White people in America have convinced themselves that overt racism is the only kind that affects people of color. They’ve taught themselves to dismiss the culture of white supremacy that exists below the surface of racial slurs and Nazi chants. Their version of history depicts the violence of their ancestors as heroic and righteous, with monikers like “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
In 1972 when Angela Davis was interviewed while she was in prison, she was asked if she thought that violence was the only avenue to revolution. Her response has stuck with me through every fit of outrage about punching Nazis. When you ask people of color about whether they approve of violence while ignoring and dismissing the violence they have to endure, it’s not only debasing, it’s dehumanizing.
It’s also the most effective way of minimizing the reality of the white violence that occurs every time minorities take strides towards equality. The whitelash that Van Jones talked about on election night hasn’t dissolved. It has accumulated strength by seeing its allies in the White House and it has been emboldened by the President’s false equivalence of “many sides.”
Having to rehash the history of violence in this country feels strange because of the consistency of its prevalence. It has a persistent and perpetual presence in white American culture, beginning with the genocide of Native Americans. There is a linearity of constant systematic oppression– encompassing genocide, internment, rape, forced assimilation and sterilization, that started in the 1600s when Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock.
A year ago, Native Americans were protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. A year before that, they were protesting the Keystone Pipeline. In the past few months, both these pipelines have leaked in South Dakota. Native Americans are still being suffocated by the concept of Manifest Destiny. Yet their dehumanization has become so normalized and their existence so invisible, that a sports team called the Redskins can exist, while their very livelihoods are being actively threatened.
Treating white violence as an anomaly makes seeing white men with guns as an aberration extremely easy. Tweeting things like #ThisIsNotUs when hate crimes occur to imply an inconsistency in the course of American progress feels innocent. But for people who’ve been forced to understand white violence in the context of their daily existence, it all feels predictable.
The United States does not have a habit of wholeheartedly relinquishing power for the sake of justice. The habit is rather of stubbornly conceding after turmoil and bloodshed to give oppressed folks a condensed version of the American dream.
In theory this country is a lot of things, it’s the land of the free and the home of the brave. But in reality, our learned history reveals that white supremacy isn’t a small faction of this country’s consciousness, it’s a changing but sustained force. Thanksgiving is a yearly reminder of whose history requires retelling, whose lives are considered valuable, and whose sins are worthy of redemption.