I was in grade school when I first discovered how crazy white people can get about race, and how protective they can be of their privilege.
I had a new friend, a white kid I’d met at school. This was in the 1980s, but the Indianapolis district in which I lived was still coming to terms with integration, largely by busing black kids to white schools. Once we were inside the building, however, our classrooms remained starkly divided: white students in the “advanced” classes; black students, not. I had the kind of parents who made sure I was the odd black student in the wrong room, and that’s where I met this friend. I’ll call him Jack.
He was a smart, openhearted, upper-middle-class boy who was used to coming out on top. I suppose that’s why he got so flustered by whatever happened on the basketball court that day. I wasn’t there for the incident, but I gather that he’d lost and that he found it unfair. He was angry and complained to me about it—about those “niggers” who had cheated him of his glory.
Jack was shocked when I took offense. He assured me that I wasn’t a nigger, that of course he wasn’t talking about me. He’d meant those other guys, the bad hombres who he felt had taken something that rightfully belonged to him. They were the niggers. Didn’t I understand the distinction?
That conversation came bubbling up from my childhood memory over the past several weeks, as I watched the absurdist drama of Washington’s immigration debate unfold. I’ve been reminded of the lesson Jack taught me at 11 years old: White privilege requires an intense, collective delusion that the supremacy of white people in America is normal and fair. White people in particular must practice a difficult, daily self-deception, studiously ignoring the plain inequities that have shaped their lives. And when reality forces itself into this delusional fog, a great many simply can’t bear it: They scream “Fake news!” and turn away.
Which is why Donald Trump is making so much progress in his campaign to make America white again.
It’s fashionable among people of color to say Trump can’t shock us. I’m proud to say I find him shocking. I cannot become inured to either his extreme politics or his boorish, bullying behavior. I feel the daily creep of actual fascism, and it still terrifies me. That said, I couldn’t muster much shock at the recent “shithole” incident. The president routinely hurls around both vulgar and racist remarks; we know that. The truly troubling thing wasn’t the slur, but the reaction to it.