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I Know Why the White Bird Sings

In his famous poem “Sympathy,” Paul Laurence Dunbar compares the sorrow songs of slaves to the singing of birds in cages, identifying a song of captivity as a plea sent directly from the souls of black folk up to a God whose ears might hear the prayers of the desperate when worldly authority would not listen. Maya Angelou revisited the trope in “Caged Bird Singing.”

Many people have begun to call the forty-fifth president a racist and to drop the false narrative that he is simply a political opportunist playing on the racist proclivities of his fabled base. In reality, both things are true; he is a racist opportunist. Indeed, this unqualified, unfit man is the leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world precisely because he was willing to ride the wave of racist rage that was, in retrospect, the inevitable backlash to watching an extraordinarily competent, intelligent, ethical, but ultimately middle-of-the-road Black man serve two successful terms as President. Barack Obama is indeed an extraordinary individual, but his politics and policies were not radical. He could not have achieved his office or his legacy without having been far more willing to tolerate white foolishness than most of us would be in his position. He was the most presidential president we have ever had, because he had to be. Both Barack and Michelle Obama as consummate “grown ups.” They are educated professionals, loving parents and public servants. They are not entertainers. Their very identities are their radicalism, and with their presence on the national stage they have moved us into a new era of racial consciousness. They have been replaced by a toddler and his sugar baby.

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Had it not been for the radical rage that a Black president inspired in white people, he would probably have been followed by another fairly milquetoast politician, like Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush. Milquetoast usually wins in politics. Indeed, part of being popular anywhere, from Capitol Hill on down to the kindergarten playground, is the ability to appeal broadly to as many people as possible. This is why the most popular people, from pop stars to politicians, are often pretty boring. Not so with this president. What forces did he tap into that were stronger than this phenomenon where the most boring cream rises to the top of popular opinion? White rage and white fragility.

“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and his justice does not sleep forever.” With these words from Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson predicted that a nation built on slavery would one day have to reckon with its past. His prescience was echoed centuries later by Malcolm X, who observed in the midst Civil Rights violence that the chickens were coming home to roost. In “Harlem,” Langston Hughes asked what happens to a dream deferred: Does it sag like a heavy load, or does it explode? This nation, built by slaves and baptized in the blood of innocents, has deferred the dream of a truly democratic, egalitarian society for far too long. Our collective conscience has sagged with the heavy load of our guilt and shame. Will we now explode?

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There is no such thing as reverse racism, and white people are not being oppressed. Why are these mythologies of white victimhood gaining new ground, rather than being swept away into the dustbin of history? Why do so many believe that it is people of color and their allies who are the real racists who “make everything about race?” What force is so powerful that it has pulled people away from belief in an objective shared reality and into a “post-truth” world view where they don’t trust the intellect because it thinks it’s better than you, loving hearts are for losers and the only thing they listen to are their gut instincts? This powerful force is something beyond economic anxiety and tribal politics. More than ever before, white people are starting to feel the full weight of their whiteness.

Whiteness is as much a social construct as any other racial identity, and it is just about as comfortable to wear as a lead apron. It is relatively young, and it is protean in nature. Ethnic groups that used to be excluded from full whiteness, like the descendants of Irish and Italian immigrants, have become integrated in much of America, although they certainly still face cultural bigotry. In the context of history, calling a sports team the Fighting Irish is only a few degrees different than calling a team the Covetous Jews. A decade ago, the cast of Jersey Shore presented a parade of Italian stereotypes that we gleefully mocked and derided. If the show had been set in Atlanta with an African American cast, most of us would have received it more conscientiously. That being said, the Irish and the Italians have in many ways been assimilated into American whiteness. It is possible for a person of Irish descent, growing up in the American Midwest today, to live without identifying their own ethnic heritage. Only white people have the luxury of imagining that they live in a post-racial society, that racism reached its zenith and was fully uncovered, corrected and resolved at some distant point in history.

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White America is breathtaking in its ignorance of history. A high school student in North Dakota recently told me that Martin Luther King, Jr is famous for having freed the slaves. This comment was made in defense of his proffered opinion that Black Lives Matter activists were the real racists because they think white police officers deserve to die. I attempted the Socratic method of teaching, asking him probing questions in an attempt to lead him out of the cave of his ignorance without making him feel attacked or condescended to. Through his answers he revealed his frustration that Black people just couldn’t seem to let racism go and were now persecuting innocent white police officers. Racism, he said, was pretty much fixed by Martin Luther King, Jr back when he ended slavery or whatever. This was a kind-hearted, happy teenage boy who was much more interested in hanging with his friends than solving or understanding the world’s problems, much like my older brother was at the same age in the 1980s. Teenage boys, when given the opportunity to be teenage boys, often have more important things to do than think about such things. This young man was sharing his views without anger or any real emotional energy. He spoke with a warm, open countenance. He was practicing thinking and talking about his thoughts. He should not be personally condemned for his ideas, which were just a distillation of contemporary White American zeitgeist through a young mind.

In a way, I was happy to see that not all teenagers have to feel the full weight of American history bearing down on their own backs, though this is of course a luxury afforded almost exclusively to white kids. Most of the students I have had the privilege to work with have been people of color (Native American, African American and Latino), and I have seen how they carry the full weight and awareness of our nation’s racist past on their young shoulders. In discussions about race, I have often been struck by the fact that students of color feel the need to emphasize that they do not hate white people. “Miss, I am not trying to be racist,” they will qualify their stories about being attacked by racist teachers, neighbors or classmates, “and I don’t want to offend you at all, because you’re pretty cool, but sometimes white people can be kind of mean.” Why, I wondered, do they feel the need to protect my feelings in such a discussion? I am the teacher, the grown up, and like it or not I am a member of the historically oppressive class. Why do they treat me like my own racial skin would be so thin, my personal identity so wrapped up in the rightness of my whiteness? What are they trying to protect me from? I have come to the conclusion that they are trying to protect me from the burden of my whiteness. They have spent every day of their young lives feeling the burden of race and racism, and they instinctively know that as a white person I have not. They have to test the boundaries of the conversation because, in their experience, even educated, professional, well-meaning and politically liberally white people are not emotionally prepared to deal with the weight of racism.

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“Seeing race” is only an optional thing for white people. If we don’t have to see race, we don’t have to see racism, and that allows us to exist in a kind of somnambulistic paradise where we can simply sidestep the horrors that our racist cultural ancestors have wrought.

When non-white people discuss issues related to race, they are trying to shake us awake. Black Lives Matter was intended as a wake-up call for White America, and we would prefer to stay asleep. Perhaps you have had the experience of having a dream and being awakened from it by someone, perhaps a child or a spouse, who really needs your attention and action. Your initial emotional response is perhaps to be irritated with the person who wakes you up. Hell, even if you are having a nightmare, it is easier to be asleep than to wake up and start actually doing things, dealing with reality once again. This is what is happening to White America, and indeed the whole White World, in the modern era. We are waking up to the weight of our own history, and it is profoundly uncomfortable. We are lashing out at those who are trying to wake us up. They are waking us up because they need us, and we in turn need to be awakened.

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There is no dignity in White Pride. Spite is an acid that eats through its own container. Just as there are no winners in any war, there are no victors in the culture wars. White Americans are indeed victims of racism — their own racism.

The white bird sings its song in a dream. It is not a prayer for freedom from oppression, and it is not a celebration of its own freedom. Indeed, it is not now nor has it ever been free. The white bird was born in a gilded cage. It has fallen asleep and dreamed of freedom. It sings to soothe itself back to sleep, because it prefers the dream of freedom to the reality of its circumstance. It does not beat its wings against the cold, cruel bars. It has not yet joined the fight for freedom because it does not know it is imprisoned.

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