Fellow white people: this is a message for you.
I was recently texting with a friend, the writer Jeff Holmes, and he described to me his exhaustion with what he calls “digi-rage.” George Floyd had just been murdered, and Minneapolis’s 3rd Precinct would soon be burned to the ground. “As a kid it was easy—cops are dangerous to me and mine, they harass me and mine, they stalk me and mine,” he wrote. “We knew their character, we knew the score, we acted accordingly. Now I see the meme shit and repost shit and digi-rage of what we were acutely aware of as kids and wonder if it’s people screaming into the void, or is it virtue signaling, or is it a way to wash your hands of this country’s stink so you can sleep at night?”
I had borne witness to this myself: The bizarre cycle of people posting memes about murder and outrage and then carefully composed photos of the wallpaper in their apartments, the images of Rekia Boyd and Philando Castile and Sandra Bland and Michael Brown and Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd alternating with those of sunbeams hitting a potted plant just right, a cat curled up on a comforter. Social media’s quasi-sociopathic impermanence is either ill-equipped to respond to tragedy, or the people posting are snug in their insulation from tragedy, or it’s some combination of both. “I try to remember there are real people behind the curated profiles and a part of me REALLY REALLY wants to reach out and try to find them and just swap stories in a non-public forum so we can hold some shit together,” Jeff wrote me.
After Jeff and I finished talking, something kindled in my brain. I didn’t know I was becoming sick with mania, but I was. I stayed up for two nights in a row checking Twitter and panicking and crying and pacing. On the third day, I attempted to go to a protest. Another friend, sensing I was in no fit state—my speech alternating between fast and slurred, my mind blurring between victorious images of the burned precinct and thoughts of abandoning my house and job and returning to my old work as a quick-turn political freelancer, my heart thrashing, my breath coming too quick or not at all—called me and gently coaxed me into turning around and stumbling into my parents’ house, where I promptly passed out. This is not about you, I told myself when I woke up, somewhat recalibrated by sleep. This is not about what you can or can’t do. This is about supporting the revolution being led by Black organizers and other activists of color. But I wanted so badly to do something. To be efficacious. By not going to the protest, I felt inefficacious, traitorous, unsupportive. What I really wanted, though I didn’t want to admit it, was relief from the rhetorical prison of white self-loathing. I wanted to be good.
But achieving goodness is antithetical to reckoning with whiteness. Goodness in the form of approbation-seeking, in the form of relief-seeking, in the form of Ultimate Allyship, is unobtainable. There is no Good White Person. There is no White Person Apart. We are all entangled in the murderous morass of white supremacy, and we always will be, even if and when Black Americans finally achieve freedom from racist violence and are afforded the quality of life and human dignity this country has denied them since its inception. I had for years sought relief in direct action, and in writing articles profiling activists and condemning the police and prisons. And while those undertakings are valuable, I realized waking up on my parents’ couch that I had been chasing a mirage.
After years of attempting to ignore that the system from which I had personally benefited desperately needed to be razed, my brain had finally self-cannibalized in a livid, disastrous mania. It was clear that I could no longer mark myself apart from systems of oppression simply by completing actions against them. It would be the daily reckoning with my own whiteness, the void-staring, the realizations about the surreal qualities of my life, the surreal nature of my privilege and the Potemkinesque world it affords me to live in (I am borrowing “Potemkinesque” to mean a happy and prosperous world that disguises the ugliness of its misbegotten origins) that would set me on the course towards the anti-oppression work I had to do. This work, I knew, would have to be quiet, and enduring, and seamless with my daily life. Though what it would be, I didn’t know.
“It must be so hard to be a white person right now,” the friend who encouraged me to abandon my plans to protest told me. My brain still buzzing with the mania of the revolution, I scoffed in disbelief: It would be two days before I’d finally make it out to the protests, I was sweaty with nervous anger, and I had no idea why she was saying this to me. “No, seriously,” she persisted. “I don’t envy you. You need to be supportive without virtue-signaling, you need to know exactly when to stand back and listen and when to speak up, you need to be an ally without being performative about it, you need to use social media to organize but do it so carefully. You need to constantly reckon with your involvement in this whole nightmarish thing and how you benefit from your privilege. And really, there’s so little room for error.”
I began to think about the tendency of white accomplices—and by my positive use of “accomplice” here I mean an ally whose approach to anti-oppression work is radical and aims to exist outside the established structures of voting and petition-signing and slow-moving policy change—to treat their co-conspirators of color with kid gloves, to seek their approbation, to deny their own messiness. I had spent years doing exactly that, striving to be as “good” as I possibly could be so that my friends of color would mark me as such, would tell me to my face how good I was, would see me as an ideal instrument of change whose own turmoil and learned racism and warped whiteness had been scrubbed from her psyche entirely. I wanted so desperately to be on the right side of history that I couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge the ambiguity of my subject position as a person whose insulation from the white supremacist oppression of BIPOC has resulted in material benefit and who wants to eradicate said oppression and therefore said benefit. My subject-position didn’t afford me the goodness I so craved, but it didn’t make me bad, either. It made me a white American interested in justice.
Now is neither the time for white direction nor white heroism, though it is the time to examine why we want to direct and be heroes. I think we want to, as Jeff said, “wash our hands of this country’s stink”—the enormity of whiteness’s wreckage is difficult for any mind to process, especially a white mind desperate for relief from the task of processing it. It’s easier to indicate our rage and grief quickly and digitally, to mark ourselves safe, like we do on Facebook in the midst of a disaster, from the ideology of white supremacy and therefore from the justifiable rage of BIPOC. Those of us most ill at ease with ourselves dream of obliterating our guilt and misery with big acts of heroism. I will defend Black protestors from the police. I will go to jail with a Black protestor. I will be the activist who helps burn down the police precinct. It goes without saying that these acts are essential, but it is wrongheaded to approach them as releases from our self-loathing. It is wrongheaded, as a matter of fact, to loathe ourselves at all.
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within,” writes James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time. “I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” It is by this logic that we require high doses of self-love, especially those among us who fetishize grand, anti-racist gestures as a means of absolution from our country’s racist legacy. The questing and daring and growth is done when we abandon appearances, our need to be seen as good and deserving of Black American approval, our need to wash our hands of the stink. So we accept that we radiate the stink, and that we want justice, and that we cannot be good, and that this does not make us bad. What do we do then?
It stands to reason that, of all places people have gathered throughout history, the one that would remain best-preserved in hyper-capitalist America would be the marketplace: the shopping mall, the farmer’s market, the big box store. And it stands to reason, too, that tech plutocrats would want to take the marketplace online in the forms of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. I’ll use Twitter as my primary example here: Never has there been a more obvious reification of the term “marketplace of ideas.” There are some incredible connections to be made on Twitter, some excellent jokes, some very important information floating around (such as, most recently, the positive identification of a horde of undercover cops in a New York City protest). The downside is that Twitter remains a marketplace, and some ideas are retweeted and faved and therefore “valued” to some extent over others. This type of atmosphere—which pervades Instagram and Facebook as well, just in different ways—is what enables the vanity of white anti-racist sentiment and white acts of heroism. This vanity is a part of the same self-as-commodity optimization that we see online in all sorts of forms.
We have heard too many times by now that social media is harming us psychologically because its users are constantly seeking approbation. We’re all familiar with Instagram’s “Look at how good my life is” drumbeat: the vacation pictures, the engagement pictures, the graduation pictures. And of course this was going on long before Instagram, when Facebook was more than a place for middle-aged people to rant about the government. When we were teenagers, we showed off how cool and smart we were on Facebook, how we, white kids free of consequences, could smoke weed between classes and still get into fancy colleges. And now Twitter is—especially for the writers among us—the vehicle of self-branding and self-promotion. I have friends who have been told that they need “a large Twitter platform” in order to score a book contract. What better marketplace in which to hock one’s goodness, funniness, wokeness?
I have tweeted, sitting and panicking in my house and later in my parents’ house, “good evening. fuck the police” and “a very merry fuck the police to all and to all a good night.” These are things I did reflexively, feeling rage at the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and excitement about the revolutionary actions of Black protestors and fear for their safety and for the mental health of my friends of color. These are also tweets I did, however little I wanted to admit it, to be seen as someone who is anti-racist. I wanted to optimize myself, just as I had done when I marched and wrote articles to seek relief from my white self-loathing. This does not make me a villain worthy of self-castigation—identifying some white weirdness and then picking up the cat o’ nine tails helps advance no cause, as I’m sure many of us have already discovered—but it does make me someone interested in self-optimization, and that interest, I believe, stands in the way of the necessary, daily anti-oppression work that involves a real reckoning with the Potemkinesque world of whiteness.
On social media, we have accessed a strange mise en abyme of the self in which our gambit is to be infinitely reflected in as positive a way as possible. And it’s one thing to want to appear as a Happy Apartment-Haver or a Happy Fiancée, but it’s another thing to want to appear as a Good White Person. The historical problem of whiteness cannot be reduced to such a mise en abyme: it’s more like a house of mirrors, where at one point we will look normal and human and at another point grotesque and alien. This is what reckoning with whiteness and our fake world is like. We look normal and human to each other, but the world we live in—safe, financially stable, easily navigated, protected and served by police instead of brutalized by them—is grotesque and alien, a sort of Disneyland of plundered wealth and culture. It’s our job to knock it down and distribute our resources among those living in the real world. This is not something that can be accomplished by self-optimizing through a flurry of reflexive actions and social media posts.
We cannot risk the commodification of anti-racism, because when anti-racism is commodified it’s no longer anti-racism: it’s part of the same logic of capitalism that limits human expression and enables the subjugation of marginalized people. This is not to say that we cannot post on social media—though we really need to stop sharing photos and videos of Black trauma—but we desperately need to begin thinking outside the paradigm of self-optimization and branding. We need to think outside our obsession with our efficacy and entertain the existence of the house of mirrors, of our potentialities to look both normal and grotesque. We need to admit to the grotesquery and continue to love ourselves while we do.
My father’s ancestors are Jewish immigrants from Minsk. My father grew up working class and “made good”—i.e. became a doctor—and now lives in a fairly large house in the suburbs. He drives an SUV. I have made clear my disapproval of his decision to buy the house and drive the SUV. I have a modest house in the rural town where I teach at the university, and a small car of my own. But I do love coming home to my parents’ large suburban house, eating their good food, driving in the spacious SUV to get tea at their favorite coffee shops. At 30, I still like to spend a week sleeping in my childhood bed and riding my bike through the adjacent forest preserve. After describing this as “not good” to a friend after an NA meeting, she told me that her parents also live in a large house and drive nice cars, and that she and her wife, who live nowhere near as opulent a lifestyle, enjoy spending time in her parents’ luxury. “It’s human,” she told me. “People want comfort.”
There is nowhere I am more aware of the Potemkinesque nature of the white world than at my parents’ house. And there is no one I love more than my parents. This dialectic is another one of the funhouse mirrors, one which shows me a reflection so scrambled by opposing loyalties that it’s difficult to understand. Recently, a credible threat circulated on the internet announcing that the area in which my parents live was going to be looted. “Get what you want and need,” the poster wrote. This made sense to me. People want comfort. I believe that wealth should be redistributed. But at the same time, I was also very worried for my parents. What could I persuade them to give away? Could they offer the protestors water and snacks? How would I get my parents, progressive but still not fully understanding of the necessity of police and prison abolition, on board with this plan?
My mom forwarded me a Facebook post from the county sheriff announcing plans to blockade the road off of which my parents’ community and a number of other upper-middle-class communities are located. Don’t worry, she told me, we’ll be safe. Under the sheriff’s post were the gushing approvals of people in my parents’ community. We are so happy for the police force and don’t understand why anyone would be against you, one woman wrote. Thank you for your service! said another. It goes without saying that all the posters were white.
I wanted my parents to indicate somehow that they disapproved of the police’s protection, to stop asking for safety and start understanding the needs of the protestors, but I couldn’t make them do this. I couldn’t talk them into allyship. Neither could I convince the protestors not to loot the residences in my parents’ neighborhood. Who was I to determine the course of the revolution? Still, I needed my parents unharmed. I needed my parents’ lives undisturbed. I felt this in a way that was base and profound and impossible to articulate, and that made me pace and cry and kindle once again with mania. I wanted to keep vigil. I wanted to broker peace. I wanted to walk out on my parents’ front porch and explain: My father did this not as an affront to you, but because he grew up poor and wanted a good life and has truly unjust direct access to the American dream. Please, take some of these things, but do it quietly, let my parents sleep, let me wake them up in the morning and tell them what happened and take the blame and talk with them about what you want and need. My parents would hate that I gave their things away. My father worked hard for those things, and for my family’s life, and for my life. They are not mine to give away.
The threat was ultimately a stunt: no one had intended to target private residences. Still, I was rattled. The questions of efficacy and approbation-seeking fall away when our cardboard Disneyland topples and we stand face-to-face with the real world. Here we are, unmediated by social media and poster board signs and designations of “goodness,” white people wearing the trappings of whiteness, white people living lives that are not—and frankly cannot be—ideologically perfect. I cannot fault my parents for wanting comfort (they’re human), nor can I fault myself, nor can I fault anyone else (especially people to whom comfort has been historically denied). But what I do have to do is reckon with the dialectic, the funhouse mirror image in which I both enjoy the comfort and want to redistribute it, in which I abandon the ideological pageantry of perfection (I cannot absolve myself of my whiteness and origins in the suburbs, I cannot absolve myself of my privilege or my parents’ privilege) and quest and dare and grow.
This is the behind-the-scenes stuff, the quiet, sticky, weird, confusing stuff, the stuff that, when I lie in my bed and think about it, I seize up with spasms of shame and anger and actually let out a little yell. I do this stuff for hours. Nights of hours. This is the stuff that induces the skidding manias, the chest-beating self-loathing, the stare-into-the-maw uneasiness that has made me physically sick. And once I white-knuckle through all this, once I reach some kind of rapprochement with my demons, I will, I know, be equipped with the right materials to begin a daily anti-oppression practice devoid of self-optimization. I will emerge with self-love and equanimity, as someone who is a part of human history, with a human identity, neither good nor bad, who will use what she has at her disposal to quietly and steadily effect the change that is within her power to effect.
Months ago, for a graduate class I taught in narrative nonfiction, a student whose brother is a cop began writing an essay about her anger towards the racist institution of the police and police brutality in Chicago, where she lives. Because of COVID-19, I extended the deadline for the students’ final essays until the end of May. My Chicagoan student wrote to tell me that she was sorry but she’d need longer to complete her essay. “I’ve been doing a lot more reading and stuff the past few weeks,” she wrote. “Especially after George Floyd’s murder, I want to keep working with the piece. It’s really important to me.”
On more than a few occasions, when I’ve asked creative people what role they think art might play in advocating for the abolition of prisons and the police, they offer a response that privileges journalism and direct action over their own work. I am well familiar with the power and potential of journalism and direct action, but I am still saddened by these artists’ responses. We have been told by STEM enthusiasts, utilitarian capitalists, and libertarian technocrats that art doesn’t matter, and now we’re telling the same thing to each other. What about my student whose essay is really important to her? What do we tell her if we don’t even believe in the needle-moving capability of creative work?
Creating a work of art is like never calling the police in that it is an anarchic act that seeks to build a life outside the capitalist, crypto-fascist, self-as-commodity political minefield in which we are expected to make our lives. When community members support one another without resorting to calling the police, they are introducing a novel idea into our world, one that is unbound by the discourse of our law-and-order capitalist democracy: What if, instead of demilitarizing the police or making them wear bodycams or take special de-escalation courses, we abolished them altogether? Likewise, each essay, portrait, photograph, and poem introduces a novel idea into our world. Before art’s commercialization, before trying to sell our books for big advances or our sculptures to high bidders, before worrying about reviews and the judgment of other artists, there was art itself—no use value, no exchange value, an uncategorizable thing, and anti-capitalist in its defiance of categorization. Art invites us to entertain how a certain set of circumstances might be changed. Art, like never calling the police, is the affirmation of possibility.
It is now more important than ever that we as white people consume and promote the art of Black people and other people of color. It is important that we make our own art, too. At this moment in history, we should be approaching art with the same degree of urgency that we approach our worries about our efficacy. Because it is in making art that we resist the commodification of our goodness, and that we can reorganize the world by a logic that exists life-givingly outside of capitalism. This is not to say that we should give up writing journalism or participating in direct action—it’s merely to say that, if we value developing an anti-oppression practice that’s about questing and daring and growing, art is one such approach.
If we don’t want to make art, there are analogous practices. Instead of fetishizing the heroism of a sudden, robust response to tragedy, we might consider building said response into our daily lives. Just as we brush our teeth, feed the dog, and go to work, we should consider spending some amount of time engaged in actualizing the abolition of prisons and the police. This might take the form of conversations we have with one another, or with our parents. This might take the form of a journal entry about some unsettling white thing we’ve noticed in ourselves. This might take the form of quietly donating to a bond fund. This might take the form—as I have learned recently—of repairing our mental and physical health. This might take the form of going to small rallies of twenty or thirty people. This might take the form of reading a book or watching a movie and having a discussion afterwards. This might take the form of teaching a class. One such action every day will build us up, guide us, and inform the direction of our sudden, robust responses: the giant protests, the maneuverings to protect Black organizers from the cops, the arrests.
When these practices become seamless with our lives, we stop wanting to be good. After all, am I good because I’ve brushed my teeth? Good because I sat down and wrote some words today? Good because I ate dinner? These are things I do because I need to, and they bear no moral character. We are most efficacious when we are not striving to be good but rather striving to move forward, striving to envision a world outside the policies and structures that have so often resulted in the destruction of Black lives. What can I do? I wondered to myself dully on my parents’ couch, suffering pangs of insignificance. I’m so small and the problem is so big. What can I do? The answer is simple: live with intention.
Namely, the intention to abolish prisons and the police.