Here we go again. Last weekend, trouble landed in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the form of a march by white nationalists and white supremacists, who were protesting the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. They descended en masse to “speak their minds.” But over two days, the demonstration devolved into terrorizing the citizens of Charlottesville. One woman was killed, and two police officers died in the line of duty; over 35 were injured, some gravely; many more were traumatized.
Naturally, people from all parts of the political spectrum are reacting in varied ways. Many are outraged. Equally notable, many of us white folk, some in very high places, are feeling defensive.
According to research by Robin DiAngelo, this defensiveness is due to us white people growing up in a white-oriented society, and therefore being insulated from truly perceiving and understanding the effects of racism. As a result, we tend to feel uncomfortable and defensive when we are invited to consider the significance of race and how we benefit collectively from the status quo. Because of our defensiveness, real and open conversations about racism rarely happen, and we fail to change the current system. Incidentally, DiAngelo is white and often uses the pronouns “we” and “us.”
If you’re white and feeling defensive (or know someone who is), Charlottesville presents a learning opportunity. Whatever our views, whether we’re rooting for “white pride,” or wondering what’s so bad about Confederate symbols, or hiding our heads in the sand, we can all benefit from understanding our defensive reactions, so we can move through our discomfort and fully engage in meaningful discussions about race and racism.
So let’s look at six defensive reactions to what happened in Charlottesville, and explore how to think constructively about the issues.
White nationalism is just white pride. This defensive pose sees a need for white advocacy, but white nationalism equates pride with entitlement for white people. It promotes maintaining “our rightful place” in society, such as keeping white culture as the norm, pushing white historical narratives as patriotic, dismantling affirmative action, and preserving the sea of white faces in the White House and Congress. Never mind that the whole system is already our advocate--white nationalists still feel threatened by unfamiliar cultures, opposing narratives, and people who are different from us. And they promote fear, resentment, and segregation. Real white pride means standing up for courage, generosity, and integration.
In Charlottesville, there were bad people on both sides. This defense is about being hesitant to condemn white nationalist and supremacist movements. After all aren’t they just trying to advocate for Confederate statues remaining in place? Unfortunately, this defense offers an excuse for behavior driven by a much wider, dangerous, anti-social ideology. It also blames the counter-protesters for inviting the violence by standing in solidarity against intolerance, oppression, and racial supremacy/segregation. That’s like telling them that because they stood up for what’s right, they deserved to be harshly put down by those in the wrong. That’s why so many people are horrified by such remarks, and why white nationalists/supremacists are crowing about this being a stamp of approval. Blaming both sides only exacerbates the problem.
But why can’t we preserve Confederate artifacts? We can, but context is key. Do you want to put them in museums or areas where they can be preserved and surrounded by accurate historical context and reminders of our growing enlightenment as a society, which claims to promote freedom and justice for all? This is acceptable in a respectful, decent society. Or do you want to fly the Confederate flag to align yourself with Confederate values and keep statues of Confederate generals in the town square to honor their heroism, leadership, and sacrifice? This is acceptable in a society that subscribes to the ideology of white supremacy. We mustn’t let white pride blind us to the fact that these lauded Confederates led a rebellion against the United States of America and fought a war to preserve the institution of slavery and to defend the terrorizing, torturing, and killing of African Americans who had zero human rights under that system. Now think, as a white person, is this really someone (or something) you want to be proud of? Unfortunately, white supremacists are proud of this. As a result, in the few days since Charlottesville, many city councils have swiftly voted to have such statues removed immediately, no protracted discussion, no drama necessary!
But don’t white supremacists have a right to their beliefs? This is the “First Amendment defense.” Of course, they have a right to believe what they want, in that the government cannot arrest them for their beliefs. But there is no place for supremacist rhetoric or behavior in a decent society. And the First Amendment does not require us to listen nor provide them a platform or permits. Also, the First Amendment right to “freedom of expression” does not protect hate speech, violence, or terrorism. So no one has the right to descend on a town, brandish symbols of death and oppression (weapons, shields, fiery torches, Confederate flags, swastikas) and make threats, intimidate, injure, or kill any townspeople. You can thank your lucky stars that this is so.
This too shall pass. This defense is merely complacency about the gravity of the white nationalist and white supremacist movements, which are claiming victory following recent remarks by the current administration. This to shall pass is also what people in Europe thought about the Nazi movement. “Oh, it’s just a bunch of radicals, crazies, hoodlums—nothing will come of it.” But the Nazis took a page right out of the playbook for “How to Seize Power.” That is, work very hard to instill fear by weaving conspiracy theories, and stereotyping and dehumanizing those who are different. Then claim to have “your people’s” best interests at heart, and then heartlessly deprive everyone of a decent society, while getting rid of anyone or any regulation that gets in the way of you increasing your own power and wealth. It is frightening and sobering to be witnessing current events that reflect these very same strategies. During the 1940s, it took World War II and over 60 million deaths to loosen the Nazi’s grip and remove them from power. This too shall pass but only if we stand up to it—and as history shows, the sooner, the better.
It’s not my fault. Prove it. Stand up against white nationalism and white supremacy. Support systemic change that dismantles racism and inequality (e.g., restore voting rights, dismantle and prohibit gerrymandering, reinstate affirmative action, reform the criminal justice system, address poverty, strengthen public schools). Silence and apathy is collusion, approval, agreement, consent, or complicity by default. Don’t be that person. If you see something, say something.
In conclusion, let’s strengthen our ability to tolerate, without defensiveness, discussions about racism. Let's get comfortable with accepting our role in perpetuating the systems that hold racism in place-- and taking responsibility for enacting change. And let’s bravely and unequivocally stand up against those who want to promote segregation or oppression. They alone are to blame for the damage they do.