Albert Camus wrote The Plague about Oran, a city inundated with a disease that devastates its residents with exponential spread. The worse the plague gets, the greater the panic becomes. Dr. Rieux is a physician who endeavors throughout the book to help as many people as he can, in spite of bleak results and increasing danger. Camus calls his readers to locate the plague in their contexts and throw the weight of their being against it.
Last week, a white man convinced of his racial superiority murdered nine black Americans. The extinguished lives of Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., and Myra Thompson demand our attention. Of the 9 victims, 6 of them were women. And then there is the five-year-old girl who survived by playing dead.
We cannot be timid about calling this what it was: a terrorist act of racially-motivated hate, perpetrated by a 21-year-old man who penned his white supremacist manifesto 150 years after the abolition of slavery. He violated a place of sanctuary in the most brutal way. If we don’t see how Charleston is connected to our country’s history of racism, we are not paying attention. This is white supremacy in action; evil, undiluted; hell, here and now.
White supremacy is a plague, one that I fear is too insidious to unlearn, too ancient, too far-reaching. And yet, we cannot simply stand by and let it continue to ravage us. Millennial white Americans like me did not create white supremacy, but we inherited it, along with the privilege to choose how long it will continue. Our sin is not being white, but hoarding the power to which our skin affords us access. Faith is believing that the choice to oppose injustice extends beyond our individual efforts, even when those efforts feel futile, even when life is at its bleakest, even when that struggle leads us to death.
It is long past time that whites started taking responsibility for each other. A few of my liberal white friends have confessed to me this week that they don’t know quite what to say, haven’t known what to say all year, and these are just the ones who could bring themselves to admit it. I imagine there are many more who feel fettered in the same way, afraid to say too much or too little and so say nothing instead. InThe Elements of Style, William Strunk writes: “If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud! Why compound ignorance with inaudibility?” The only thing white people risk in talking about the racial situation in this county is embarrassment. To Strunk’s point: how will we grow if we do not speak clearly? Our silence protects our pride but erodes our humanity, re-inscribing a culture of white supremacy in the process. Meanwhile, people are dying.
I’ve thought a lot this week about our country’s racial wound, and how white people can participate in its healing.
To start: we don’t need white people who hate themselves. This might be an inevitable pit stop on our road to racial self-awareness, but stalling here will cause us to perpetrate more harm. If this is where we get stuck, we will either remain silent because of our guilt, or misappropriate cultures that do not belong to us (I have to think this was partly at play with Dolezal).
What we do need is whites en masse rejecting systems of whiteness: legislated educational inequality, mass incarceration, stop and frisk, environmental racism. We need white artists telling stories that honestly deal with our history; white parents talking to their white children about the fact that they are white, and that they live in a world where that matters; white ministers teaching their congregations about a God who does not tolerate this kind of sickness; white liberals willing to say what they’re thinking in the wake of Charleston, and Baltimore, and Staten Island, even if it means betraying parts of ourselves we do not like to bring above ground. We will never heal unless we do.
I heard once that white privilege is looking tragedy in the face and being able to turn away. To that I will add: white privilege is not having to deal with your racial identity until you are ready to deal with it. I was twenty-three when I finally started addressing mine. We are certainly not the first generation to be baffled that this plague persists and with such fervor. I do not want my children to feel the same way.