The most nefarious thing about my good, public school education in the liberal northeast was not that it reduced racism to a simple, moral choice made by individuals. Nor even the way it suggested that the problem only existed in other parts of the country. But rather, that it made race seem like an issue of the past—a historical abstraction of epic, faraway proportions.
Racism wasn’t, say, decades of redlining followed by quiet, ongoing gentrification in a Roxbury neighborhood 25 miles to the east of our affluent suburb (ranked America’s 16th best small town to live in by Money Magazine in 2009, my sophomore year of high school and the year I took AP US History). It was crosses burning and police dogs barking in grainy black-and-white on a sidewalk in Selma. Civil Rights weren’t a daily, lived struggle all across the United States, wherever there existed people and communities of color. They were the College Board’s likely choice of topic for this year’s document-based essay question. We were learning capital-H History. And along with it, the sort of smug, self-satisfied colorblindness that allowed Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, and the rest of the newly hashtaggable present to take so much of innocent, well-intentioned America by surprise.
Looking back, it seems to me that this comforting colorblindness would have been the easiest thing in the world to challenge. I don’t mean that it would have been easy to actually disavow people of it and replace it with a brutal but accurate picture of reality (I’m convinced the only way to do that is to force people to actually live said reality). I mean that the first mental steps somebody who has never experienced the problem firsthand must take toward a more complete sense of reality require no stretch of the imagination. They require no convoluted interpretation or analysis of the facts whatsoever. And I often wonder what would have happened if, say, my US History teacher had gotten up in front of the classroom and asked: “All of that hatred and pain that ordinary people like you and me ate, drank, breathed, and bred for generations before anybody ever imagined that another kind of society might be possible—where do you think it all went? Vanished into thin air with the stroke of a pen in some hallowed chamber of laws? Peeled off the face of the nation like a shallow scab? Or crawled into the dark corners of minds and hearts like some rejected animal? Festered there and grew more bitter and vicious than ever before? What seems more likely? Just how is it do you think that people’s minds and hearts work?”
A question like that is literally all it would have taken to call out the post-racial fantasy for the delusion that it is—a bare minimum of intuition about the staying power of old habits and ideas, applied to an initial set of undeniable facts and images. See, as enlightened and progressive as we were made to feel by looking back and down upon the depredations of the past, it never once occurred to us to pursue that most childish of inquiries: to ask where somebody or something has gone after it hides its face. In developmental psychology, reaching an understanding of object permanence—of the idea that things in the world continue to exist even when they cannot be perceived in any way—is one of the infant’s most important accomplishments. What an infantile reversion we must experience, then, if the thing that becomes hidden from view is ugly and incriminating—when what its gaze (if you can bring yourself to meet it) incriminates is your very ignorance, innocence, and prelapsarian being in the world.
To be sure, merely looking this incriminating ugliness in the face is no guarantee of an empathic or even sincere response on the part of the incriminated. On the contrary, the real history of America is the history of an all too visible pain and suffering inducing—indeed, intensifying—the very rage and hatred that produced it in the first place, all explained away by what James Baldwin deemed “rationalizations so fantastic that they approached the pathological.” This is what allowed the very idea of a plantation to exist. It is what continues to allow for neighborhoods of polar opposite racial and economic makeups to exist across the street from each other in every major, American city. It is what Baldwin meant when he wrote:
At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself…The resulting spectacle, at once foolish and dreadful, led someone to make the quite accurate observation that “the Negro-in-America is a form of insanity which overtakes white men.
Or in other words: nothing drives you crazier than a problem of your own creation that you suddenly can’t look away from. Nothing makes you madder than trying to go back to sleep when you’ve woken up to a nightmare.
Go on social media. Turn on the television. Walk out onto the street. You will probably notice that it is getting harder to look away. That the insanity and the nightmare of race in America is reaching a fever pitch and that it is getting harder to go back to sleep, even for those who have, by luck or by design, slept most soundly.
Again, Baldwin: “[I]n America, even as a slave, [the Black man] was an inescapable part of the general social fabric and no American could escape having an attitude toward him.”
I am neither a Black man nor a White man. I am an Asian-American man. My ancestors have no history of rationalizing race or being driven insane by it in that uniquely American fashion.
But we do have pain in our (recent) history. By which I mean that it was conceivable to my parents and theirs that hard work and good intentions might not have protected their lives and liberties. That an arbitrary power might crush them not for what they’d done but for who they were. And, in a cruel twist of irony, this pain, I think, is part of what made it so easy for us to look away.
Mei guo, or “America,” in Mandarin, translates literally to “beautiful country.” If your destination is a—𝘵𝘩𝘦—beautiful country and what you are escaping is pain and the trampling of your humanity, then what room do you have left in your mind and heart to entertain the possibility that you fled one nightmare for another? That the new one is just as full of rage and despair as the one you left? That whatever comfort and opportunity you found was as much built on somebody else’s back—had at their expense—as it was earned?
And yet, shouldn’t it be precisely this shared experience of pain and intergenerational trauma that makes empathy most available? To empathize is to allow, however fleetingly, another’s reality to become almost as vivid and tangible as one’s own—to recall and relive within one’s self that which most closely resembles another’s experience, or else to know when this is not possible. (So much “allyship” in the age of social media feels so hollow and perfunctory because it is utterly devoid of this self-knowledge or introspection—because those who perform it do so without any humility, vulnerability, or depth of feeling. There is almost nothing you can do or say to make this pain and suffering better—certainly nothing that you can achieve by following a numbered checklist from Instagram, as if you were following the cooking instructions on the back of a frozen TV dinner. In the end, there is only the broadening and deepening of your own experience and soul, which might, in the best of worlds, make true connection and healing possible.)
What I didn’t know, sitting in AP US History class a decade ago, was that no teacher or textbook or set of facts was ever going to give me that empathic power. I thought I was learning our nation’s history. So as not to repeat it. I should have been looking at my own.