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"[T]he master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change."—Audre Lorde
In the days and hours before votes were tallied in Georgia's tight Senate runoff race, we were bombarded with narratives of hopeful futures: a Democratic win would mean a simpler presidential transition, $2,000 stimulus checks, and a slightly easier congressional audience to sway in ongoing fights for basic human rights. We were told we might relax after we made it through the first collective political anxiety of the New Year.
As if on cue, celebrations of the long-anticipated results were cut short by the horror of white supremacist violence when Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building the very next day.
But as terrifying and tragic as the Capitol riots may have been (and they were), they were also wholly predictable. If we ought to understand anything about the last four years—or 400 years, for that matter—it's the extent of just how blatantly, how shamelessly power will work to protect itself in this country.
When we're talking about power, what we really mean is whiteness. What happened last Wednesday was wholly predictable because the conversation about America has failed to call out white supremacy by name, while giving white people who choose to uphold white power the benefit of the doubt. We find ways to downplay racism by infantilizing, pitying, or pushing blame to some made up precious white voter, while somehow still failing to name their whiteness at all.
As national media declared that what played out on cable news was not representative of the "true America," many of us thought the opposite: Here was a historically accurate truth, an all-American insurrection for the world to watch on live TV, an armed, white mob overtaking a space some hold as sacred to this country's democracy.
The events of last week serve as a reminder of just how many of our modern institutions have been protected for generations on the mere presumption of "civility," held on an imaginary pedestal, supported by illusions of morality.
If we didn't predict this specific brand of violent white rage, it's because the popular American narrative has failed to acknowledge the true fragility of this unfounded reverence for "the way we do things," the unspoken stability of whiteness that it presumes, and the white brutality it fortifies.
When journalists fail to call out white supremacy for what it is, we create news that can never be fully accessible to non-white people. Tearing down the wall that keeps us separated from the community starts at the local level.
"When we fail to name whiteness in our reporting we are at best complicit in the active practice of white supremacy, and at worst, we are upholding the spread of values that lead to events like those that took place last week," Scalawag's Executive Director-Publisher Cierra Hinton told a group of fellow journalists at the NC Local News Summit this week.
Journalistic and social media narratives do not simply keep a record of the events of the day—they follow power, and uphold that power by speaking it into being. Trump won his first campaign with rhetoric that spoke to silent white anxieties, heightened by a culture that spoke this current flavor of white power into record.
In our current party system, it is that same American obsession of the day that becomes the talking points of campaigns and partisan politics. In 2016 and years since, the too-comfortable conversation around who voted for Trump, what they believe, and where they live has amplified his violent white agenda, breathing life into his policies until the victims of them grew so numerous that continuing to ignore their stories became impossible.
America is not struggling with race, we are struggling with racism—specifically white supremacy and anti-Blackness.
By then, it was too little, too late. And it's because we as a culture know how to make white anxieties fit our collective presumption of "the way we do things"—clearly. Meanwhile, the anxieties of "people of color" are subject to rigorous filtering through decades of other damaging narratives before they're deemed legitimate, narratives born of a system that willfully and purposefully makes understanding them as difficult as possible. Even "people of color" is representative of the not-quite-right shorthand media adopts.
In other words, "the way we do things" means our popular narratives believed, trusted, and made darlings of white voters, regardless of whether or not what they wanted for themselves meant actual harm, or actual stripping of rights for the Black, brown, Indigenous, and immigrant people whose validity and humanity were repeatedly misrepresented or erased by their actions.
That burden of retroactive narrative-fitting is alienating and disillusioning for half the people of this country by design. These layers of requisite "civility" celebrate and protect familiar pillars of whiteness.
Our elections don't solve our problems, they merely create the opportunity to change the conditions under which our problems must continuously be fought.
That means that even when those wins do come, it's the same people most targeted by that systematic failing whose names and likenesses become shortcuts for party goals detached from the realities that sparked them, and whose recognition also comes too little, too late. Just as the popular narrative figures out how to thread new, now-unavoidable "nonwhite" stories through those same hoops—see: Stacey Abrams, Rayshard Brooks, John Lewis—events like the Capitol riots show us that these wins are hard-fought not just by circumstance or history, but by design.
Former President Obama spoke the quiet part out loud when he told Vanity Fair in November, "I guess you can use a snappy slogan like Defund the Police, but you know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you're actually going to get the changes you want done."
But what Obama and other party-players fail to acknowledge is that "defund the police" is not a slogan, it's a demand—a demand that has been force-filtered through layers of bastardization to reach mainstream recognition, because the Black voices chanting it are subject to "the rules."
Similarly, right-wing cries for a complete stoppage and overhaul of the electoral process are not a call for partisan solutions: they were a direct threat. The difference is that the same rules of civility don't apply to those who are in on the ruse of whiteness, whether they know it or not.
This is true at every level of that narrative process. Speaking to journalists, Hinton critiqued the media's response to the violence and harm aimed towards the press at the hands of police: "The outrage was warranted, but where was that same outrage when the folks being brutalized were non-journalists? Where was the outrage when the people being harmed were ordinary Black folks? Why did so many hide behind objectivity until other journalists were the ones getting body-slammed, tazed, and pepper-sprayed?"
Creating openings for anti-racist progress within electoral politics has not become less controversial over the last several decades. This year, the South faces a historical moment both grounded in similarities and yet wholly unprecedented.
The topic was ignored until it became unavoidable, in much the same way that Georgia didn't turn blue overnight, nor is this one political win representative of all of the people of Georgia's immediate needs. Only because of the thankless work of organizers from historically marginalized communities—Black women, specifically—were we able to start undoing the harm of decades of inattention to and misrepresentation of communities that will never accurately fit into those neat narrative packages.
The way we talk about this chapter of American history still reduces that complex work to fit tired models of success, which in turn follows the same narrative model of dehumanizing people by mythologizing, fetishizing, and tokenizing Black organizers. We have to listen to Black women, for instance, more often than the week after they ensure another political victory for Democrats. We have to make room, for instance, for people who aren't part of the popular narrative who worked in solidarity with Black-led voting rights groups to flip Georgia—the labor organizers, the Latinx organizers, the queer and trans organizers.
The danger is that this renewed attention means Democrats have an out to manipulate and accept those tokenized experiences as another form of power to be won and held in future elections. We cannot afford to carry on in the same blissful, white-blinded ignorance that got us here. Continuing to participate in damaging rhetoric leaves too much room for compromise in the name of so-called civility.
The danger of the neoliberal dominant narrative is rooted in the same white supremacy of the right.
That status quo upholds the same narrative failing that allowed the events of last week to occur.
The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. It's high time to reclaim the tool shed.
Erica Hensley reflects on why more white journalists should also shift away from using people like farmer Teresa Springs solely as sources—and democratize the byline instead.
"We did not come out of the womb abolitionists, but many of us feel born into this work. And as we push back against the prevailing, popular narratives about cops and prisons, we also want to make abolition more accessible."
The end-goal of any effort to end the pandemic should be the abolishment of a system where collective care is not center, where compassion is not heard, and where people cannot trust their fellow community members to act on the collective's well-being.
Floyd McKissick Jr.'s dream is an example of how white supremacy and its twin, anti-Blackness, intervene in the most basic life processes.
The national media is shifting its attention away from demands to restructure, defund, and abolish the police, but policing and prisons don't just affect those of us behind bars.