In 2000, South Carolina moved the Confederate flag that had flown above the State House dome since 1961 to a monument in front of the building. I was twelve at the time, watching news coverage of the debates in my sixth grade classroom in a suburb of Columbia called Irmo. News crews flocked to the area and framed shots of places like Maurice’s Piggie Park, an infamous barbecue chain run by an ardent segregationist that proudly flew the flag until last year.
Maurice’s was the best barbecue in town, but I only went during the town’s annual festival, the Okra Strut, when twelve-year-old me could escape my parents’ gaze and run with the rest of Irmo’s children along the stretch of Lake Murray Boulevard that Maurice’s was on. I normally avoided Maurice’s because my parents had taught me well enough to know that the people who supported Maurice were not our kind of people. My parents probably knew about the 1968 Supreme Court Case (Newman vs. Piggie Park Enterprises) that Maurice lost attempting to preserve his right to bar Black customers from his restaurants, and about his failed political campaigns around the same time--or maybe they just knew about the pro-slavery pamphlets Maurice still distributed at his restaurants in 2000. To know those things, to see the battle flag that represented them waving above his restaurants, was to know that Maurice and his customers were not good people, not like those of us who knew better.
This kind of self-absolution is fundamental to the ways White Americans talk about race: Racism is always the fault of someone else, someone who doesn’t know what I know. The prevalent discourse among White-dominated media outlets and White communities that has been taking place over the past year, since Black activists made racial oppression an unavoidable topic in Ferguson, Missouri, is rife with attempts, conscious and not, to avoid necessary self-criticism by pinning blame on others. Even the words most celebrated as poignant criticisms of racist violence are permeated with this false forgiveness.
Consider Jon Stewart, the voice for good, liberal White Americans everywhere. Shortly after a White man entered a Black Charleston church, declared he would kill the congregation members in defense of the White race, and murdered nine innocent people, Stewart addressed the country on The Daily Show, saying: “I have nothing other than just sadness, once again, that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist.”
On the surface, the words demanded a confession of the foundational sins White Americans have continually visited upon Black Americans throughout this nation’s history. To make such a confession, it is implied, is to admit to the “gaping racial wound” so it can be healed.
But the thread that tied together Stewart’s monologue is White guilt; what was confessed to was that guilt alone, in the form of sadness. Since to confess is to absolve, in speaking as he did, Stewart showed himself to be the kind of White person who does not ignore the racial wound. Later in his monologue, he criticized other media outlets for referring to what happened in Charleston as a tragedy rather a terrorist attack, thereby proving himself to be a more enlightened kind of White person. In calling things by their right name, in confessing to racism, Stewart’s words, whatever his intentions, absolved him of his role in American racism.
Stewart is far from alone. White Americans everywhere shared clips from The Daily Show, borrowed Stewart’s words to make their own confessions, and rested easy knowing they were the good White people. Charles Pierce wrote a similarly moving and similarly limited response to Charleston on Esquire’s politics blog that was also widely shared (including by me). After three Muslim students were murdered over a supposed parking dispute in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the New Yorker and dozens of other outlets wrote articles with titles like “The Story of a Hate Crime” urging the nation to admit the murders’ anti-Arab and anti-Muslim elements—articles that so successfully absolved White guilt that the crime has disappeared as an issue from public consciousness. The same fault exists everywhere that well-meaning White liberals “admit their privilege” and share articles with titles like “7 Things White People Can Do to Be Good Allies” or “Only White People Can Save Themselves From Racism and White Supremacism.”
At their best, responses like these are meant to begin a conversation that leads to a larger struggle. More commonly—for myself, anyway—they are a defeatist response, a way of soothing my own guilt when I don’t know what else I could do, or when the prospect of long-term, continuous struggle against the culture of a nation where hate groups are “surging” is too overwhelming to comprehend. Ironically, Stewart himself admitted this shortcoming. “I’m confident, though,” he said, “that by acknowledging [the racial wound], by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jackshit.”
Perhaps I’m being unfair to Stewart and others, and perhaps I’m ignoring the ways this essay replicates the same issues it addresses. But my point is not a moral argument against particular speakers; it’s an argument that we all continue to efface self-criticism, almost without recognizing it, and so we must work to find ways to speak without absolving ourselves and without denying the fact we are continually at risk of failing. As Sara Ahmed has argued, “the language we think of as critical can easily ‘lend itself’ to the [things] we critique…. Saying ‘we are racist’ becomes a claim to have overcome the conditions (unseen racism) that require the speech act in the first place.”
We must speak differently, then; not in ways that position guilt as sublimation, but in ways that open up the space for transformative action. Perhaps, for some, Stewart’s words do just that; perhaps others do not hear the murmurs of absolution I do. But to take Ahmed’s point seriously, we must always be on guard against self-satisfaction, which means we must always be open to criticism. Such openness means resisting the urge to separate ourselves from racism by finding signs that prove others worse.
Most often, since Charleston, the sign we focus on is the Confederate flag that South Carolina just, finally removed from its State House grounds. This is not to say that the flag is a distraction: many Black Americans—including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Vann R. Newkirk II, and Zandria Robinson—have argued convincingly that removing the flag offers real relief for those whose humanity the flag denies. Rather, my concern is how we can answer a question Robinson raises: “How will white folks, even the ones who are advocating for [the flag] to come down and the others who will outwardly heave a sigh of relief when the thing comes down, react when nothing is left but the flesh of their terror?”
Due to the terms of our discourse, the flag becomes a measurement of guilt. Like I’ve been doing since I started looking down on pitiful Maurice from the Piggie Park as a twelve year old, we tend to point to the flag as a sign separating ourselves from the problematic White people. We make it a question of the backwards South, or the especially backwards South Carolina, or the rednecks giving South Carolina a bad name. We mask our racism with classism. The true depth of Coates’s argument when he says that “the Confederate flag should come down because it is embarrassing to all Americans” is lost on us: We assume it’s embarrassing because those other White people are embarrassing us, like a drunk uncle at a wedding. But racism is not contained in the Confederate flag, nor the n-word, nor the willingness to call the shooting in Charleston a terrorist attack. It is infused in everything we do, in every word we say.
What we obscure through our focus on easily identifiable symbols are the issues that actually undergird our racism, which Robinson names as “extrajudicial murders, police murders, racialized sexual violence, displacement of communities, food deserts, employment discrimination, unequal health treatment, chemical waste dumps, microaggressions.” Any concrete measures that could rectify these realities remain hidden, unthinkable, even if “racism” doesn’t. The idea of a universal basic income, a community-based alternative to the carceral system, even basic worker protections all go undiscussed. For all its talk, White America stays silent.
People, especially Black and brown people, are already and have already been offering the kinds of transformative responses we require; we’ve simply ignored them in favor of false absolution from people like Jon Stewart. There are attempts to center Black safety instead of White fear like #WeWillShootBack, attempts to put our discourse in a broader context like the #Charlestonsyllabus project, and attempts to highlight ways we continue to silence the oppressed through economic injustice like This Tweet Called My Back and #giveyourmoneytowomen.
In trying to explain what we can do, what these projects do, I find myself drawn to another word, one that can hopefully provide a new center of gravity for our discourse and help disclose the efforts we must make. It’s a word that harkens back to our long unfinished revolution, and to the revival of it that lasted for those brief decades 150 years ago when the guilt of White Americans was made a secondary concern to Black livelihood and the creation of an American democracy: It’s time to think once again about Reconstruction.