I was having a conversation with a friend last night about how living in America is basically living in a framework of daily, continuous lies. We lie about being a democracy; being a land of equal opportunity and social mobility; being a nation governed by the rule of law and equal protection under the law; being a model and a purveyor of liberty and justice throughout the world. We tell ourselves these lies so we can get through the day in relative psychological peace, because we have invested heavily in these stories and the idea that they are not true is too much to bear. We isolate ourselves from any information that would contradict this national story and we ignore any evidence that happens to slip through, so that we can remain secure in what we know to be true. We are in an abusive relationship with a national identity that we know deep down is hurting us, but that we don’t know how to leave; we can’t imagine what the alternative would look like, and we fear that the cost of trying to find it will be too high.
August was a strange and terrible month for me for this very reason. In the weeks following the murder of Michael Brown, I had what is probably best described as a mild mental and emotional breakdown. I didn’t have direct ties to the Brown family or the Ferguson community; instead, what prompted my breakdown was the severe discontinuity between the things I have to believe every day in order to walk around and stay sane, and the reality that was being uncovered in Ferguson. In order to live here, I assume that my life won’t be taken capriciously by agents of my government; I assume that I will get justice when wronged; I assume that my right to exist isn’t dependent on whether someone white decides to view me as a human being that day. But in reality, none of that may be true. And as I said to my mother in tears over the phone, I don’t know how to live in a nation or a world like that.
I had this experience for the first time when I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and saw how the current prevailing system of racial injustice had been crafted with such detail and maintained with such vigor. When I was confronted with the truth at that time, I truly didn’t know what to do; so I stored the information, but put it mostly to the back of my mind, because I didn’t know how to engage with that reality and still go about my regular life. And perhaps, ultimately, that is the choice we have to face: in order to truly confront the truth and deal with it, we will have to let our lives, our systems, and our worldview be disrupted. It may feel like they are even being destroyed; but it is our only chance to escape the lies that are truly killing us.
It is time we learned to tell the truth about ourselves, to face who we have been and who we are. It is time to acknowledge that whatever we wanted to believe our nation was founded on in theory, it has been founded in practice on genocide, racism, theft, exploitation and violence. It is time for our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to account for both the sins of our forbears and the injustices we allow to continue every day. It is time to speak honestly about the reality and origins of ongoing inequality and oppression: its causes, the structures that maintain it, and how those structures must change to achieve the values we claim to hold dear.
Post-Ferguson, I’ve had to figure out how to go back to my regular life, but this time, I’m trying to find a way to do it while continuing to engage in this confrontation with the truth. For my first step, I’m starting a book club on The New Jim Crow, so I can dive into it again and process it with other people. It’s probably a small step in the scheme of things, but I’m hoping it will lead to bigger ones – and at the very least, there will be more of us engaging in this truth-telling. I want to host some showings (either personally or through work) of Race: The Power of an Illusion, as another opportunity to reveal some of these facts of our history to a wider audience. Writing it out, these feel like such tiny, insignificant interventions, and I feel like I have so little power to make a difference. On the other hand, I have to start somewhere.
More than that: we all have to start somewhere, to break free of the cycle of lies. What will you choose to do?