In the aftermath of bigotry, hate, and discrimination, a sentiment that is just as destructive is captured in these words...
I can't believe it.
This phrase, or its pernicious cousins, is an automatic response to the trauma of watching racism, sexism, or any other -ism rear its head from those looking to rationalize its existence.
...that's not who we are.
...I am shocked at the actions of a few,
...that's not the america I know.
What I hear when these words are uttered, when this belief is espoused, isn't strength, but weakness. I see fear, not courage. I feel anger, not solace. Because this sentiment, and others like it, is a reminder that america is a country in denial. We avoid the truth, and therefore we have not broken free from the cycle that limits us from truly being great. american tradition rests on the belief that every action, every moment in history, is defined by our exceptionalism. And when truth reminds america that this exceptionalism enslaved, raped, killed, stole, imprisoned, ignored, and abused, what we actually record in the annals of american history is the greatness defined by intention and ideals; meanwhile, we whitewash the blemishes, marks, and imperfections with a coat of primer so thick that the paint following makes one believe the blemishes were never there to begin with.
america, the blemishes are there. And the truth: we should not be shocked at bigotry. We should not be appalled at violence and terror as a tool to stymy progress. america is a country built by both. To believe otherwise doesn't erase that truth. To be shocked and surprised today doesn't change the catalog of yesterdays documenting that truth.
How can it be a surprise? Indigenous people have been telling america that we are hateful. We made citizenship the right of free white persons of good character in this country and then justified the taking of land from the original Americans on that premise. Rather than acknowledge the hateful acts for what they were, we gifted these Natives a fraction of their land after a trail of tears and believe that to be benevolence of character. We took the rest of that land under the guise of destiny, granting *anyone claims to land out West if they could get there physically and pay $1.25. This is the america I know.
*free white men
How can it be a surprise? Black people have been telling america that it is bigoted. Brought here against our will, to work land and build a nation we were systematically denied a claim or stake in, the country prospered on the blood, sweat, tears, and backs of black bodies. Prior to the Civil War, the South could have been considered the fourth richest country in the world, producing 75% of the world's cotton. In a land rooted in John Locke's idea of natural, inalienable rights that are God-given, the reality is that these rights were naturally applied to white men, and unnaturally taken away from black men and women; this truth that persisted well after the Civil War and that we are still telling america about today. It is reflected in the erasure of entire communities, the lynching of black and brown bodies, and the imbalance and inequity in outcomes across economic and social indicators. This is the america I know.
How can it be a surprise? Immigrants have been telling america that it is violent. Despite the guarantees from a social contract — cooperation for the benefit of social benefits like protection and safety — the system has not worked the same way if you were deemed foreign, different, or other. Chinese laborers arrived in america to work on our railroads, but received 30-50 percent lower wages for the same job done by white people and often had to complete the most difficult and dangerous jobs. Mexican workers were invited to work in the U.S. temporarily to develop the agricultural industry, only to be sent home later without their promised pay. During World War II, 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, mostly U.S. Citizens and documented immigrants, were evacuated and mass incarcerated from the West Coast. america claims herself the victim of invasion, threat, and exploitation from others that come here with no intention of paying dues for the benevolence they received, while she ignores the labor, subjugation, and abuse communities have endured in the process. This is the america I know.
With a history this loud, I can only surmise that american tradition is rooted in willful ignorance and american exceptionalism is blindness exceptionally demonstrated.
We live on a continent of two americas — one where the system has never failed and another where it fails every day. Yesterday we witnessed Trump supporters become domestic terrorists, storming the U.S. Capitol, occupying it, destroying property, and standing off with police and security along the way. I imagine there are many themes underlying this anger and this perceived feeling of being part of the disaffected and ignored. On the surface though, these protestors believed the system failed them. They voted, they believed, they showed up and showed out...and they lost. They did not see the outcome they had been promised by doing what they were told.
And you know what? I can actually relate to that. How? Because I am a black man. I am incredibly privileged, and still, I am a black man in america. I don't believe there has been an election season I have participated in where I didn't walk away with disappointment because of a local or national outcome that reminded me that our country, the citizens of this nation, weren't ready for the type of change that values me or other communities that call america home. I have spent the extra hours in the office, taken extra classes, completed extra credit just to be considered as smart — not even smarter than — my peers. I have also seen that extra work make no difference in the speed of my promotions or accuracy of leveling in my career. I have tried so hard to assimilate and follow rules and "not be a stereotype". That labor hasn't reduced the moments where people have responded to me in fear or hate. Meanwhile, the same behaviors I would face exclusion for are celebrated as a part of the hip and popular culture — it looks different on white skin. I have witnessed members of my black community be failed by this system, time and again, so much so that it becomes a cruel joke and a part of black culture to have zero faith that we can expect positive outcomes by participating in the system: calling the police, relying on the criminal justice system, filing a formal complaint, exercising our rights to speech and assembly, voting, or otherwise appealing to those in power to value fairness and equity.
And yet, despite knowing the system fails, my community shows up. We show up to vote for people that will likely ignore our issues after they've secured our vote. We build wealth even as we navigate a system that makes it so much harder to own property, keep the property, start businesses, keep businesses, find a job, keep a job, have a career. We protest and gather and appeal to others — hear us! — continuing to believe in the power of our voice, even as we are cast aside as agitators, criminals, thugs, and terrorists. Perhaps our familiarity with the failures of the system has prepared us to accept the truth. america is not what it is today because we wished it so. america is not the land of the free because we say it is so. america is not the home of the brave because we declare it to be.
And america is not beautiful because we believe it to be.
It's free because have had to fight (and keep fighting to make it so). It's brave because we have had moments where we've confronted the truth and reality of our own imperfection and accepted that we needed to change. It's beautiful because we pursue ideals that hold us accountable for doing more and being more, never making excuses or settling for "good enough".
This is where the parallels end. Because unlike the immigrant, the indigenous, the people of color fighting within a failed system for something better, Trump supporters like the ones yesterday represent a perversion of what actually makes america beautiful, brave, and free. America's beauty has always been in its growth and progress, not its aversion to change. And yet, protestors stormed the Capitol yesterday because the world has been changing around them and demanding more of them. Protestors stormed the Capitol because the system worked in alignment with the ideals and values that birthed it, against all odds to discredit, change or alter the results. There is a deeper problem that these riots represent: a not-insignificant amount of americans believe that the best path forward for america is to go back — back to a time or times when some americans were less free, less safe, and had less access to the system. Back to a time when the system was even less equitable than it is today. The riots also remind us that there are forces in this country that take issue not with an imperfect system, but an equitable one. The system has always been imperfect, but the rallying cry that brought Trump protestors to the Capitol wasn't the injustices of the past; it wasn't the fight for freedom that defined the rights movements of so many in this country; it was the moment where voters said, "we can do better, and be better than we are today."
This isn't the first time americans have resisted progress, and if history is our teacher, it will not be the last. That is who america is. america is also beautiful and better than that. Both can be true.
However, when people pretend or are unwilling to accept that our foundation is shaky and our journey to mend it ugly and rife with missteps, then we create the permissive environment that let's the hate and bigotry propagate. Saying "I can't believe it" doesn't absolve us of reckoning with the fact that we ignored the signs. That we didn't listen to the warnings from fellow Americans who continue to fight in a system that doesn't fight for them. True strength is confronting the truth of america's founding, america's birth, american history. True courage is disrupting the narratives we tell ourselves to try and avoid the truth. True peace comes when we know where we started and can see meaningful steps on the journey towards who we could be.
We are the america descended from slavery, stolen lands, and unequal opportunity. We also know better, and can be better, even as this ugly history shapes our legacy and our place in this world.
The more we wrap ourselves in the false innocence and naivete of disbelief each time we are confronted with that truth, the more we become the authors of our own failure.