The first step is admitting this IS who we are.
If Americans want to fight racism, we must stop lying to ourselves.
There’s this phrase I’ve heard for most of my life, but especially in the last few years: “This is not who we are as Americans.”
I heard it after Trump won in 2016. I heard it when Nazis marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, and I’ve heard it a lot in the days following the attempted coup by Trump loyalists in Washington. Each time it’s been in response to a demonstration of the racism and white supremacy that poisons America.
And here’s the thing: It’s a lie. This is most definitely who we are.
In addiction treatment, the saying goes that “the first step is admitting you have a problem.” Addicts live in a state of denial, ignoring the clear symptoms of their addiction as their life spirals out of control. To break that spiral, a person has to recognize the pattern so they can break it.
To say the United States is addicted to racism is hardly metaphorical. Racism built our nation; enslaved Africans were among the first non-indigenous people in the Americas, and institutionalized racism was a tool used to justify a system that treated humans as livestock. Racism expanded our nation, in the form of wanton genocide against native people. Racism is why we fought a war between North and South, and in the 20th century, racism became a tool for wealthy corporate interests to win the votes and support of the white people they exploited and harmed.
Racism is the dominant political force in the United States and has been since our founding. As evidence, see that Donald Trump, the most openly and outspokenly racist President in at least 100 years, secured more votes than any previous President in history. This, despite rampant evidence of criminal wrongdoing, an economic crisis, and a pandemic that has killed nearly half a million Americans. If his opponent had not secured an even greater vote total record, Trump would be serving a second term.
How does a person look at that history and say “This is not who we are?”
How does a person watch an army of militants, flying Confederate flags alongside their Gadsens and Thin Blue Line and MAGA flags, wearing white supremacist tattoos and shirts that read “Camp Auschwitz Staff,” and say “This is not who we are?”
Denial, that’s how. It would damage our egos to recognize the poison in our nation, so we lie to ourselves. I suspect for some white people it is meant to reassure the marginalized people who are targets of that bigotry: “This is a small minority, it’s not how most of us feel.”
But it isn’t a small minority, and marginalized people know that, probably better than any white person does. They’ve experienced racism in ways we white people still have the privilege to be surprised about. And again, I remind you: Nearly half the country voted for Trump a second time.
Going back to that addiction metaphor, let’s talk for a minute about enablers. These are the people around the addict, who may not themselves be addicts, but who play into the delusions and denial that perpetuate addiction. These are the white Americans who, in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary, repeat that phrase: “This is not who we are.”
We need to stop lying to ourselves. As long as we remain enablers, as long as we remain in denial, we cannot break the pattern. We have to admit to ourselves that this is who we are, who we always have been.
It’s not who we should be. But the first step in changing is to admit we have a problem.