This is a re-post that generally reflects my frustration with the American approach to teaching and thinking about its own history. It’s not specifically about Martin Luther King Jr., but I think it applies, particularly when MLK Jr. is treated by many on the right as a source of exactly one quote. For content specifically about Rev. King, see Roger’s post.
No subject is more eternally disappointing to see discussed in America than race, because a great many of us simply don’t have any inclination to engage in anything remotely resembling an honest discussion of race at all.
This is not the least bit new. All that’s changed, in recent months, is the wording. White people have been finding ways to dodge discussions of racism probably since the beginning of time, but the most prominent version in my personal experience has been simple dismissal of the subject as soon as it is brought up: some version of “There they go again, playing the Race Card,” usually accompanied by a rolling of the eyes.
What is signaled by saying “Playing the Race Card” is itself a rhetorical strategy that has several goals: it’s a granting of permission to oneself to ignore anything the other person is saying, as well as a signal to that person that their words are falling on ears that have been rendered deaf before the fact. It’s a neutering of conversation, and saying it is a metaphorical hanging of the “CLOSED” sign on the mind.
The racism-denialist side has become a bit more sophisticated of late, which you can see in the way they have cynically elevated something called “Critical Race Theory” to the status of Bogeyman Supreme in this country. For a good summation of this, I strongly recommend the summation John Oliver did on this season’s opening episode of Last Week Tonight:
Of special interest is the fact that not one of the people shrieking most loudly about “Critical Race Theory” can tell you the first factual thing about “Critical Race Theory”, and that the American right-wing has become so divorced from any factual basis for its constant drum-beating about nonexistent grievances that now their entire debate can be shaped by dishonest actors like Christopher Rufo, who will publicly and openly admit the dishonest nature of their rhetorical framing as they watch their preferred framing of the debate happen anyway. These people are deeply sophisticated in their knowledge of how American media will follow a bouncing ball to the end of the Earth, so long as the ball is set bouncing by the right wing.
I personally do not know much at all about Critical Race Theory, but I am at least aware that my willingness to admit this puts me in an unfortunate minority among white people. Weird irony, that.
What catches me so much about the rhetoric around the thing that right-wingers have crafted in their increasingly fever-minded, fact-deprived heads about “Critical Race Theory” is one objection I hear over and over and over again. You’ll hear it in the Oliver segment above, and I also saw it this past week in comments on a post to my local Nextdoor forum.
(Yes, I’m on Nextdoor, mainly because it’s useful for stuff like “Hey, anybody know what all those sirens were last night” and “Anybody know a good roofer?” But the site is very obnoxious in a lot of other ways, and I’ve imposed a personal rule of never posting at all on it. One good example is the thread from a few weeks ago–and I am not making this up–of a person breathlessly posting about the suspicious-looking ‘colored’ person in the pickup truck who was obviously casing local houses…until someone else on that same street said, “Yeah, that’s Bob. He’s a meter-reader for the power company.” If I had commented on that, I probably would have been banned.)
(UPDATE: Since I wrote this, I closed out my NextDoor account. It just got to be too much idiotic racism.)
A person posted about “Critical Race Theory” being taught! in the local elementary schools!!! Now, this is BS, obviously, and to their credit, a few folks did point out that this is total BS. But equally obviously, “Critical Race Theory” is just a catch-phrase for these people that has come to refer to any mention of race at all, in any context. (Which is what Rufo et al. intended the entire time–again, see Mr. Oliver.) And that framing leads to this specific talking point:
“I do not want my children being taught to feel bad about their country!”
“I do not want my child being made to feel BAD about their history!”
“I don’t want my kid being made to feel like they have to answer for things they didn’t do!”
And you know what? Maybe that’s a bit tempting. I never owned any slaves! Why do I have to feel bad about it? Why do I have to atone for that? It was 150 years ago! Leave me alone! Lemme be! Get over it!
When you really start digging into this, you realize quickly that these people don’t want history taught as a factual discipline from which we can learn valuable lessons for the future and in which we come to see the flaws as well as the strengths in the generations that preceded us. No, these people want a feel-good story, a hegemonic tale whose purpose is to shape young minds so they get obediently tearful in the presence of a flag (and, maybe just maybe, the creepy politician literally hugging it). They want the Hero’s Epic version of history, with an honesty-obsessed George Washington admitting chopping down the tree years before he stood proud and tall in that boat as he crossed the Delaware. They want a tale of lantern-jawed heroes, always driven forward by God and goodness, with their women at their backs (always, always that) as they hew their destinies from the land itself.
These people want all the feel-good stuff from history, and that’s it. They want heroic inspiration from the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson’s diplomacy and writings, and none of the frankly horrific caution of Thomas Jefferson’s forced relations with his own slaves. It’s this feel-good cherrypicking approach to history that gives me particular pause, because it’s borne of the same lack of curiosity and honesty that leads these same people to embrace nonsense across the board, including rejecting vaccines in favor of some random medication pushed by some random doctor Joe Rogan had on the podcast this week.
“I don’t want my kid to feel bad about their history!”
Look, here’s the thing, for all those people who complain that they don’t want their children being made to feel bad about their history, or to feel like they are being blamed for awful things their ancestors did:
If you’re not going to let the evils in our past make you feel bad, then you don’t get to turn about and let the triumphs in that same past make you feel good.
If you don’t want to feel bad about slavery, or Jim Crow, or red-lining, or the KKK, or resistance to Civil Rights, then you also don’t get to feel good about defeating fascism in World War II, or triumphing over the East in the Cold War, or landing on the Moon. History is not a buffet where you can choose what things you like and which you don’t.
And this isn’t about “feeling bad” in the proper context to “feel good” about the good stuff, either. History isn’t about feeling bad or feeling good. History is about learning what we’ve done, the good and the bad, so we can make better decisions later.
But we don’t want that…or too few of us want that. We don’t want to talk or even hear about race. If we do, we want to pretend that ending officially-sanctioned slavery and quoting a single sentence from a single speech by Martin Luther King is all the discussion race ever needed. I don’t know how we get White America to even come to the table to have the discussion much less honestly engage it in the first place, but I do know that if something in history makes you feel bad, you shouldn’t avoid that topic but interrogate it even harder, because if something your ancestors did a few dozen or a few hundred years ago makes you feel bad, maybe it’s relevant to something going on now.
(Comments are closed on this post.)