Racism's Starring Role
Being a Black woman in 2016 was a test. A test of wills, grit, and quite simply, of how long you could put up with nonsense. So how do Black people, people of colour, and marginalized people as a larger group begin to process a year like 2016? A part of the world’s ethos, our collective psyche, previously masked (to some), was revealed. And just like the anticlimactic unveiling of the great Wizard of Oz to Dorothy and her companions, we were disappointed with what was behind the curtain. What we saw went far beyond divisiveness; we saw a world that had never really been together. Lines weren’t drawn, just made bolder. People we thought of as allies were illuminated in a light so unflattering we barely recognized them.
We were assaulted daily with language perforated with hate and vitriol, forced to watch Black death on a loop, on Twitter, our Facebook feed, and the news. In response to the chaos, we sought to protect our most precious beacons of light. We loudly celebrated our artists, our athletes, and even our first (and what feels like will be the last for a long time) Black president. All were successful, supremely talented and deserving but still subject to critique so unbalanced and hateful, it breached all claims of reasonability. Gabby Douglas was criticized for not placing her hand over her heart during the national anthem at the Rio Summer Olympics - after she had won gold for her country, no less. Beyoncé was accused of being anti-police for using her music to speak on police brutality against the Black community. President Obama was subject to ceaseless questions about his faith, and his citizenship. Blame was laid for non-existent crimes. And we felt it, didn’t we? It meant more, it mattered more. An attack on them was an attack on the best of us. If they weren’t good enough, who was?
Racism played a starring role in the horror movie that was 2016. The word entered into whispered conversations between friends, escalating its way to booming (and futile) arguments online, and to accusatory headlines in world news. Last year gave us myriad iterations of the word, with near zero ownership of it. You were the racist for daring to even bring up race. We saw Donald Trump ignite some of the most hateful dialogue in recent times, while claiming that he couldn’t possibly be a racist. And the world, for the most part, agreed. People found novel ways to write off his antics. “He’s just a bit crass,” they said, not as polished and worried about pretense as Hillary Clinton or President Obama. He tells it like it is. Conveniently omitting that the “it” in question, is violent racism. In that case, I agree - he is definitely telling it like it is.
As if calls for wall-building, and national Muslim registries, and horrific statements that Black people have nothing to lose because we’re all killing each other anyway weren’t enough, we were then hit with the most insidious term of 2016: “alt-right”. The ultra-conservative offshoot that counts xenophobia, fear mongering, and extreme nationalism as its artillery of choice.
But instead of a rallied response to the monsoon of racist language, imagery, and attacks, we saw a concerted effort to normalize it, make sense of it, and even empathize with it. In the days and weeks following the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election, articles were written pointing to our lack of understanding of Trump’s frustrated supporters as the real reason he won. We were told that it was our exclusivity and prejudice that cemented his win. That had the same people Trump spent his entire campaign demonizing just tried to be a bit nicer, then maybe things could have been different.
Let’s be clear on one thing here: the so-called “alt-right” movement is a white nationalist one. It is racist, violent, and dangerous. And most disturbing of all, it has become attractive. This is not the white nationalism of yore, hidden underneath white sheets. No, this is its debonair, charming cousin. This is a movement led by young, attractive White men, and the world revels in it. It’s risqué and a bit naughty. It’s exciting to talk about, and now we finally can because the leaders of this movement actually want to talk back. They welcome interviews with a warm smile. And why wouldn’t they? For them, this is just healthy debate of opinions; no need for irrelevant things like emotions or fears for your well-being to get involved.
We’ve reached a point in history where you can be a literal neo-Nazi, championing hate at every turn, but if you’re young and good looking, we will work our hardest to make sure that’s what people see and hear first. It is the bad boy trope taken to a new, nauseating low. An attractive person leading an ugly movement is easy to talk about when they don’t hate you. When they don’t think that your inherent value is lesser than. It’s amusing to you, something you bring up at a party. You can call a neo-Nazi a hipster, because he’s no threat to you or your friends. We can forgive ugly when it’s not aimed at us. We see headlines drooling over the boyish good looks of some of the most prolific leaders of hate of our time. Their attractive qualities are highlighted first, but their (self-admitted) hatred? Apparently still up for debate.
People of colour are never allowed to be ugly. We can’t afford it. The world constantly reminds us of our shortcomings. We can work the hardest, and be the best, but it still won’t be enough. Obama was far from a perfect president. He let people down—many of whom his most staunch supporters—he broke promises, didn’t and couldn’t do all that he said he would. But there is an undeniable exceptionalism attributed to him. He was prepared, knowledgeable, capable, and steady. He went to the best schools, was an outstanding student, excelled as a US Senator. He checks off all the boxes. And he is Black. And therein lies the one shortcoming that the world never let him forget. His successor campaigned on fear and hate, rekindling the racist and false debate of President Obama’s citizenship. He demeaned women at every turn, was caught on tape boasting about sexual assault. He has no political experience, questionable - at best - business savvy, and was still elected to the highest seat in the world. Ta-Nehisi Coates said it better than I can,
"To be president, [Obama] had to be scholarly, intelligent, president of the Harvard Law Review, the product of some of our greatest educational institutions, capable of talking to two different worlds ... Donald Trump had to be rich and white. That was it. That’s the difference."
We are at an uncomfortable crux in time, where we caution calling each other racist more than we tell people not to be racist. We prefer the mess. It’s enticing, and it’s wrong, but that’s sort of our thing right now, isn’t it? There is no glamour in constant protest, and in feelings being hurt. It bores people. But there is energy in polarity. What fun is it if we’re all on the same side?
We can do our best to resist. I surround myself with friends that uplift and uphold the value of marginalized people. But I don’t know how we pivot out of this moment in history. What can we do? See the evil for what it is. Don’t be afraid to utter the monster’s name. Others may accept the fetishization of hate, but I won’t. I will no longer allow the feelings, the mental health, and the lives of people of colour to be used as fodder for this ugliness. We are too important, too precious, and too beautiful for that.