The Unbearable Whiteness of Being
You can’t listen to them.
You can’t take their word for it. You can’t stroll into that midwest diner, ask them what’s up, expect them to know their own souls.
They’re not going to be honest with you. They’re not being honest with themselves. They don’t know how. They don’t have to be. They weren’t raised that way. It’s not the world they were handed.
A world of their unquestioned dominance. A world theirs by birth. Born alpha dog. Born apex predator.
A world that doesn’t exist.
That’s the problem: The world they live in isn’t there. Never has been. Yet they need it to be, so they make up stories about it, about the world that doesn’t exist, and their central place in it.
It’s mass psychosis. The psychosis of a fairy tale. The psychosis of what must be true, even though it manifestly is not. Something’s gotta give when the world you live in isn’t the world that exists. Usually it’s reality that gives. For awhile, anyway. Until it’s too late.
It must have been the Iran hostages when we first understood this, some form of it, anyway, that the world we were living in wasn’t the world really out there. It was played up stateside as an attack on America — America Held Hostage, in Ted Koppel’s despicable phrasing — and maybe it was. An attack on the America that had overthrown Iran’s government and installed the Shah in its place, an attack on the country whose puppet had had his boots on their throats for a generation, since before we were born.
The world we had grown up in was a lie, a lie of freedom and bounty, where the cheap gasoline in our cars was the product of fair trade, and not vicious conquest. If we weren’t understanding why desperate students had stormed our embassy, it was because we preferred not to. It didn’t fit the story, the story in our heads, the story we tell ourselves about our goodness and righteousness.
We were the bad guys. Surprise!
You start down that path, the path of seeing the world for what it is and not what you want it to be, no telling where it will take you. Certainly away from your tribe, that’s for sure.
You can’t listen to them, the white folks in those actual and metaphorical diners, because they don’t see this. They don’t see any of this. Many don’t see anything at all, totally blind to the world they live in, the world around them. All they can do is spin their fantasies, the lies they prefer to the truth.
That’s the psychosis of it. We had a friend in college whose dad was a psychologist who had worked in Chicago with Bruno Bettelheim, who in turn worked with autistic children. They too were withdrawn from reality, withdrawn into themselves, in ways generally recognized, generally understandable. “The Empty Fortress”, Bettelheim called it. Bettelheim’s solution was to play it as it lays, to enter the children’s worlds, greet them inside, draw them out. Our friend’s dad was a frontline psychologist in this approach. You had to abandon everything you knew to meet the children on their own terms, radical empathy as we would understand it now.
The psychologists had their own psychologists. They needed a tether back to reality.
That’s the psychosis of being white in this world, of being untethered from reality because they don’t have to be. Everybody else, they have to deal with us. We’re inescapable. We’re the reality they can’t avoid, day in and out. We have the privilege of pretending otherwise. We have the privilege, should we need it, of pretending they don’t exist at all. Certainly not as our equals, our equivalents. Certainly not as fellow human beings.
We perversely have Donald Trump to thank for bringing all this out into the open, for showing us what’s been obvious to everyone else all along, for bringing white psychosis into high relief. It’s not that we haven’t thought about any of this before, haven’t been thinking about this our entire adult life, but his acid trip of a presidency has made us focus on it with an intensity we’ve never mustered before, to get at the root of it, the reality of the psychosis itself. This is what it is. This is what it comes to. This is the lie that 74,223,744 Americans prefer to the truth.
Trump himself will pass, will fade into our infernal history, but not this. Not until we’re outnumbered on our own soil, anyway, not until other voices break through the ones in our heads. And that’s still a generation off.