It took me a while to gather my thoughts on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, a domestic terrorist attack.
In the days after the attack, I was fearful these terrorists wouldn’t be held accountable–that they would be able to get away with it because of race. Surprisingly, the opposite seems to be at play. Instead, it appears that their actions have brought the real threat of white supremacy to the forefront of white America, forcing them to realize how dangerous the ideology is. Not only have these terrorists been getting arrested left and right, but now white America is beginning their daunting task of finally reckoning with their people about their collective sin, the lie of white supremacy.
A new presidential administration has the potential to help our legal and punitive systems catch up with non-white Americans’ demands for equality and fairness. As part of his enormous slate of executive actions, President Biden has authorized several pieces of legislation addressing various types of discrimination and racism. While it’s essential to address top-down issues, it’s also crucial for those at the bottom–the laypeople–to address their communities’ problems. For me, and for a lot of people, that means seeing our white neighbors and friends have the hard talks about how white America has perpetuated the discriminatory ideas that led to the Capitol riot.
If you’ve kept up with politics since Jan. 6 and after the inauguration, you would have seen Republicans asking for “unity” and to “move beyond” the riot, including moving on from convicting Donald Trump for his hand in catalyzing the attack. But as far as the Republicans are concerned, “unity” is the same thing as “forgetting.” Many, including those in Congress, have said we can’t forget. How can we have unity if we don’t prosecute those who tried to murder elected officials and destroy Democracy itself?
By its default function, I knew white supremacy finds ways to stay in power using whatever means necessary. I learned many white people directly or indirectly subscribed to that feeling of divine right that white supremacist thought gave them. I knew these neo-Nazi groups and Proud Boys and other sad white men and women marketed the idea that minority groups are taking over White Man’s America. Yet, the concept of white radical terrorists wanting to destroy the very thing they celebrate confused me. Even more confusing is why so many wanted to forget this moment ever happened.
Why were so many people still seeing the value in protecting the terrorists’ ideology, what people are now calling “The Big Lie”? How could “The Big Lie” continue to be seen as something to push under the rug and pretend doesn’t exist? And what about the other Big Lies made by Trump and his cronies? Is America expected to act like the country didn’t just live through one of the most hateful, discriminatory times of its existence?
Serendipitously, I stumbled upon an enlightening Twitter thread, one of the best threads on whiteness in a long time. It explained so much so effectively. A Twitter user started their thread with a question. ” Did y’all know that a lot of white people don’t have the cultural concept of ‘real talk’?” he wrote. “You know where you stop saying the doplomatic thing and tell people what’s really going on. They just don’t have it. You try to have a moment of ‘real talk’ and they freak the f— out.”
As they explained, that lack of accepting “real talk” is “one of the things that makes its difficult for PoC, and Black people especially, to form real trust relationsihps with white people. Y’all don’t know what’s going on because no one tells you. And no one tells you because you can’t actually handle the truth.”
Again, dealing with white fragility is something I’ve had to deal with in the past. It’s something I’ve seen others deal with. I’ve been a part of conversations entirely dedicated to complaining about how annoying it is to treat white people with kid gloves just because they can’t comprehend that racism is real. They might have had a hand in perpetuating it. It’s frustrating to talk to someone about being mindful of personal responsibility, and they take it as an attack. Or worse, they try to act like they are separate from America’s incubator of white supremacy.
While I’m familiar with the extremes of white reaction to talks about race (or anything uncomfortable), I was still surprised to find myself shocked that I didn’t boil my frustration down to white America’s lack of wanting to accept “real talk.” Things started becoming even more evident as hordes of white commenters left their personal experiences with the fear of “real talk.”
From what I gathered, the white people commenting resonated with the Twitter user’s observation wholeheartedly. As a whole, the commenters shared their own stories of realizing how not accepting “real talk” leaves no room for discussing responsibility, ways to make amends, and other elements of healthy but challenging conversations. Without discussing the real issues, white society fills the void by creating their timeline of events, their version of reality. White society can only maintain that reality by keeping up the lie of happiness, or as another wrote in the thread, “violent politeness.” If anyone dares to threaten that bubble, they are deemed as threats worth punishment.
Punishments can range from something as commonplace as being called “angry” or “difficult” to as unchecked as the Ku Klux Klan believing they were saving white society, lynching, hosing children with water hoses, killing civil rights leaders. And yes, storming the Capitol in a hissy fit because the racist and sexist candidate didn’t win. Meanwhile, all of the genuine problems created by leaving this false reality unchecked get projected onto those who feel the brunt of its weight–people of color, people with different sexual orientations, the disabled, and others. In other words, by simultaneously perpetuating and ignoring thousands of Small Lies, the Big Lie of white supremacy is sustained.
“This is all painfully true,” one commenter wrote. “Cognitive dissonance, passive aggression, lying, denying–all big parts of white culture. Much coldness and cruelty beneath compliance. Truth is considered threatening. The harm is immeasurable.”
“This is true (and has caused me a lot of professional damage/interpersonal pain[,]) another commenter wrote. “[In my experience] what the freakout is about is that white [people] refuse to entertain being held personally accountable for anything.”
One commenter wrote how they were reprimanded for being honest, despite her job as an evaluator, which requires them to be honest. “On [one] occasion [I] got told that ‘everything I said was spot on but maybe was too assertive.'”
Another fact about white supremacy is that it traps white people as much as it traps everyone else. However, the trap white society falls into is believing that they maintain a sense of power over others by subjugating themselves.
If you’ve lived in the south like me, you are accustomed to seeing white voters go to the ballot box to vote for the white candidate who will keep them in poverty over the Black or POC candidate who will offer them beneficial services. I’ve seen white Alabamians vote against the lottery, which could raise funds for the state’s education system because some lie about it being “ungodly,” when the real reason might be because they don’t want to see a non-white person win.
We’ve seen the examples of former Georgian gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams get cheated out of an election by Brian Kemp, with the steal supported by white voters and white state Republican officials. Even though Hilary Clinton is white, she is a woman. Even as a white woman, she was outcasted by white women and men alike because of her gender and her promised continuation of Obama-era policies, such as the Affordable Care Act. Instead, they voted for scum of the earth Trump because of his version of “real talk,” demeaning others and discriminating against minority groups. Meanwhile, I’ve seen with my own eyes poor Alabamian farmers who might otherwise vote Republican tear up at how much the Affordable Care Act has helped them afford life-saving surgeries.
Even still, the number of white people in the thread complaining about being trapped by the system of whiteness surprised me. For example, many neurodivergent commenters wrote about how they are seen as disruptive and aggressive when they speak the truth about situations. They noted that because being honest is the only way they can communicate, their words can make them outcasts.
“It’s incredibly essential to my ability to feel confident about communication and have trust with folks, and I’ve literally had other white people pull a “Nonono, not another ‘real talk’ moment[,] [c]an’t do it,’ on me. Like, in those words,” someone wrote.
Someone who is autistic wrote how they finally felt seen. They wrote, “I was always under the impression that autistic folk had this struggle, but I see now, we aren’t the only ones who are open and honest to the point of hating this white cultural phenomenon!”
The most shocking admission of all to me was how the “real talk” many white people in the thread were used to wasn’t actually “real talk,” but verbal abuse.
“‘Real talk’ is useful when the goal of a social interaction is to cultivate trust & intmacy. We white folks prefer a more status & power oriented appraoch & have been taught to understand that as love & respect,” a commenter wrote.
The horror of it all is that by accepting the Big Lie over Real Talk, white Americans are willfully perpetuating their generational trauma. Like how Charles Dickens describes Ebeneezer Scrooge as carrying chains he can’t see, white America is weighed down by the past every day while believing they are weightless. As someone else in the thread wrote, “This is extremely unhealthy…it’s used to absolutely bury so, so much trauma that ends up turning into generational abuse.”
“We couldn’t talk about what was bothering us,” a commenter added. “The gaslighting and punishment for anger, or any difficult emotion, started at home, so it was easy to use these as tools of oppression for others. Blaming the victim is an old white-culture tradition.”
“I’m pretty sure that [the lack of real talk] is a cultural creation meant to sell white supremacy,” another commenter wrote. “It excludes all ‘other’ people (a common wording where I grew up) and keeps us from having a real culture. We don’t connect [because] we communicate in ways that oppress ourselves and everyone else.”
The threat of adding onto that generational abuse is apparent in the Republican wish to bury this moment of authoritarianism under the rug. Jan. 6 is not the first time white supremacy has been violent against its own people–many white civil rights activists from the ’50s and ’60s could tell you how they were beaten up and nearly killed by angry white racists. Indeed, some were. But, this seems to be the first time a new generation of white Americans, one that wants to move on from their forebears’ sins, has seen white supremacy play out in its violent fullness.
The old guard wants to forget and “move on” for the sake of false unity. But the new guard might not be so willing. I hope that white Americans learn to embrace Real Talk and its power. Only then can America start to heal fully when white America moves away from accepting the Big Lie.