I was on vacation in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii during the clash of racist white nationalists and neo-Nazis with counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m not surprised the racist Right feels empowered under Trump. I am surprised so many white Americans are surprised that virulent racism is alive and well in the United States.
I’m always a little uneasy visiting Hawaii. Its history with the United States is always on my mind. This visit, I was particularly aware as I sat reading about the racist violence in Virginia while on land that was illegally taken from the sovereign Hawaiian people by the United States government in the 1890s when the US implicitly backed a coup against the Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani. The US had already established a naval base at Pearl Harbor, and, convinced of Hawaii’s strategic military value following the Spanish-American war, Congress soon authorized formal annexation of Hawaii as a US territory. The Hawaiian people themselves, however, never acceded to American occupation, despite Hawaii’s 1959 statehood.
US history is a long, sordid story of racism, colonialism, and violence. The land upon which this nation is built belonged to someone else before Europeans took it, most often by force. Sovereign nations were displaced and destroyed. Wars, forced removals, thefts, and the relocation of borders moved indigenous people’s lands into the possession of white Europeans. Enslaved and brutalized Africans buttressed an economy to benefit whites. Chinese workers helped build the first transcontinental railroad in the 1860s but became the target of the first legislation restricting immigration when whites feared job loss to Chinese immigrants. More than 127,000 American citizens of Japanese descent were interred during WWII simply because of their ancestry. Since 9/11 Muslims have increasingly become targets for discrimination and hate crimes, including an executive order limiting travel from certain predominantly Muslim countries.
Racism is the sin upon which this nation is founded, and it is the sin for which this nation has not made atonement. Little wonder that racists feel galvanized in this political climate to demand “blood and soil” and an entitlement they believe is their birthright as whites.
More unsettling, however, is the extent to which most white Americans do not understand the far reaches of our legacy of racism. Most white Americans have come to understand racism as an attitude, and so they believe that, as long as they do not personally have negative feelings about people of different races, they themselves are not racists.
Racism, however, is a system of oppression that functions to advantage whites, whether they have bad feelings about other races or not, and all white people in the US benefit from this system and are complicit with it, whether they want to be or not. One of the benefits of the system of racism is that white people do not even have to know the history of racist violence and imperialism that has created the economic, educational, political, and military institutions from which whites benefit. Whites do not have to be aware of the ongoing, everyday acts of racism people of color face, and, because, whites themselves do not have to have these experiences, they can deny that these problems exist or they can minimize them or blame people of color for their own problems.
And so it’s easy for white people like me to vacation in Hawaii and never know or acknowledge that this is land stolen from a sovereign people, just as it’s easy on the mainland to buy houses, go to school, and shop on land that belonged to someone else before white Europeans took it. It’s easy to argue a statue of Robert E. Lee or the confederate flag is simply a symbol of heritage without acknowledging it is a heritage of racism, slavery, and violence. Racism, as a system of oppression, makes being white easy and makes being oblivious to the history and ongoing legacies of racism easy.
Korean minjung theologians speak of han, the deep and abiding suffering that persists as a result of unresolved injustice. Racism has fostered a ubiquitous feeling of han in the United States. We will not as a nation move on from this legacy of racism until we heal the han that affects communities of color through atonement for this nation’s history of racial sin and the establishment of authentic justice through reconciliation, reparation, and restoration. We will not move on until whites recognize and take responsibility for this legacy, until our collective repentance leads to systemic change, until we find a way to work alongside communities of color to relieve the burden of han imposed by centuries of racial oppression, colonization, and violence.
From Kona, Charlottesville just looks a lot like the rest of the history of white America. I’m glad so many of us are outraged at this explicit enactment of racism. More importantly, however, I hope we turn our outrage to the full history of this nation’s racism, the ways it permeates every moment of our everyday, and its deep and pervasive impact on our social institutions. Racism is not just the neo nazis in Charlottesville. Racism is the system in which we live and work and benefit if we are white. I hope we can look deeper than the rabid racists to recognize the system of racism in which we are all embedded and commit ourselves to the larger societal transformations required to bring about the justice that ends han and reconciles us to one another in beloved community.