Yesterday evening as I was climbing up Tumamoc Hill, trying in vain to distract my myself from my own ragged panting, I put on my headphones and turned on an episode of the NPR staple, This American Life. This week, the theme of the radio show was “It will make sense when you’re older,” and featured stories from people at different stages in their lives who gain new insight into things that had previously seemed incomprehensible. In Act Two, comedian and SNL cast member Zaheer Shamata retells a traumatic event that happened to her several years ago, and describes the conversation that ensues when she discussed this event with her mother. The incident Shamata describes occurred when she was 20 years old and was walking down a street in Cocoa Beach, FL, accompanied by a friend, who was another young black woman. A guy drove by, cartoonishly ensconced in all the stereotypical trappings of a racist (big pick-up truck with a confederate flag vanity plate, red-faced, wearing mirrored sunglasses that are strapped to his head with one of those sporty bungees). He leans out the window and shouts to Shamata and her friend, “ Y’all *n-words* need to take yo black asses back to Africa!” And then he drives away.
The rest of the podcast is about Shamata taking this story to her mom, who unexpectedly laughs in response to her tearful recounting. “Please,” she says. As it turns out, Shamata’s mother had been one of the kids sent to a previously all-white school in Arkansas during the Civil Rights Movement, and had spent every single day of her entire 8th grade year being called the n-word. Shamata and her mom then have a heartfelt, poignant conversation about race, their feelings towards white people, children’s participation in the civil rights movement, their own relationship, how Shamata’s mom was treated by her mother…it’s heart-wrenching and devastating and hilarious and sweet all at the same time. You should go listen to it.
But what I just couldn’t get out of my head was that cartoonish man and his ridiculous, senseless comment, designed to erase the entire history of slavery. Go back to Africa.
In a nonsensical convergence of hate, this is is exactly the same rhetoric used to express anti-immigrant sentiment. Go back home. Go back to where you came from. The unstated subtext of which is, this place is mine.
What is it about whiteness that it can so blindly lay claim to ownership of a space, without any sense of contradiction or irony – as if the entire history of the US as a ‘nation of immigrants’ never happened, as if this land had never been stolen from the people who originally called it home?
Andrea Smith (2012) argues that white supremacy is maintained through three distinct but interrelated logics: “(1) slaveability/anti-Black racism, which anchors capitalism; (2) genocide, which anchors colonialism; and (3) orientalism, which anchors war” (n.p.). The first pillar maintains that Blackness is always equated with slaveability, which can take multiple forms – from formal slavery, to the prison industrial complex (Smith, 2012). Anti-Blackness convinces white people to accept their lot in life, because at least they are not Black, at least they are not the property of the state. This logic thus upholds capitalism, which depends upon a workforce whose labor is always being commodified. The second pillar of genocide maintains that indigenous people must always be disappearing, thus anchoring colonialism and justifying the ‘rightful’ inhabitation of Native lands by white people. Orientalism, the third pillar, understands people from the ‘Orient’ (citing Said) as being inferior peoples, but civilized enough to continue to be a threat – thereby justifying military action for “protection” (Smith, 2012).
In thinking about the incident described by Shamata, it’s possible that these logics were at play. The man’s confederate vanity plate and vicious comment clearly communicates a fierce anti-Blackness, a sense of self that is defined in opposition to an imagined Other. And his sense of being the rightful inhabitant and owner of U.S. land, authorized to determine who should stay and who should go, is certainly dependent upon genocide, and the obliteration of indigenous peoples.
Upon further reflection, however, it occurs to me that saying something like Go back to Africa, a remark that makes absolutely no sense, actually depends upon more than anti-Blackness. It requires a deep and fundamental commitment to ignorance. A cognitive maneuver that somehow selectively erases pieces of reality.
Charles Mills (2007) writes extensively about white ignorance as a social epistemology, a complex system of denial and “non-knowing” that enables and rationalizes white supremacy. This large-scale denial (of the humanity of people of color, of violence perpetrated against people of color) is made possible by the management of memory and the accompanying collective amnesia that occurs as history is doctored and rewritten and passed down as official Truth. The man in Shamata’s story is therefore able to say something like Go back to Africa without experiencing any cognitive dissonance, because his entire way of knowing is rooted in a socially reinforced ahistoric not-knowing.
But it’s not just him, or people like him. As satisfying as it is to point to this cartoonish archetype as the real villain here, in some ways he’s merely a distraction from the more insidious (and far more violent) ways that white supremacy functions. One of the central tenets of CRT holds that racism is not confined to a single individual’s acts of aggression, but rather deeply embedded in all aspects of American life (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). White supremacy isn’t just red-faced men in pick-up trucks shouting racist slurs (though these do, unfortunately, exist), but rather a structural form of systematic domination that is normalized to the point of invisibility. In other words, epistemologies of ignorance don’t just affect those who don pointed white hats or stake Trump posters in their lawns – they are woven into the very fabric of American political, socio-cultural, and historical thought.
Just look at films like Gone with the Wind – the highest grossing film ever! – a classic and critically acclaimed four-hour movie about the Civil War which somehow doesn’t have time to mention slavery. Films like this are simultaneously reflections and perpetrators of white ignorance, creating what Mills (2007) calls a “feel-good history for whites” (p. 30) that romanticizes the past and makes contemporary “color-blind” ideologies seem rational.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no observable limit to self-delusion, especially when it so conveniently enables one to persist in guiltlessly reaping the benefits of systematic privilege. Perhaps the answer lies in creating spaces which are less comfortable for white folks, spaces where our ignorance is challenged, and where we are not protected by our not-knowing.
Ladson-Billings, G., & Tate, W. F.,IV. (1995). Toward a critical race theory of education. Teachers College Record, 97(1),47-68.
Mills, C. W. (2007). White ignorance. In S. Sullivan and N. Tuana (Eds.), Race and epistemologies of ignorance (pp. 11-38). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Smith, A. (2012) Indigeneity, settler colonialism, white supremacy