I was driving home following a late night of teaching when my best friend gave me the news from Ferguson. There would be no indictment for Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer responsible for shooting black teenager Michael Brown dead in the street. Sadness hung between words, but our conversation was hauntingly calm. No hint of shock to register. “I’m comforted to hear you reacting the way I did,” he told me. I understood, I thought: We were non-reactionary, but not without reaction.
At a time like this I’m finding it’s a disorienting thing to be critical scholar of white supremacy. Not in a way that has anything to do with surprise or even disgust. I think I have fully shed naïve surprise I held at one time about the pathologies of white supremacy – the things white people will do and say that demonstrate such a soulless disconnect from human empathy that I told my friend, “most white people are walking dead and don’t even know it.” Shells of human beings who project their own inhumanity onto racial others, often in cruel and horrifying ways; more often by “kinder, gentler” means no less destructive of human life. All mystified to them – by them.
My disgust is real, but without surprise to buffer it, it’s mostly just pain – and that is real too. To watch my friends and people I love bear agonizing witness to their own living murders by proxy. To see them imagine their own children laid out like garbage on the street. To know the white world will do that and then rationalize their deaths without batting an eye and with never-ending drumbeats of support – subtle and loud, institutional and collective. To hear and read “BLACK LIVES MATTER!” – as pained, but resistant declarations, but also perhaps appeals to an imagined white audience that I know mostly doesn’t care and who are so pathologically sick they will sometimes even mystify their apathy into the sincerely held belief that they do. To listen and read people of color speak the apologies for white supremacy from their own mouths and written words. Truly, it is the most depressing when these rationalizations come from people I know and love. I feel such sadness.
Which brings me back to the substance of my disorientation. I am involved in the work of gathering evidence on a subject for which we already have mountains of support. In most disciplines scholars participate in a scientific process where they literally make new discoveries about things no one knew before. I think to myself, “gosh, how fun and exciting that must be.” For me and for other critical scholars of white supremacy, there are very few truly and truthfully new discoveries to make. I reviewed a manuscript the other day by a social scientist who had excavated a “novel” and “unexplored” process by which anti-black stereotypes were created and maintained. So cynical, after reading the abstract I scribbled in my own personal notes: “News alert! Everyday practices reinforce anti-blackness and racial hierarchy!” I will end up writing a review that incorporates supportive, constructive, and hopefully useful feedback. Of course I will. After all, that is my job.
I am involved in teaching a subject for which ignorance is literally a never-ending fountain. All the lessons have already been taught a thousand times over, and yet will never fully be learned. I am the “time-to-make-the-donuts” guy – shuffling along day by day. “Time to teach about white supremacy,” except, it’s not funny. I stood in a classroom the day after the grand jury’s decisions came down, knowing that at any moment a white student might “innocently” throw a phrase that could penetrate a black student like a bullet. Voice cracking and imbalanced, I told my students, “I can’t let that happen today.” Of course, it’s an empty promise. The best I can do is promise to tend to the wounded and strategically challenge the shooter if it happens. When it happens. Of course I will. After all, that is my job.
As a critical race scholar I am a true believer in the permanence of white supremacy. When I tell people that they often ask me, “Well then, why do you bother doing what you do?” I’ve made sense of it as generations of critical scholars before me have – because if oppression is this bad with regular, everyday resistance, imagine where we would be without it. Because I believe that while we may not topple white supremacy, we can construct knowledge that can be used to reduce human misery. Because there are audiences of students and activists who are hungry for liberation, thirsting in a way that ignorance cannot and will not quench. Because speaking and seeking liberation and love in a world bent on domination is not just resistance but perhaps the most fundamental and beautiful act of human spirit – it is life.
Today those explanations fail me. Today I’m finding it’s a disorienting thing to be a critical scholar of white supremacy. I need to spend more time reflecting on what that means. I need to think and talk with others about what that means and how to use our shared logic strategically. And I will. After all, this is not the job, but it is the work.