Legacy in The Water Dancer

I’ve been reading The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates and was struck by the legacy motif that runs throughout his narrative. Legacies inherited and new ones created which continue to affect the way we think and behave today.

This book also made me think about my own relationship to whiteness and racism because I am white. For years, I’ve wondered how so many of my ‘own kind’ could feel such hatred and disgust towards another human being who happens to have a darker skin pigmentation. And I look back on the history of this hatred, and it runs deep, so deep that men and women would have no problem ripping apart the body of another human being, a pregnant one no doubt. Like Corrinne in The Water Dancer, there is this ‘righteous’ sort of anger at seeing someone who looks like me commit such acts of brutality against another human being. How can they be like this? I’d ask.

But more recently, I’ve begun to wonder the opposite. Rather than being surprised and confused any longer by the acts and beliefs of white people (who have long been performing horrific acts of violence), I wonder instead how I might untangle myself from a deeply embedded racist worldview. Instead of seeing racist white people as ‘other,’ I see them as me, as a reflection of who I am and what I have inherited from them. After all, racial hatred seems to run through the course of our veins. We’ve always been like this.

And these racist beliefs run through the course of my veins. I’ve inherited them. Yet, if I can manage to examine the nearly invisible logic that underpins any racist belief, I will clearly see its artifice and root it out of me. If I believe black people, especially men, are dangerous, for example – and I am able to consciously notice the sensation of fear when I’m around a black man – I can question that sensation.

What has triggered this fear?

His black body triggered it.

Why?

I worry that he might be sexually aggressive towards me.

Is there a reason to think he might do something to me… is there some sort of traumatic experience associated with this trigger?

No, there is not. It’s only because he has a black body.

This reminds me of a ‘folk’ narrative that neighbourhood kids and I occasionally discussed as teenagers. We’d talk about how black people do not drive through our hometown very often because they would get pulled over by a cop. We knew this to be true, though I don’t know how we knew this. We also never questioned why this happened or whether or not it was unfair, we simply knew it to be true and accepted it as fact – our shared folk knowledge about people we’ve never met. We didn’t know any person of colour, really. Perhaps we saw the way nearly all non-white people are interpreted by the news or in film and television. I literally believed, for example, that Mexican people were like the mice in the Speedy Gonzales cartoon, either drunk and lazy or running around saying “andale, andale, arriba.” Yet, this brings me around to my point. Nothing in my own personal experience could have been used as evidence for the belief that black people are dangerous. I genuinely believed that an entire people, very few of whom I had even met, were somehow a threat to me. And this was the same for other white kids. We believed that black men, especially, were dangerous and more sexually aggressive. And yet, we had no actual experience that validated our beliefs.

Even if we did have negative experiences to draw from, we’d have plenty more examples from the white men in our lives. Abusive and/or alcoholic fathers, drug addicted friends and family, drug dealers, thieves, paedophiles, rapists, harassers, murderers. And if you leave my own lower-middle class reality, you’ll still find the exact same thing, except dressed up under the guise of civility and wealth. And there you’ll also find money laundering, fraud, tax evasion, drug and human trafficking and complete indifference to the lives of those affected by these actions. The savagery we so readily believe exists in non-white people is simply a projection of the savagery that exists in our own white selves.

The only difference is that when we see a white person committing a crime or act of violence, we don’t see a white person, we see an individual. When a black person commits a crime or act of violence, we don’t see an individual, we see a black person – we see all black people. We need to start seeing white people as equally capable of committing crimes and acts of violence because, in fact, we are.

After decades of trying to understand the people in my life so I could somehow find my own place in the category of humans I was born into, I started to see the artifice underlying so many of their assumptions about people and the way the world should work. As an autistic white woman, I have tried hard to assimilate into a world that doesn’t understand me, and I think this gives me insight into some of the falsehoods we white people believe. Especially when I actually started meeting real-life people of colour, the centuries-old assumptions began to loosen their foothold over my own worldview. And that is why and how I began the process of disentanglement from the legacy I have inherited.

So, I’ve decided that I want to dig deep into the roots of the racial hatred of white people. I want to uncover its logic and expose its artifice, so that we white people can see clearly the invisible and yet precarious force of racism in our lives and the savage consequences of the legacy we have inherited.