When Trump was elected, I was attending a weekly meeting for white folks who wanted to unpack their internalized white supremacy and do racial justice work. One person in the group, who had been in the medical field their entire career, offered the following metaphor one day for Trump’s election. In the metaphor, the rise of public nationalism and outpouring of hatred surrounding Trump is symptomatic of an untreated abscess—something that had been left to fester and rot for far too long without being directly addressed. This person’s point was that the United States has never grappled with its history of racism (true) and has never taken actual strides to address the structural inequality that racism set up (also true) and has instead just papered over the past while fixating on a mythical future (still true).
White folks assumed that as segregation ended, the housing market opened up, and legal social restrictions relaxed, and so on, that racism would kind of automatically solve itself. In this metaphor, the United States treated the symptoms of racism (the most obvious social effects) without treating the underlying cause of the disease, thus creating an abscess that, over time, sickened the entire national body until it finally erupted in the 2016 presidential election.
In this metaphor, the eruption is beneficial: it allows for the infection to finally get into the fresh air, to begin the real process of healing, which is painful and tedious, yes, but ultimately better all-around than letting the abscess continue unchecked—which would eventually kill the entire body. Early in Trump’s presidency, I saw variations of this metaphor often, all summed up by the idea that this kind of sharp shock was ultimately good for the country, that it would force us into reckoning. In a nutshell, the belief that it has to get worse in order to get better.
True confession: I freaking love a metaphor. I teach writing, for goodness sake—a good overarching metaphor is a thing of beauty! So when I heard this particular take on what felt like a terrifying and horrific situation, I breathed a sigh of relief. Here was something I could get behind, a way of understanding my surroundings that helped me fit things into place, to see a vision of the future in which the current pain was not only understandable, but necessary.
And that’s exactly where, in hindsight,
I should have checked myself.
That metaphor, as thorough as it is, only makes certain people safe. To chase it a bit further, it only helps those who aren’t in the wound itself, so to speak, being ravaged by the pestilence. If the abscess is in an arm, the metaphor helps those of us living in a toe. Of course it made me feel better—it absolves me of any culpability in the creation of the problem, removes me from the immediacy of the problem, and it lessens my burden in addressing the problem.
When I, as a privileged white woman in the U.S., stumble across or create a version of reality that makes me feel safe, that I can easily understand, that feels like it “finally explains something,” I need to stop, back up, and check myself. Chances are, that version of reality, like the metaphor above, has erased the very tangible danger that countless people find themselves in, and therefore only serves to perpetuate and enforce white supremacy by giving white folks an easy out.
For white folks, things are packaged as “truth” that are, in reality, only intended to keep us comfortable and unquestioning the underlying systems at play that continue to marginalize and oppress people. As a white person, I need to question everything I believe, including and especially things that feel “right” or “true.”
So, white folks, when you feel a sense of “Oh yeah, that makes sense! That must be it” in relationship to an explanation for any social/cultural occurrence, here are a few things that are likely happening:
1. Confirmation bias.
This is the tendency for people to latch onto “truths” that, consciously or subconsciously, confirm what they already believe. And this happens to everyone. In this situation, confirmation bias means that if you have any racist belief, anywhere in your subconscious (and we all do, here in the good old U.S. of A.)-- for example in the inherent inferiority of nonwhite folk-- you’re going to be more tempted to agree with “explanations” that posit that inferiority as somehow responsible for the differences in black and white communities. Simple as that. So when you’re thinking, “Oh yeah, that makes sense,” what’s actually happening is that little part of your subconscious is going, “Growth is painful! I don’t want to disappear or get worked on, so believe _______, because it will keep me safe!” Confirmation bias can be the racist part of your brain’s tricky way of preserving itself.
2. Fallacy of the Easy Answer/Simple Explanation.
Here’s the tricky thing about metaphors: the bigger they get, the more they start to feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy, which means the more you have to exclude in order to make them work. Same goes for easy answers and simple explanations. The reality is, as vast and complex as problems like institutionalized racism are, there is no one explanation or one solution that’s going to yield easy, simple, perfectly comfortable results for everyone. And chances are, people who are going to be most uncomfortable with complex, nuanced answers or difficult explanations are those who are experiencing privilege in that particular area… Like white folks, who are going to have to completely rethink their vision of themselves and their status in the world in order to truly address their complicity in institutionalized racism. The truth behind that discomfort is that liberation ultimately benefits everyone, but it’s hard to see that when to you, it looks and feels like you’re sliding down the social ladder.
3. Vast and Vague versus Immediate and Specific.
I've noticed that a lot of these “ah ha” moments happen with huuuuuuuge ideas. The abscess metaphor is enormous—it keeps going and going—and the bigger it gets, the less tangible it becomes. For example, what exactly does “treating the wound” look like? Does that mean reparations, a truth and reconciliation commission, or what? Who has the responsibility of coming up with the treatment plans, and who has the responsibility of enforcing them? See what I mean? When you get specific the metaphor gets messy… but when you keep it vast and vague, my goodness how lovely it seems to be. Similar to the fallacy above, Vast and Vague allows people (white folks) to escape or bypass the hard work: we can theorize all day long without ever putting something into practice. Vast and Vague also allows us to stay in our ivory towers without ever building relationships with people who are being affected and doing the work of change. Immediate and Specific is hard. It’s messy. It’s not necessarily pretty as its happening. And it’s a hell of a lot of work.
As always, this is a growth process for me—for anyone who is engaged in this work. My promise to myself and to you is that I will continue to check and examine my own brain, and to share this publicly as I formulate it into words. If you have places you’d like to engage with me in this post, please do so—I’m always willing to learn. The vision of liberation I hold up includes us all, provided we can internalize the change that must happen to get us there.