The Photos In My Phone's Camera Roll Taught Me About White Supremacy

Thoughts on remembering moments you can't have back.
08/29/2017 12:52 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2017
Jerry Kiesewetter, Unsplash

My son, who is on the autism spectrum, spent two years selling his artwork to raise money for a visit to a Dutch amusement park he’d seen on YouTube. I wanted to document this very special trip, so I took pictures. After we returned, I got into a conversation about the relative value of digital memories vs. living in the moment (which apparently requires looking at the world through something other than a phone). My response was that I don’t regret a single picture. My memory only gets worse, and I know the moments I captured will never happen again. Herein lies the difference between me and the neo-Nazis, or anyone else who wants to “make America great again” by taking it back from whoever they feel is usurping their rightful dominance: I want to remember my past, however, I know I can’t recreate it.

There are those who beg to differ, of course, and since I am in Pennsylvania Dutch (really Deutsch) Country, some of them live just down the road. I can’t claim an intimate acquaintance with any members of the Amish sect, but from what I’ve heard, even they sometimes embrace the present, allowing people from outside their religion to sell their wares via computer, for example. Regardless, the Amish practice their separatism gently. The culture wars that came to a head in Charlottesville fall into a completely different category.

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How do we define culture?

Ah, culture. What is it, exactly? Or more specifically, what is the American culture that is being attacked when statues of Confederate warriors ― which were erected half a century after the Civil War ― are removed? In 1971, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau declared, there’s “no such thing as a model or ideal Canadian. A society that emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hatred.” Trudeau suggested accepting the human values of “compassion, love, and understanding” instead. None of which seemed much in evidence in Charlottesville.

This is a shame, since everybody needs love,compassion, and understanding, including people whose main focus seems to be spewing hate. I listened to a Tedx talk by Theo Wilson, a black man who went undercover as a white supremacist after his YouTube posts got trolled by racists. The experience taught him that he and his antagonists have something in common: both feel unjustly despised for simply being who they are. I’ve certainly seen white men admit that their expectations of privilege are a big problem, however, plenty of them feel they’ve missed the privilege train, and that if black people can be proud of their blackness and women proud of their femaleness, white men can be proud of their white maleness. Besides, black people are still only 12 percent of the American population. Who should care about our issues, except for us?

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America was never a white nation

The answer is everyone. After all, racism is part of the bedrock of this country, whose prosperity is inseparable from the trauma of oppression. It’s never wise to allow a wound to fester, even if we’ve adjusted to the chronic pain. But how do we heal? Is it even possible? David Duke has a solution: a white homeland. Then again, a white homeland means white people doing all of the menial jobs. More likely is the supremacist ideal of a return to white male domination, because wasn’t America great when white men ran everything?

Even if this fallacy were true, there’s no way for disgruntled white men (and women) to turn back the clock to a utopian white America, because America has never been a white country anyway ― indigenous people were here when the Europeans landed, Africans were shipped over soon after that, and let’s not forget the 19th century Chinese immigrants who came to work on the railroads and in the gold mines (for more on the history of anti-Asian discrimination in America, click here). History is littered with humans delusional enough to think they can control the societal narrative forever, expecting those who do their dirty work to stay in the underclass, or at least to stay out of their bedrooms (unless they were forced into them, of course), as if the subjugated “others” were truly their inferiors. Unfortunately for the overlords, some of the cultural attributes of “others” always turn out to be irresistible. Actually, cultural purity is an artificial construct, no matter who tries to achieve it: African Americans whose ancestors came from Ghana aren’t the same as people who never left, and my fellow Jamaicans raised in Canada aren’t the same as Jamaicans raised in Jamaica. But even the Ghanians who stayed in Ghana and the Jamaicans who stayed in Jamaica are different than their ancestors. America isn’t immune to this phenomenon, especially in the age of the world-wide web.

Turning the Titanic

Which doesn’t mean that nations are devoid of personalities. All personalities have flaws, which don’t go away unless we decide to address them. The goal of looking back should be not only celebrating the good, but discontinuing the bad., because celebrating or justifying the bad leads to self-destruction. America’s continued decision not to make a concerted effort to at least minimize racism is akin to defiantly smoking a pack a day for years, then refusing to go to the doctor to check on a persistent cough.

As I write this, Hurricane Harvey has—understandably—supplanted Charlottesville in the news cycle, while the pardoning of Sheriff Joe Arpaio has at least temporarily shifted the focus of discussions about discrimination to Hispanics. I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds all conversations about racial injustice exhausting. Still, we need to keep talking about it. Because the alternative is that issues that arise from discrimination due to race, along with its companions, gender and sexual orientation, will once again be submerged under the surface of the American consciousness. Like an iceberg.

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