How to Be a Good American

An introduction for white people

To be a good American, you must first know America. Not the textbook version that glosses over significant periods of bloodshed and unrest, extending a limp nod to the occasional “mean” slaveowner or devoting a paragraph to the KKK. Nor is our history that myth about the magical speech that ended racism.

It’s the one that begins with colonizers taking this land by brute force. The people they stole this country from became “Savages.” The people they stole from other countries became “Black.” Today, white nationalists point to the theft of America as proof of their preordained supremacy. How does one take a story in which a bunch of Europeans get totally lost, accidentally “discover” already inhabited land, and kill off 90% of the native population with their own filth and disease — how does one spin that into a tale of racial superiority and keep a straight face?

Learning the true history of our country leads to such inquiries. But it also offers answers to questions we still grapple with today. Like, why do so many lower income white people side with the Power Whites of the 1%, instead of uniting with people who share their economic interests? Well, the concept of race was invented to prevent them from doing exactly that.

In 1675, wealthy white landowner Nathaniel Bacon launched a rebellion against his cousin, the governor of Virginia (#stuffwhitepeoplelike). Bacon’s coalition included indentured servants of Irish and African descent, as well as enslaved Africans to whom Bacon promised freedom in exchange for joining his cause (which, it must be noted, was to rid Jamestown of its remaining native population so that Bacon and other Power Whites could expand their property). While both Bacon and the rebellion died before the matter was officially settled, the threat posed by a united coalition of indentured servants and enslaved people was duly noted. In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander writes:

The events in Jamestown were alarming to the planter elite, who were deeply fearful of the multiracial alliance of [indentured servants] and slaves. Word of Bacon’s Rebellion spread far and wide, and several more uprisings of a similar type followed. In an effort to protect their superior status and economic position, the planters shifted their strategy for maintaining dominance. They abandoned their heavy reliance on indentured servants in favor of the importation of more black slaves.

As my friend Zaron , “This was the birth of whiteness.”

Our American history is littered with evidence that whiteness is no culture or heritage, but an opportunistic tool for oppression and control. Feast your eyes on the hypocrisy of whiteness: They tell you to pull yourself up by the bootstraps, but they burn down Black Wall Street when you do. They move their children and influence out of the public school system, then tut-tut and blame the culture when those underfunded schools crumble and close, when crime rates go up. They declare a War on Drugs and start a crack epidemic in the span of 15 years. They go full-blown racist when a Black man — whose mother is as white as they are — is elected to the highest office in the land (the ultimate bootstrapping, if you ask me, but how dare he though?). When they realize they can no longer win elections based on their selfish, inhumane positions, they rig the system and suppress the vote. They ask Russia for helpAnd they get it.

As Trump threatens “democrat-run” cities with escalated, state-sanctioned violence — at protests that are responding to state-sanctioned violence — a good American will wonder where all those crusaders for the Second Amendment are hiding. The state is murdering civilians, for protesting the fact that the state keeps murdering civilians — is this not the exact tyranny the founding fathers were talking about? Or is it only tyranny when a white person is told they can’t get their roots touched up during a global pandemic?

Perhaps whiteness’s crowning achievement is its ability to spin a story. What a brilliant country we’d have, if the dreamers behind these myths put even half as much effort into embodying the pioneering, courageous, honest, innovative, compassionate spirit they ascribe to their fairytale avatars. Instead, they paint a pretty picture of whiteness and sell it to other, more downtrodden whites: the lost ones who trade in their humanity for some abstract promise of wealth and racial superiority, the poor ones who were told their skin color was a rich inheritance in and of itself. When the color of your skin is packaged and sold back to you like a winning lottery ticket, of course you’re gonna be pissed when you can’t actually cash it in. But when this comes to pass, when the great white promise fails to transpire, skin solidarity conditions the ticket holders to look out — not up, not in — for someone to blame.

Had the concept of race been invented earlier, perhaps humans would be extinct by now — evolutionarily speaking, separation is not a survival strategy.

The irony is this: The more a white person believes his skin entitles him to the best that life has to offer, the more meaningless his life becomes. Because whiteness — from the unearned superiority it confers, to the history it distorts and the excuses it creates — requires one to deny reality, not to mention one’s own humanity. Humans are hard-wired for connection, not separation; it is telling that the concept of race as we know it is less than 500 years old. Had it been invented earlier, perhaps humans would be extinct by now — evolutionarily speaking, separation is not a survival strategy. Yet, one who buys into the promise of whiteness must indeed separate: first from reality, next from the Other, and finally, from oneself.

Stay with me. Because my intention is not to demonize those who inherited the toxic myth of whiteness and have read this far, anyway. It’s to lay out what’s been taken from all of us for the sake of someone else’s greed.

Now, it’s common in 2020 for those most committed to the whiteness project to dismiss the legitimate concerns of marginalized people and their allies. “Snowflake” has basically become shorthand for “shut the fuck up.” The implication is that caring about inequality is soft; the directive is to get a thicker skin (preferably a white one). This response to the real issue of inequality baffles me, though; it seems the Power Whites do not expect their supposedly superior foot soldiers to exhibit the same grit and resilience they demand of the marginalized. Instead, they lull them to sleep with nursery rhymes about the return of the coal industry. Maybe that’s not surprising. The foundational principle of whiteness — that the accident of your skin color makes you the most special race, of allllllll the races, in the whole wide world — sounds suspiciously like a parent assuring a hapless five-year-old of their special gifts, their — dare I say? — Snowflakey-ness.

As a biracial white-passing person, the idea that my most valuable attribute is one I have zero influence over is just a bit insulting. It’s like being given one of those participation trophies the Power Whites are always bemoaning; ironic, as they don’t seem to realize their empty glorification of whiteness is its own kind of participation trophy. One that has created a class of people so convinced of their superiority, so dependent on that dream coming true, that they fail to cultivate the actual skills needed to navigate the modern world. Then they’re expected to compete against large swaths of people who, due to their own color, were never told they were special — rather they were told and shown the opposite, in the most brutal of ways. And because those who buy into whiteness were sent out into the world high on tall tales that made them feel good, they feel threatened by those who had to do the work, double the work — those who could not afford to believe the lie.Coming Out as Biracialhumanparts.medium.com

Since its birth, the lie of white supremacy has been about protecting the economic interests of the few. The Power Whites know they merely need to pay lip service to their foot soldiers in exchange for their loyalty. You know, the little things, like dog-whistling about “thugs” and supporting the narrative that all Black people live off of government benefits even though, back here in reality, white people are the primary recipients of every social program we have. Bootstraps indeed! But can you blame the PWs for not doing more to ensure true prosperity for their most amazing invention, the white race? An economic overhaul that uplifts all loyal whites would be expensive, after all, and a lot of work. That’s not really what Power Whites are about. Besides, there are cheaper ways to ensure we don’t transcend these man-made divisions to join forces and demand laws, and a government, that actually represents the people’s will.

I’m sorry if it’s the first time you’re hearing about this. And if you believed in whiteness, it must add insult to injury that the architects of this scam think you’re too fragile to hear the truth and too incompetent to know what to do with it, even if you did. But for some deranged reason, I still think people are more capable and resilient than we tend to give each other credit for. So I will tell you what the race-baiting Power Whites already know, and have no incentive to tell you: Your white skin never made you important or special. It may have even made you complacent and entitled, easier to control and take advantage of. This may be embarrassing, even painful to admit to yourself. But it’s also so, so fixable. And I hope you try, because you’re better than that. It is human imperative to be better than that, to become more than the factory settings we came into the world with.

And because I have no economic interest at stake, I can honestly say that I think every white person intuitively knows this already. It’s just that some have invested more in the lie than others, and wrongly believe they have more to lose if they give it up. Economists call this sunk-cost fallacy: the more time, money, emotion invested, the harder it is to walk away, even when that’s the most logical course of action. It’s why white nationalists are desperate enough to trot out the same four debunked “studies” to prove their superiority, shameless enough to take credit for the accomplishments of ancient cultures to justify their indifference to human suffering. It’s why the modern conservative movement must tell themselves, and each other, that Black people are responsible for falling prey to structural racism: the traps their white ancestors created, their parents perpetuated, and they, themselves, ignore. And it’s why white people who see the truth in this, and want to help end racism, still find themselves hesitating.

Let’s just be real: Most humans cannot watch other humans suffering on a regular basis, do nothing, and not carry around some serious guilt as a result. You may not consciously think about the guilt every day. You may choose to dehumanize or otherwise denigrate those you were too distracted to help (I hope not). You may create excuses for yourself, blame the victim, or never move beyond sadness and into action. (I agree, it is sad. Imagine how sad it is when you can’t look away, when that option is not available to someone who looks like you.)

Denial of the problem may stave off one’s guilt, temporarily, but it does not fix the problem and it does not absolve the guilt. Instead, it shoves the guilt into some dark recess of the mind, poisoning your thoughts and actions without your conscious awareness. (Other people are aware of your unconscious ticks, though, for what it’s worth.) Those extremists who claim to feel nothing about the historic and current maltreatment and abuse of Black Americans? They’re the most guilty of all. When a person is in that much denial, looking honestly at how they’ve contributed to, and benefited from, the systemic abuse of Black and Brown people is likely to require the complete undoing of their identity, of the world as they know it.

James Baldwin diagnosed this in 1963 (many times, actually) in his book, The Fire Next Time:

[White people] are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.

The red pill is not quite so appetizing when it’s you who must swallow it.

I’m not suggesting white people should, or shouldn’t, feel guilty. I’m suggesting that you already do, whether you realize it or not. Whether you believe you should or not. And I extend this to non-Black and white-passing POC, who may also feel they could be doing more. I certainly haven’t been maxing out my privilege in a consistent fashion, and I do feel bad about that, which is one reason I acknowledge it here and now. So that I can let it go, and get back to the work I should’ve been doing — the work of a human being and of a good American, which is inherently anti-racist.

Another reason for this acknowledgement, though, is to demonstrate for you that being honest with yourself, when you realize you’ve failed to live up to your own values, doesn’t need to be a whole to-do. Avoidance exacerbates any problem, whether it’s the personal problem of guilt, or the institutional problem of racism. So say it to yourself (not your black friends), right now: “I feel guilty.” Taste it. Bitter at first, but that thing about the truth setting us free is real. If you want to help save Black lives, you are required to interrogate your white soul. You may not like what you find. But don’t let internalized shame or fear of fucking up stop you from doing what’s right, now. Today. The more of us doing what we can, how, when, and where we can, the lighter the burden for those who can’t tag in and out of the fight for equality.

Now, no one is asking you to get a doctorate in race studies so that you can lead the movement next week; you can find an appropriate way to get involved. This is what I hear many Black people asking you do: learn your own history; acknowledge your advantages and wield your privilege where it has the most sway (with other white people, at protests, with authority figures, at work); use your wallet to support Black-led movements that are already in motion (and to support Black-owned businesses); listen to the lived experiences of Black people and the wisdom of Black organizers, add Black voices to your feed. This is only complicated if you try to turn the movement into the backdrop of your personal redemption arc, which… don’t do that.The ZORA Canon: 100 Best Books by African American Women AuthorsCelebrating more than 150 years of African American literature with 100 books written by African American womenzora.medium.com

When coming face-to-face with your own inaction, it’s normal to want to go hard in the paint on Day One. But that’s generally not the most selfless way to contribute, and it could cause more chaos for a community already running on fumes, already more likely to bear the serious consequences of your actions. Your enthusiasm for this cause is best spent on education, and on your white friends — learn together, start a book club, talk about whiteness. Don’t perform, don’t ask Black people to grade your ally test or for other emotional labor, don’t make it about you. You will find yourself with fewer questions when your goal is to be useful, not to be seen as useful. Be humble, listen to those who are attempting to peacefully bring you into the fold, and learn to fuck up with grace.

Your enthusiasm for this cause is best spent on your white friends — learn together, start a book club, talk about whiteness.

There’s one more thing I’ve seen Black people asking of white people for a while now. I believe it is a required long-term strategy for ending racism. I also believe it is our duty to oblige, as aspiring good Americans.

Consider that what Black people have been asking for, this whole time, is not what you think it is. It’s not your rescuing. Not your pity. And believe it or not, it’s not to become co-beneficiaries of the superficial bounty of whiteness. (Real wealth? Sure. But not the hollow wealth of whiteness that is promised and never delivered.) What they want from you is something you should want for yourself: They want you to look. They want you to unpack your insecurities, your fears, your shame. To stop projecting your personal and cultural issues onto them and to learn to own them, instead. Examine them. If they don’t serve our shared humanity, unlearn them. Become more aware, of yourself and others. Again: whiteness is not a heritage, but you do have at least one — dust it off. Your people come from somewhere, and it’s not a country called “White.” And learn your American history, the real American history. Without that education, you will not understand the nature of the core problem we’re trying to solve, nor will you recognize the insidious tactics Power Whites use to obfuscate their true motives. Black people simply want you to know what they know, about race and power and America. Because once you know, there is no sitting out, and there is no other side of this fight to be on.

Do not see the request for self-inquiry as an imposition. It is an invitation: to wake up to how these lies have divided us, have convinced diverse Americans to divest of their own rich histories in favor of the culture-less void called whiteness, to trade in their humanity with little understanding of what it requires they give up and what it requires they take from others. Perhaps our current mental health and addiction crises, our race and gender and culture wars, are the obvious outcome of generations of regular people being told they’re either inferior or superior to other regular people, when it’s just not fucking true, and we know it’s not fucking true. Maybe the exhaustion and grief we feel right now is a natural response to our collective Good German Syndrome — we’re human enough to be concerned and sad, but not enough to acknowledge it or make ourselves uncomfortable. This is not our human nature, it’s white supremacy, and this shit adds up. No wonder we’re all so miserable.

My fellow, good Americans: the external world is reflecting what was building up inside of us all along. It is a mirror, and we must look. Through this process of looking, seeing, and acknowledging, we may find that the world was never what we thought it was. That we were never who we thought we were. I’m here to tell you that’s okay. Perhaps when you meet who you really are — someone who cares about humanity and life and takes action to safeguard it, someone who can transform for the good of themselves and others, a good American who is brave enough to look— you’ll have little reason to mourn the illusion.

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