By Florentina Staigers
I resisted my own idea of writing to you, but you are the key to the questions that are circulating in mind:
How could this have happened?
How did we find ourselves in such an ugly place in 2017?
How did you find yourself at this place, as the perpetrator of this horrific event this weekend in Charlottesville?
As a person of color, I know the answer to these questions. I have never doubted the answer. I know the historic patterns of racism and hatred in this country have not fully played out. I know they will likely continue for years to come because of the path of destruction that began with its founding. This is as simple as science—the law of cause and effect (which I call karma) and the law of motion that an object in motion tends to stay in motion. As a nation, we have been on this trajectory for a long time and we can still see the effects of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and other forms of institutional racism, and oppression. It was embedded into the very fabrics and ethos of our nation. On November 3, 2016, I wasn’t completely surprised. I was disappointed, afraid, disgusted, sad, but not shocked. I knew what this country has been and what it is, even though I had hoped we could be better. These same feelings have arisen many times throughout my life. They have always been there, sometimes as a gentle ebb; other times, they are like a roaring tidal wave. They have come again and again in the past few years each time I read about another Black man or Black woman shot by police. They visited again this weekend when I read about the events in Charlottesville.
These first two questions are on my mind not because I do not have the answers, but because I think you do not James. I don’t believe you have any understanding of the horrors that white people have committed against Native Americans and African-Americans. Assuming you are capable of empathy, I imagine if you truly understood, you would see how the effects of slavery and genocide have continued on throughout the years and how they have left their imprints on the lives and psyche of your fellow brothers and sisters even today. I fault our culture and our education system for this. America is too immature in the way we want to move on, grow quickly, and not look back or think too far ahead. We are a teenager of a country, unwilling to look deeply at our actions and their consequences.
In Germany, there are thousands of cobblestone-sized memorials on the sidewalks throughout the city. They mark where Jews and other Holocaust victims were murdered or taken away, never to be seen again. There are also numerous larger monuments that express guilt, grief, and sorrow over the Holocaust. At the former concentration camp Dahau, there is a monument with the words, “Never Again.” These monuments are not just symbolic of an acknowledgment of the wrongs, but of a determination to never repeat them. This is public education. I can only imagine what they teach in their schools to have each and every student fully understand the horrors of what happened. Of course, there are still consequences of the past and still hate and Nazism in different forms in Germany, but there are also more opportunities to overcome this hatred as a collective.
I also imagine, James, that you have no concept of the way this ideology of hatred, dehumanization, and inhumanity was instilled in our institutions as well as those monuments you sought to protect at the rally in Charlottesville. I have listened to Richard Spencer, the alt-right leader from whom you likely seek wisdom and guidance. He has neither of these. Wisdom is in compassion and compassion comes from understanding. He has neither compassion nor understanding of the marginalization and suffering of communities of color in the U.S. He is locked in fear and anger that comes from his belief that America is trying to annihilate him and his way of life as a white man, and to force him to give up his identity. He is so caught in his own fear and his own narrative he’s unable to see that his identity, his whiteness, was a fiction that was created and that must be discarded if we are to move forward together as a nation. At its simplest, white is not about race, but access to wealth.
I’m guessing you feel this fear too James. I was genuinely shocked by a poll that showed Trump supporters believe that average, working-class white Americans are getting less than their fair share and that Black Americans have gotten a bit too much. Yet, as a woman of color, on a very deep level, I understood this feeling of disempowerment. I have often felt my identity is under attack. It feels like the threat of death. In this mode of thinking, one suffers tremendously. There is no space for joy, love, and compassion. I myself wasted a lot of my life, a lot of my time, energy, and thoughts on feeding this fear and anger when I could have been putting that energy into becoming more fully myself. For you, the consequences of your lack of understanding and compassion were much higher. You have now taken the life of another, injured others, and wasted your own life in the process.
What surprises me about Richard Spencer, white nationalists, and so probably you, is that you do not want us to live together, all the races united. White nationalists want to conquer, to dominate, to rule. I also see that even those who do not directly express this wish in their speech, do so in their actions. I find this sad because one must be in a state of fear and greed to believe this is necessary. One must see the world in terms of lack instead of abundance. What we often do not discuss is when this nation’s forefathers bought and sold people, the price these white owners paid was their own humanity. In dehumanizing another, one dehumanizes one’s self. Many of our wise elders, including Martin Luther King Jr., have reminded us that, “hate destroys the hater.” It is sad to see that your path of self-destruction has led to the taking of a beautiful life, a young woman who wanted us to live together united in love and compassion.
What is also sad to me is that you do not see that you and many others like you are simply pawns. That these white nationalist groups, Richard Spencer, and even our President are playing upon your fear and anger to achieve their own goals. It’s always about money and power and they do not plan to give you either. They simply feed your negative emotions and your righteous story for their own benefit. So while President Trump gives a subtle nod to your side, when he tells the nation, “there is hatred and bigotry ‘on many sides’ you may want to ask yourself, “What are you really achieving by blaming others? Does it help you get a job? Does it help you pay the hospital bills? Does it help you buy a birthday present for your child?”
In a very ironic way, Trump is right that there is hate on many sides, but certainly not in the way he has in mind or that you have in mind. He is right that we all have hate and violence in us. If you look very closely at history and present-day facts, you cannot ignore which groups have been systematically and institutionally privileged and oppressed and how that privilege was gained through genocide, slavery, and other forms of oppression.
In the end, this is not just a letter to you, James, although you are the most extreme form of this lack of understanding. This is also a letter to all white people who do not understand that although there is hatred and bigotry “on many sides” we need to focus our attention on where it is manifesting with power and strength and the support of our institutions. Maybe then you will understand why we must continue to shout and hold up signs that, “Black Lives Matter.” To resist injustice is neither hatred nor violence; it is love.
I urge you, and all us, to really look at the roots of the hatred, the roots of this problem we are in today and how we got where we are – how you got where you are. I am sure if we look with love and compassion we will find the answers to the questions I have posed. Unfortunately, there is not much hope for us if you and other white people do not awaken to the history and reality, and to the love and compassion that must overcome wealth and greed. No matter our race, each one of us has a responsibility. Each one of us must also look at these roots within us. Then, and only then, will we begin to move forward, to erect monuments that express regret instead of glorification of the past, and to have forms of public education and an education system that teaches our nation, and our nation’s children to do and be better.