I sometimes despair that we will ever figure out how to resolve it fairly and compassionately. But that doesn’t mean that humane and common-sense solutions aren’t possible if the president and Congress would work together in good faith.)
Racism is defined by Ibram X. Kendi, the author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, as “any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” (See my review of this book.) I think he would say that “any concept” covers a lot of territory, including the implication that black and brown people don’t really belong here, which essentially translates to “you aren’t good enough to be a real American.”
I think it’s important to read and listen to black and brown Americans when they tell their own stories of being told to “go back where you came from.” I’ve also learned over many years of participating in anti-racist workshops and discussions that the bottom line is not intent but impact. Just because I don’t intend to be racist doesn’t mean that my words and actions don’t have a racist impact. That’s really hard, I think, for white people to accept and internalize, and we tend to get defensive, because for the most part, we don’t intend or want to be racist. But I would never say that there isn’t a racist bone in my body because I know that however unintentional, I probably subconsciously still harbor ideas and feelings and act in ways that are not anti-racist.
One of my African American Facebook friends recently shared this unidentified quote: “It is not enough to be quietly non-racist. Now is the time to be vocally anti-racist.” I’m not sure this post completely qualifies, and I know I haven’t said anything profound or that hasn’t been said before much more eloquently by others, but I hope it’s a start.