It is incredibly difficult to explain one’s own ignorance to someone else.
At last night’s Reading Through It book group at Third Place Books Seward Park, many of us used the phrase “punched in the gut” to describe Carol Anderson’s brilliant White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. The book, which documents the institutional history of white supremacy of the United States, lays out the many ways white America has systematically made even existing while being black an illegal act.
I began the discussion by recalling Anderson’s shocking account of how southern states basically made blackness illegal after the Civil War, but when black Americans started to leave in significant enough numbers to negatively impact the local economy, lawmakers then made it impossible for black Americans to leave the area. Just reading about this cruel trap-within-a-trap took my breath away. Others said they were horrified to learn about the Reagan Administration’s systemic imprisonment of black men during the War on Drugs.
It was around then when one member of the book club, a black man, asked the majority-white group: “How are you just learning about this?” Later, when someone brought up their shock at learning about 20th century laws in Bellevue that kept neighborhoods all-white, he asked again: “Why didn’t you know about that?” The question was genuine — it sounded as though he was asking in a state of wonder — and he explained that these were realities he had to confront every day.
I tried to explain the ignorance of my white upbringing with a story: I had friends who, three years ago, earnestly asked “why are police officers shooting so many black people all of a sudden?” It never occurred to them that they were just now hearing of an ongoing epidemic because social media made those voices impossible to ignore; as far as they knew, this rash of shootings had never existed before they heard of it. They never could’ve guessed it from the media and the culture that they had consumed their entire lives.
But explaining your ignorance to someone who has never experienced the luxury of ignorance is almost impossible. I didn’t know there was a system all around me precisely because it was a system, as ever-present and as invisible as the air I breathe. I gave it no more thought than the fact of my own whiteness. I took it for granted.
That’s why authors like Anderson, and especially books like White Rage, are so important. Anderson not only lays out the proof of the existence of white supremacy in America — she also documents her book thoroughly. Almost half of the book is made up of endnotes and a bibliography, likely because Anderson knew that detractors would try to pick apart her research until it was nothing but a pile of frayed ends. Her argument is airtight, and her research is impeccable. It had to be.
So to myself and to the other white people in the book club, White Rage was a punch in the gut. We each knew some of the facts in the book, of course, but none of us had experienced all of it laid out like this. But for black people, White Rage is nothing more than a confirmation of a truth as real and as solid as the earth we all walk on every day. It’s an in-depth illustration of the system that has conspired to keep black Americans contained and voiceless and chained. For too long — decades, all of our lives — the white people at the book club had ignored the system. But now that we see it, we’ll never be able to unsee it.
So what should white people do? What can white people do? Listening to black people is vital. Hearing their experiences and believing them when they talk is one of the most important things we can do. And talking to other white people about race is something that only white people can do. By not shying away from those difficult conversations that erupt when someone is casually racist on Facebook, by not ignoring the racist comment your relative makes around the table at Thanksgiving dinner, white people can begin to do the work of shaking others out of their ignorance and learning more about our own ignorance.
But what can we do about the people in our lives who are unrepentantly racist — the ones who have become emboldened by President Trump and his cronies? At some point, we’ve got to cut them out of our lives entirely. When White House Chief of Staff John Kelly announced a couple days ago that the Civil War happened due to a lack of compromise, he inadvertently pointed out a valuable truth: just as there could be no compromise when it comes to slavery, some racists cannot be reasoned with. At some point, conversation has to end and action must be taken. Some ignorance cannot be forgiven.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant