American novelist William Faulkner wrote in his 1951 novel “Requiem for a Nun,” “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
As we all try to move away from America’s racial past, this recent massacre reminds us of it.
For decades now, America has refused to broach the topic of white privilege.
During Black History Month in 2009, then-US Attorney General Eric Holder offered an explanation as to why.
“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot,” Holder said, “in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”
His speech was met with scathing criticism by those who said its tenor was confrontational and accusatory.
Many communities of color around this nation assert that white people show no real invested interest in engaging in this country’s needed dialogue on race.
While many whites have confessed their aversion to such a dialogue, stating that while a cultural defense of “white guilt” plays a role in their reticence, so too does their cultural fear of “black rage” for inadvertently saying the wrong thing.
It’s a debate that has been avoided because of political correctness. But it’s true that any discussion on race, no matter who’s stirring the conversation — Rachel Dolezal, our president, or Holder — invariably inflames our emotions more than it informs our faculties.
What further complicates the dialogue on race is a perceived as well as a real avalanche of criticism from communities of color about how whites are as unconsciously racist as they are incurably so. This, too, leaves the needed dialogue on race in suspension.
Ironically, the aversion to a conversation about race not only continues to harm people of color, it harms whites as well.
In her recent book “Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race,” Cambridge author Debby Irving wrote the following:
“I can think of no bigger misstep in American history than the invention and perpetuation of the idea of white superiority. It allows white children to believe they are exceptional and entitled while allowing children of color to believe they are inferior and less deserving. . . . Unless adults understand racism, they will, as I did, unknowingly teach it to their children.”
On one hand we have the dominant culture’s continued indelicate dance of white privilege and single-issue battles that thwart coalition building with communities of color. On the other, we have some people of color dismissing the notion that white marginalized groups (white women, LGBTQ, the poor) may have something to offer communities of color in terms of advice and shared (if not same) experiences.
Sadly, civil rights struggles in this country — by blacks, women, and gays — have primarily been understood and demonstrated as tribal and unconnected rather than intersectional and interdependent of each other.
So, how do we make our way through the current tangle of misguided good intentions and valid suspicions concerning race?
The only way forward is to keep talking about race.