American history was always my favorite subject. In third grade, I gobbled up biographies of national heroes like George Washington as if they were candy. Later I discovered little George didn’t actually confess to cutting down that cherry tree. The Rev. Mason Weems invented that tale for a book he wrote shortly after Washington’s death, responding to the public’s demand for inspirational stories.
Much later I discovered this: White Americans have always demanded inspiring stories to make us feel better.
The history we learned in school is based on a myth, one that Americans of color don’t have the luxury of believing. That’s why whites are the only people surprised by neo-Nazis marching through Virginia.
In response to the events in Charlottesville, where three people were killed at a white supremacy rally, former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick posted on Facebook that this “is not the country I grew up in.” Sen. Jeff Flake tweeted that what happened “does not reflect the values of the America I know.”
There was a time when I would have said the same thing.
I was wrong.
Charlottesville is not an aberration from the American story. It’s at the very center of our story, along with the genocide of indigenous peoples, a legal system that gave white men the right to rape black women and sell off their children, the internment of Japanese citizens, a for-profit prison system that has re-enslaved people of color, a relentless assault on voting rights, and the inhumane detainment, deportation and death of refugees and migrants.
Our story is white people carrying Nazi flags and semi-automatic weapons in public, unhindered by law enforcement, while unarmed Native Americans protecting their own water and lands at Standing Rock are fire-hosed in sub-freezing temperatures.
Our story is 1,500 mostly white Tucsonans blocking traffic as they march against racism without permission but with assistance from local police, while the mostly brown people who peacefully marched for immigrant rights in February were pepper-sprayed by members of that same police department.
Yes, our founding documents are filled with lofty ideals. I believe in every single one of them. And throughout history we have made some progress toward living them. But more often than not we’ve made progress only because our sisters and brothers of color marched, preached, wrote, sang, resisted and shamed us into it.
This past weekend Sen. Orrin Hatch was praised by both Democrats and Republicans for tweeting, “My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. African-American soldiers who fought the Nazis came home to segregation, lynching and crosses burning on their front lawns, and they were denied the benefits of the GI Bill, which built America’s white middle class. In other words, we fought Hitler while implementing Nazi values here at home.
Only a white American could fail to see that.
It is heartening that so many white Tucsonans are standing up against racism. That is an important start. But let’s not pretend the problem lies just with evil white supremacists. They carried the torches in Charlottesville, but our unwillingness to face the truth is what lit them. I am thankful every day for my colleagues at the YWCA who help me see this. They can help you, too.
We are not the America we think we are.
We can be.
But we cannot change what we refuse to see.