For Real This Time
“Since we live in a society that promotes fads and temporary superficial adaptation of different values we are easily convinced that changes have occurred in arenas where there has been little or no change.” -Bell Hooks (1984)
Thirty-three years ago Bell Hooks articulated a truth that rang as true then as it does today. When I began writing this piece early last week, the mass shootings in Al Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio had not yet taken place. However, in the aftermath of the incidents the ideas began to crystalize. I want to start by offering my sincerest condolences not just to the families and friends of the those whose lives were snuffed out, but also to all Americans. The collective heart of the nation is heavy. I cannot help but wonder though, just how many more of these incidents need to happen for us to admit that this is not simply a case of one mentally ill gunman, but instead, perhaps a case of a psychologically disturbed nation.
We cannot seem to wrap our heads around the current acts of violence. We are outraged and shocked and we should be, but we must also never forget that this nation was founded on murder and hatred, bloodshed and loss of life. America…Brought to you by the theft of Native lands, the rape and murder of Native peoples, the enslavement and torture of African people, the subsequent disenfranchisement of the Negro, no Colored, no African-American, no Black man, woman, boy, girl. Brought to you by the lynching of Black people, the internment of Japanese Americans, the torture of Muslims…
We cannot continue to be outraged and shocked by acts of violence while we ignore the roots of that violence. We have to disavow our practices of violence that have made us who we are and that sustain our way of life. We have to teach our children that our barbaric, violent acts of land acquisition and the subjugation of the people on those lands was wrong, then we have to make amends. We have to stop participating in the continued acts of violence that have only changed shape, appearing less sinister, but that do the same damage, like voter suppression, the prison industrial complex, unfair housing lending practices, disparities in education…I could go on.
Bell Hooks’ words are eerily fitting for a time such as this. We keep having to confront the same problems over and over again; problems we thought we had solved. We shouted and marched and got laws passed. Hooks was talking about “white supremacy” in the 80s! Black men were lynched before the Civil Rights era. Post Civil Rights they are shot by the police in the streets! Is it just me? Or is something wrong here? I thought we had already taken care of these things, but they just keep resurfacing.
It’s like taking your car to the mechanic over and over again to get it fixed. Each time you get the car back it runs well for awhile, or so it seems, but then the same problem pops back up again. You begin to wonder if the mechanic is working on the car at all. After awhile one might suggest you just take your car to the junkyard, save up some cash and buy a new one. Well, we can't just take our nation to the junkyard. We’re stuck with it. We have to get to the root of the problem and really solve it. No more temporary fixes, unless of course, we kind of like going back and forth to the mechanic.
I recently attended a seminar on the arts and social change. The sponsor organization had words like ‘anti-racism’ and ‘anti-oppression’ in its mission statement. There was a line-up of speakers and artists of color. Yet somehow, we did not accomplish anything that would lead us to eradicating racism or oppression. In fact, we did not even leave the space with a better understanding of those forces and our complicity in their continued existence. Instead, we left confused and traumatized. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. Organizations are wising up. Colleges are re-printing brochures with glossy pictures of students of color whether or not they actually have the staff and infrastructure in place to support those students when they show up. Fortune five hundred companies are making diversity hires; the more boxes they can check, the better. Non-profits are revamping their mission statements to include terms like “anti-racism” and “anti-oppression” without doing the real work to unpack and authentically embody those terms.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that I know these terms inside out myself. I continue seek out clarity around them and how they might be more than just terms, but actions, ways of living that might engender a better society. That said, I do feel strongly that throwing them around without investigation, authentic dialogue and commitment to their realization is very dangerous. We might be tricked into thinking that because we had the conversation and used all the right words, our work is done. Sadly, we have only just begun.
For instance, everybody’s talking about white supremacy as if it were a trendy new coffee shop. I can’t help but wonder though what would happen if we were to call white supremacy something more sinister, something less glamorous (because in this society “supreme” has a positive connotation). What if it were called “white theft”? Or “white murder”? Think about how that might change how people throw the term around, how quickly people would admit their complicity in it and then move on. I wonder if people really understand what white supremacy is? How pervasive it is? How, even as they utter the term into a mic, perhaps the very fact that the mic is their hand is a function of it?
You might be thinking “What is she talking about? What does our collective understanding of white supremacy have to do with eradicating gun violence?” That’s just it though. That’s the problem. As a nation we are not so good at connecting the dots. We often view each issue in a vacuum, failing to see the points of intersection. In this country gun ownership and the violence attached to it is directly related to white supremacy. We can try to figure out what the correlation is and attack the root of the problem or we can do a whole lot more marching, shouting and passing laws, only to do it all over again in a few decades. Sound familiar?