After events in Charlottesville, the deaths of one counter-protester and two state troopers, the social media outcry and the silent grappling with what would come next, came the public statements. Celebrities, artists and politicians almost universally condemned the white supremacists who brought violence and terror to Charlottesville last weekend. But there was also a call for unity from lawmakers aligned with the Trump administration, who denounced racism and hate as un-American values despite individual histories of utilizing or benefiting from racist ideology.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions deemed the hatred in Charlottesville “just not part of our heritage.” House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted: “This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for.” And President Donald Trump wavered on taking a stance before insisting that “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence” was the responsibility of “many sides” — apparently equating the ideals of the people who marched against white supremacists with the values of white supremacists themselves.
And yet, the reality stands: People of color have been listening to white people say “I’m not racist” for decades and decades, and it has never, ever, not once, meant anything. Such a claim tends to almost always be a preface to something demeaning, a cover-up for something that’s already been done, a distraction for the true nature of what’s inside a facade of “civility” that has always been the privilege of those in power.
The words of Ryan, Sessions and countless other GOP lawmakers who denounce white supremacy don’t just fall flat — they further destroy the message they are trying to convey. How is anyone to believe Sessions, who condemned the NAACP and ACLU, or Ryan, who accepted Trump and normalized his behavior? How is anyone to believe Trump himself, the man whose campaign, slogan and name are the pride and joy of the very racists he claims to condemn?
What these privileged lawmakers do not understand, but what the scores of minority citizens they lead can explain, is that racism — the quality white people hate to be labeled with more than anything — is not an individual choice. There exists no on and off-switch inside a person’s heart that governs how they behave or think about the people around them.
Racism is insidious, silent, ceaseless and systemic — and race pervades everything. Former President Barack Obama, in his now-famously popular tweet sent in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, quoted Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion.” And that is true. But by the time a child has become an independently thinking adult, themes of racism and prejudice — no matter how subtle — have become ingrained in them so deeply that it is no longer a choice to hate. And this indoctrination of values will not go away with words and statements: It will go away when systems are remade by the minorities whom they have always been geared against.
People who talk about the plight of “white genocide” and the hope of making this country great again are not threatened by anything other than the very presence of minorities in American jobs and the American economy, the minorities who manage to climb the social ladder above the white working class when years ago their ancestors could not.
It is devastating that people who feed off this ideology, like the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, can grow violent, and devalue minorities and their allies to the extent of driving a car into a crowd, not at all caring for the lives they destroy. A peaceful, anti-racism protester died, and still it is the white supremacists claiming to be silenced. It is they who march into cities shouting specific and targeted hate, and still denounce as “racist” and “anti-white” a multicultural opposition whose primary stance is that all people are created equal.
White supremacy is marked by an embrace of victimhood voiced by those who have never truly understood what it means to be victimized in the grand scope of the American dream. It is the ideology of those who have never been bullied, underestimated, ignored, made to feel unsafe because of the color of their skin — to feel these things every waking second and then to be admonished that they are too sensitive. White nationalists have never been pounded down every step of the way only to be informed, at the precipice of success, that they have only succeeded because of affirmative action and a trending attraction to diversity.
To be a person of color in America is exhausting, all-encompassing and inescapable, and minority experiences are vastly different depending on ethnicity and background. To denounce racism is the lowest bar, one that deserves no applause — especially when the president himself cannot even step across it. And of course, words are powerful catalysts that can create movements, but they mean absolutely nothing when there are no actions to match. That is when those words become lies, the cheapest form of political currency.
Last Thursday, the president tweeted again, deploring the takedown of Confederate statues as an assault on American history. He further added that “the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”
Trump’s deeming that these statues were perhaps not morally redeemable but beautiful, physically pleasing, and that’s why they have value — is absurd. But it’s also eerily fitting, his estimation that these monuments have nothing to stand for but their exteriors. These outward appearances are in themselves enough to justify their histories of devastation and suffering, their actions built on the belief that there are those who exist who are superior to others.
And so it goes with words, and those with enough privilege to think denouncing racism is the same thing as believing it.
If there is one thing for which our president is to be remembered, it is his lack of empathy both profound and selective toward white citizens, an ideology that is leaking directly into America’s public conscience. It’s easy to denounce racism, but much less so to understand that racism is itself not an outward expression but a catalyst for such misdeeds. Racism is not composed only of what people say or do -— it’s embedded deep inside.
Zoe Cheng is a sophomore majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Cross Section,” runs Tuesdays.