I've been wanting to write this one for a while, but didn't know exactly how to do it. Racism in the United States is a big issue, and often I don't like writing about big issues. I like focusing on modular things, writing about things piece by piece, and not unleashing another voice in the cacophony. But sometimes events align in such a way I don't feel right keeping silent. .I can't write a definitive answer for everyone, and my opinion might add some understanding. I hope so.
Earlier this week, an unarmed African-American 23 year old man was shot 20 times in his grandparents backyard. The police believed he was carrying a gun. He was carrying a phone. He was suspected of breaking car windows. Also this week, a 23 year old serial bomber in Austin committed suicide with an improvised explosive device as police were closing in on him. He was, as most white killers are, a shy, sweet kid who kept to himself and who wasn't capable of violence. He was raised in a conservative, almost separatist environment, and was at times outspoken in conservative beliefs. His bombings seem to have targeted African-Americans. When questioned, however, the Austin police chief said:
I know everybody is interested in a motive and understanding why. And we’re never going to be able to put a rationale behind these acts. He does not at all mention anything about terrorism nor does he mention anything about hate. But instead, it is the outcry of a very challenged young man, talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point.
In general, I applaud sensitivity from the police, but in this case, it seems like an odd time for a Texas police officer to go existentialist
on us. This was a man who killed two people and injured several others in cold
, premeditated murder
. A man who seemingly would have gone on to kill more.
All the facts aren't known. There is a lot of context, always. Maybe the man shot in Sacramento was a serial rapist. Maybe the Austin bomber suffered from severe mental illness. I don't like to make a blanket statement, but I have seen this pattern too many times. Young black men are tough, strong criminals who have chosen a life of crime. Young white men are silly, immature kids who are in over their heads.
You might think I am here to write a polemic against America's racism against black people. But I am actually here to talk about America's racism against white people, which is the other side to the coin. I am here to talk about the myth of white fragility, the myth that white people are immature, weak and unaware. This myth is so prevalent, it is hard for me to say when I first encountered it. Perhaps because my background was not universally "suburban and middle class", I picked it up much later than most. I remember in my late teens, when I set out to study martial arts, there would sometimes be askance looks, and comments that I would quickly "get my ass kicked" if I was in a fight with "a tough black dude". Once or twice, these exact words were used to me, but usually it was more a general way to contrast the silliness of an 18 year old with a few months of kung-fu with the reality of the mean streets. Which was probably fairly accurate, but still was full of essentialism: white people were naturally weak and unsuited for action, and no matter of practice could make me a match for the essential physical superiority and natural athleticism of black people. The stereotype cuts both ways, and is insulting to each. And it comes in many varieties. White people are physically weak. They are awkward and clumsy with their bodies (and of course, bad at dancing). They are also socially clumsy, lacking in verbal wit and fashion sense. And that leads us into being sexually unattractive, especially for white men. They are, in the word I chose for the title, fragile, with any posturing undertaken dissolving under the pressure of real life. And maybe even more than those things, they are inauthentic. Real feelings are hidden behind a mask of detachment and irony. Or maybe there are no real feelings, and the detachment isn't a mask, just a mode. There is a line from the surface stereotype of white people, of being weak, clumsy, and socially awkward, to the idea of white people being unreal, of living in a world of facile and meaningless decisions.
All of this is in contrast to the group that is amorphously called "non-white" in the United States, who are described using opposite adjectives, words that are seemingly complimentary but, as in most cases of cultural foiling, are backhanded compliments. The opposite stereotype to the unreal white man is the sexualized, emotionally impulsive and violent black man. The counterpoint to the white man who is a brain with no experiences of their own is the minority that lives purely on instinct. And the end result of the white exurbanite living in a surreal connectionless landscape where every encounter can be retreated from, where everything can be laughed off as "just a joke, bro", is the African-American who faces fatal consequences from the slightest literal misstep.
I am, in the United States, a "white person". I am mature, and have the ability to understand the world around me, and that my emotions and actions have real consequences. I live in a world that I can effect. I am physically capable of hurting others. I can create and express. My language, culture and experiences are my own, things that belong to me, and not just things I am commenting on as an outsider. I am real. Me refusing to believe that the caricature of whiteness in America is true is part of the cure for the increasingly bizarre racism that is showing up in myriad ways across the United States.