Note: I wrote this on the plane on the way to #BlogHer15, so this post is already ten days old. After consulting some friends, I decided to publish it anyway. I don't really care if it doesn't win me any popularity contests. This post was springing from my fingers as I was still reading Coates' book, and that hasn't happened to me in a long time.
I didn't know President Obama planned to speak today. I flipped to NPR out of boredom during the hour-long ride to the airport.
Obama talked about a deal America had forged with our "allies and partners" -- I assume "partner" in this sense is less romantic than what some of my friends call their lovers -- in order to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.
I gripped the wheel tighter as my default inner voice asked, "Why shouldn't they have one when we do?"
Because, removing all nationalism from the equation, this hardly seems fair.
Stay with me a moment.
The more I learn about our brains from scientists and our souls from writers and artists, the more I realize what I grew up accepting to be true is a rationalization to benefit whoever is telling the story. They weren't evil in telling it, either -- it's what they were taught or came to believe.
In sitting with my own feelings, I now believe there are no universal truths or common histories, there are only the stories we tell ourselves. Which, in and of themselves, are so divergent no two people witnessing an event ever agree on all the details.
All we can do is take the information, go forward, and try to be a good human.
I got to the airport and started reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME. It's an extended letter to his son about living in America as a black man, but maybe more importantly, it's about how we came to the concept of "black" in the first place.
This book is perhaps one of the best explanations of white privilege I've seen, but Coates doesn't call it that. He calls it "The Dream."
To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.
The Dream tells white people that when black boys are killed by the police, they must have done something to deserve it, because otherwise holy shit, what kind of police academies are we funding here to pull people over or frisk them or God forbid shoot them for something as antiquated as skin color?
The Dream tells white people that the default of beauty is blonde and blue-eyed and there must be something not good about an all-black school.
The Dream ignores Howard University, where Coates found his Mecca.
I understood The Dream. I've equated the scales falling from my eyes to the moment when the red pill is swallowed in The Matrix. I don't want the world to be stupid or ugly. The Dream can hide that for me, for my white family.
The Dream is tempting for those who can afford to believe in it. As Coates points out, believing you should be able to take without regard has nonracial applications.
The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.
Coates admits he himself imagines a world where he has The Dream, then realizes he has unintentionally also marginalized others. That helps me believe other white people ensconced in The Dream might be able to let Coates in. We have this thing in common, you see: the human desire to dominate those around us. Having that desire in our bodies doesn't make us bad.
Acting on it makes us bad.
Acting on it brought whites to decimate Native Americans, colonize Africa, sell black bodies as property.
How did we do it? By convincing our white selves that our fellow people were not human. How can we do that? Maybe if they had some identifying characteristic ...
Perhaps being named "black" had nothing to do with any of this, perhaps being named "black" was just someone's name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah.
What is "race"? It used to matter what kind of European you were ...
But a great number of "black" people are already beige. And the history of civilization is littered with dead races (Frankish, Italian, German, Irish) later abandoned because they no longer serve their purpose -- the organization of people beneath and beyond the umbrella of rights.
Separating the concept of black and white from American, my mind wandered back to Obama's press conference.
Ignore Obama's race. He's the Commander-in-Chief right now. He's 'Merica. And he's forged an agreement with our allies and partners that say we, America, and they, have the right to make decisions about who should and shouldn't have nuclear weapons.
I'm not going to debate whether Iran is a problem or even whether America is a problem. We're all problems to people who don't agree with us.
The question is how do we make our decisions, which ultimately are made with emotion more often than reason?
We make ourselves, Americans, freedom fighters and protectors of the world when we need to in order to justify our own decisions.
We make ourselves white when we want to live The Dream.
In everything when we find ourselves falling back on a default explanation for the way things are -- we should question that.
I do believe Obama and co. questioned the Iran situation and decided the goal is to prevent Iran from getting nuclear bombs, the end. Who cares if it's fair, really? Because, holy shit. Right? Um.
I do not claim to know the answer to this question. I'm just asking it.
I do believe that many white Americans still live in The Dream and believe it's justified and are honestly befuddled with people like Coates.
To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this.
But, Coates points out, we are also befuddled at earthquakes, and so we insist they are the same, race relations and natural disasters -- impossible to control, hard to blame, something that's always been there and that we are helpless to change.
And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of "race," imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgement of invisible gods. The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed.
But people are not earthquakes, though we can be disasters. We can wreak havoc. But we also have free will.
People have the capacity to plan for the future and to reflect on the past and to change the present.
In my lifetime, I've watched the majority of American attitudes on LGBT people make, if not a 180, then at least a 120.
Frankly, I'm shocked. Shocked that it happened so fast and shocked that the black/white chasm has yawned in that time, or at least it has yawned more publicly.
I asked myself how the LGBT shift happened. In my summation, it happened through art, literature, movies and television. Storylines emerged on TV shows and in movies. People I knew came out. Commercials showed same-sex couples. YA novels featured LGBT romances and relationships.
We are not at a loss for black art, literature, television and movies.
Why is this so hard for white America?
To move on, we have to be prepared to see the matrix, to wake up, to stop looking the other way.
To shed light.
To not worry what our employers will think if they read our blogs.
To realize that handy identifying characteristic our white ancestors used to dominate others holds no place in modern society. Seeing black skin as anything but black skin kicks back to a dead time, a time we must acknowledge existed and consciously move to work past. We must look slavery in its face and spit.
We must promise to move forward and do no more harm.
We must interrupt the signal consciously, and it must be a constant and conscious override or The Dream will continue to inflict pain on all of us.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is an atheist and would not want to be blessed, so I'll call this a salute. His gift for organizing thoughts and studies and history into a slim book so easy to understand should not be underestimated. He could've used that gift to tell any story, but he used it to tell the story of us.
How will we act on it?