[cw: discussion of white supremacy & allyship]
***this is a post about racism & education in South Louisiana & intended for my white friends from SMCS & St. Louis***
It’s both surprising and not surprising at all that a huge percentage of the white people in my life are Discovering Racism this week. I went to school with many of you, and I know for a fact St. Margaret’s didn’t teach us about the Oklahoma City Massacre, the Tuskegee experiments, or the Black Panthers. St. Louis didn’t, either. Honestly, if I hadn’t chosen to take the classes I did at LSU, there’s a very good chance I might not have learned about ANY of these events in a formal classroom setting, either. Our teachers failed us, our schools failed us, but these failures were not accidental. (It wasn’t accidental that our fancy private schools were 80% white, or that this was never discussed in the classroom.)
I didn’t learn about these crucial parts of American history until college, and all of those books that are getting passed around right now on every reading list? The ones by Angela Davis and bell hooks and Ta-Nehisi Coates? I didn’t read any of those until I graduated college, because most teachers at LSU didn’t think they were important enough to put on their syllabi.
What I am trying to say is that it both was and was not my fault that my knowledge of everything about this country’s history was wrong until I graduated from high school. From the time you and I were in kindergarten together until our senior year of high school, our teachers basically told us that racism ended in the 1960’s with Martin Luther King Jr. The American education system is literally built around this lie. And it failed you, and I can say this fully confidently because it failed me too. I was utterly unprepared for the reality of the actual world we live in, and my freshman year of college hit me like a ton of bricks.
Luckily, the world is changing for the better. But I’m here to tell you, if you and I are not careful, we will end up repeating the mistakes our parents made—because there is no way to fix what you don’t know. Mistakes like telling your children that racism is a thing of the past, or the product of individual bad actors—rather than the foundation this country was built on and a continuing systemic problem. You may tell yourself that your one Black friend (who you curiously always refer to as your Black friend instead of his name) is proof that you are Not Racist.
But I need y’all to understand that whiteness hurts you too, and this is very much your problem—and the history you do not know is your own history.
White supremacy is the reason I am not bilingual. My grandmother’s first language was Cajun French—she didn’t learn English until the first grade (and she taught her parents). She likely would have taught my mother Cajun French, too—had she not been beaten in school for speaking it. So my mom never learned it, and my grandmother refused to speak it around anyone as an adult.
The prize for this silence was whiteness, and many of our families gave up their traditions to be seen as “real” Americans. Cajuns have been eradicated from American history books entirely, because they were successfully transformed into white Americans—a privilege afforded by skin color and forced assimilation.
Some of my relatives I will not name fell for the lie that they were always viewed as the default in this country, conveniently forgetting the discrimination our grandparents endured and the shame they carried afterward—lucky for them, they had the right skin color, though. Lucky for them, their kids got to be considered fully white. And their kids promptly forgot their own history. My relatives who view themselves as “true” Americans have unironically said that “this is America, and people should only speak English”—when their own mothers would not have met this standard. Whiteness is not your heritage—whiteness has taken your heritage, and done worse to nearly every other group of people. Because whiteness is a construct that has always been an eradicating force.
White supremacy has done irreparable damage to our understanding of our own families, and I often wonder if English and whiteness hadn’t literally been forced upon our grandparents if our own parents would have been so attached to the idea. My conservative relatives fell in love with the idea of whiteness and now believe themselves separate from other people, believe this country to be their own. But that belief is a lie—and it is the lie we were taught throughout school, that America belongs to anyone or stands for anything other than conquest and capital.
Our grandparents’ hardships are not comparable or equivalent to the hardships faced by Black Americans, who have always been treated as less than fully human by every institution in this country. But learning your own family’s history will show you how your life would be richer and more beautiful if this country hadn’t been built on the lie of whiteness vs. everything, monoculture at the expense of everything. I do not have any answers. I have only sorrow and anger thinking about how much work we all have to do, how many lies we all have to unlearn together, and how likely it is we will repeat the mistakes of our parents if we do not understand our whiteness as a lie—as something not earned or granted but forced, at the expense of other human beings who it is now our moral duty to fight for, whose history we should have been taught but which we now MUST learn.
Oh, and Black Lives Matter. Say it with me. Let the words roll off your tongue.