Coming and going from work today I heard stories about the SAE chapter—or, I should say, former SAE chapter—at OU being disbanded because of a video that surfaced showing the members chanting a song that used the n-word and talked about lynching. I have chosen not to watch the video and take the word of the reporters that it was heinous and terrible and, well, evil. It is also a reminder that we do not live in a post-racial society, even if it’s been fifty years since they marched across the bridge in Selma.
I had lunch today with bell hooks’ book once again and it feels as if she is listening to the news even though she wrote the words years ago about race and racism, about “the representation of whiteness in the black imagination.” Her words were illuminating, convicting, haunting and difficult. I pass some of them along here.
I think that one fantasy of whiteness is that the threatening Other is always a terrorist. This projection enables many white people to imagine there is no representation of whiteness as terror, as terrorizing. Yet it is this representation of whiteness in the black imagination, first learned in the narrow confines of poor black rural community, that is sustained by my travels to many different locations. To travel, I must always move through fear, confront terror.
Terror is the word that has stayed with me since. She continues:
Even though I live and move in spaces where I am surrounded by whiteness, there is no comfort that makes the terrorism disappear. All black people in the United States, irrespective of their class status or politics, live with the possibility that they will be terrorized by whiteness.
As much as I wish she were overstating the case, I think how many times I have heard in recent days of another police shooting of “an unarmed black man.” I think about the Supreme Court dismantling the Voting Rights Act, closely followed by state legislatures like ours here in North Carolina who went to work quickly making it more difficult for people of color to vote. And I think about those white students at Oklahoma who gave us a bold reminder that she is telling the truth.
In contemporary American society, white and black people alike believe that racism no longer exists. This erasure, however mythic, diffuses the representation of whiteness as terror in the black imagination. It allows for assimilation and forgetfulness. The eagerness with which contemporary society does away with racism, replacing this recognition with evocations of pluralism and diversity that further mask reality, is a response to the terror. It has also become a way to perpetuate the terror by providing a cover, a hiding place.
Hiding places like that fraternity house. The actions of those young men beg us to do more than treat them as aberrations. My guess is they didn’t just learn that song over the weekend. They learned it from those who came before them, who now act horrified but feel no differently than the students. That song has been sung before, perhaps long before there were smart phones with cameras.
The NPR story this afternoon talked about the history and status of SAE, mentioning more than once that many of its members had gone on to work on Wall Street. One current member basically said that’s why he joined: it was his ticket to a job in the halls of power and commerce. As I said the other night, all we have to do is look at Congress’ class picture to see white men still run the show and are an image that invokes terror to those who are not white.
What was perhaps most powerful in what I read over lunch was that hooks was not out to blame white people, but to ask us to come to terms with the reality of our collective history. As James Baldwin said, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” hooks talked about white people “who had shifted locations”—who had moved to see the world differently. She said of one, “Understanding how racism works, he can see the way in which whiteness acts to terrorize without seeing himself as bad, or all white people as bad, and all black people as good.”
The thing I carry away as much as anything is a reminder that white is not normal anymore than being black or brown is different. We who have been born in privilege must shift to a location where we can see we are neither called to nor deserving of our place of power. It is not the job of the rest of the world to learn to do it our way. It is our calling, as those to whom much has been given, to deconstruct the cultural systems,—economic, political, religious—that feed the terror, to incarnate the truth that love casts out fear.
Like I said, her words were illuminating, convicting, haunting and difficult–and true.