True Blue in Red States

I’m back from a trip to Arkansas, where the last of my husband’s four brothers got married! He’s the oldest in a large family of seven children, all of whom have strong personalities and deeply-held beliefs. One brother loves hunting; one sister is super-athletic; another sibling voted for Trump; yet another is a staunch Christian conservative; and one is also gay, married to a Vietnamese immigrant with whom I’ve become fast friends. Despite our many differences, the family has been incredibly accepting, and I’ve come to appreciate the bonds I’ve made with them over the years. 

My husband and I are the most liberal people in the group, and that can lead to some intense and serious discussions. A few times, we’ve even gotten pretty heated! But no matter what happens, the family shares an unbreakable bond of love and support and coming from the background I do, I’ve come to cherish that. Talking with this family I’ve joined has shown me the importance of allowing space for deep disagreements with people I love and respect. It has brought me back from the precipice of our country’s hard polarization to understand the perspective of people I would otherwise think of as monsters. 

I’m well aware that reconciliation with conservative America is a deeply unpopular subject to open with for Black History Month. Republican-controlled governor’s officers and state legislatures have declared open warfare on Black History, dedicating themselves to erasing our narratives from school and university libraries. “Anti-woke” propaganda is blasted from right-wing TV, Internet, and radio outlets. And even now the Black American community is reeling from yet another traumatizing reminder of the police brutality we’ve been suffering and perishing under since the Emancipation Proclamation. Trying to establish a dialogue in this environment looks as foolish as asking any zealous extremist to sit down and compromise.

This trip has reminded me that the people who consider themselves conservative are a different breed from those that have been completely subsumed by the right-wing propaganda machine. It’s hard to believe, but so many people have never been exposed to a coherent counter-argument from the people in their orbit. Learning how to talk about the damage politicians and the media are doing to our ability to weave our experiences together is an essential skill we’ll need to understand how people have come to believe the way they do. And that understanding is how we untangle the rhetorical knots keeping poisonous beliefs in the system. 

I won’t lie. Talking about racial justice, tolerance, and our evolved understanding of how white supremacy and heteronormativity is often frustrating and exhausting. White fragility is a persistent barrier to a proper dialogue. It’s hard to hear someone express some incredibly stupid or lazy opinion, sit with the difficult emotions that arise, and respond mindfully in a way that doesn’t trigger that knee-jerk defensiveness. It’s not fair that as the underprivileged person in the exchange, I have to navigate through that emotional roller-coaster consistently while my privileged audience gets to be loud, wrong, and only gently and indirectly called out for it. In a better world, this would not be so. 

But in order to make a better world, we have to deal with the realities of the world as it is. From my perspective, that’s a world of people who take the idea of benefitting from privilege and an inherently-racist society as a personal accusation of being racist themselves. And when I think about it, I could understand that instinctive reaction. No one likes being told that they have it easier than someone else, especially when there’s not a whole lot they can do to balance the inequity. It’s difficult to face the idea that our experiences are so far removed from someone else’s that they have to deal with a whole set of complications we’ve never even heard about. It’s a fundamental shift in the way they see the world. If they’ve held on to that view their entire lives, had it reinforced through news, entertainment, and the background myth we weave about our society, and have been soaking in the narrative that the people attacking that view are just whiners unwilling to earn what they’ve worked hard for, it wouldn’t be easy to let it go in the space of a few conversations with someone who demands they do it to be considered a good person. 

We’re dealing with people who are just as trapped in a white-supremacist society as we are. The messaging we all receive is that there’s nothing wrong with the world. Black Americans know that this isn’t true from our lived experience, but even then we can fall under the spell of the ever-present narrative. Just look at Kanye West, Clarence Thomas, Herman Cain and the many other Uncles and Aunties Ruckus trotted out to parrot these right-wing talking points. Once you reach a certain level of success, it gets easier to buy the narrative. With people who have never had to directly experience the dissonance that comes from living a reality not reflected in our media, it might feel extreme just to entertain the notion that something’s off. It takes time to loosen the grip of that narrative, and it also takes a curious and questioning mind. We’re in an environment that doesn’t encourage curiosity or the patient deconstruction of bad ideas. We don’t allow people the space and time to be less wrong. We’re asking people to get with the program now — or else. 

I understand that, too. It’s frustrating to have the same conversations about whether or not racism still exists and in what form. Anyone with a vested interest in ignoring the problem has ample ways to slip around it, furnished by the same media apparatus that keeps us soaking in the “normalcy” of inequality. We should be further along in this cultural conversation, but instead it feels like we’re going backwards. Our institutions are being run by people who want to make it a crime even to talk about the long, brutal history of American racism. And there are too many people who openly support that kind of censorship and ignorance. 

I’m not saying I have the spoons to confront every white friend about race, or even talk about it most of the time. I’m not suggesting that every Black American sacrifice their mental and emotional well-being to have conversations that feel like they’re going nowhere. I am saying that these conversations do make a difference to some of the people we talk to, even if we don’t see how those differences manifest. We’re tilling the soil, and planting the seed. Seeds take time and attention to grow. So does anti-racism. 

We do what we can. I’m learning to look at these complex and sensitive issues with a lot less anger and a bit more patience, and I hope that will help me get better at debating them with an audience that isn’t the most receptive. I’ll keep sharing what I learn through my experience, and I welcome you to do the same. The more perspectives we share, the more complete a picture we can make of this.

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