by Andrew Kim
26 August 2017
The obsessive coverage of and media response to the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally is a reflection of a certain absorptive fascination with American white supremacy. Let me clarify: this is a fascination by white people with white supremacy, rather than any pain registered at its effects or any felt need or demonstrated commitment to dismantle it. This is also a fascination with overt – a.k.a. “classic” – American white supremacy that reminds people of the Jim Crow era and the Antebellum South. Images are reproduced of bug-eyed young white racist men with side-swiped hair and starched shirts. Would Donald Trump secretly call these men ‘passionate’ for all their xenophobic hate (as, we recall, he deemed those supporters who beat up a Mexican immigrant during his election campaign)? After all, it is the so-called ‘passion’ of these racist terrorists in Charlottesville that seems to have excused them from being solely blamed for the violence of that day. Somehow, their ‘passion’ is free speech, while violence and terrorism is reassigned to “many sides.” Somehow, overt white supremacists are given a free pass in the eyes of an American public who, by decrying “all violence” or “all ethnic supremacy” displayed on that day, implicitly defends white culture, white self-expression, white power, and white identity. And yet this is all still spectacle.
The amplified tension surrounding the preservation of Confederate monuments on their glorified pedestals is an outcome of our compulsive fascination with the spectacle that Nazism offers to the American imagination. Most Americans regard Nazi Germany’s racist ideology and genocidal practices as a moral nadir in world history, and Hitler is invoked by the common citizen as the paragon of evil. University of Virginia Ph.D. student Lindsey Jones is penetrating in her observation, however, that comparing the white nationalists in Charlottesville to Nazis is an expedient way to “erase the ordinariness of the impulse to display and defend the symbols of a fallen iteration of white patriarchy.” On the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, where I am a graduate student, the Silent Sam statue is displayed and defended in just this way – absentmindedly: Thousands of students walk past the statue every day without a glance in its direction, and on the day of the protest this past Tuesday calling for the statue’s removal, the UNC administration ordered in a double barricade and a sign that laid down the rules for proper behavior. (Later, they would bring in police in full riot gear to guard the statue). In the face of protests and sit-ins by anti-racist students and faculty, Chancellor Folt and the administration are trying to deflect the campus’s intensified consciousness of Silent Sam’s racist animus back toward a state of absentmindedness. In an email sent to the students and faculty in anticipation of Tuesday’s protest, the chancellor made lukewarm appeals to “public safety” and to a “constructive and peaceful protest.” “Constructive” in this instance codes as “preservative,” even if in the same paragraph the chancellor unequivocally condemns the presence of Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. But to condemn Neo-Nazis is to claim hardly anything of substance; it becomes almost tautological to claim that Neo-Nazis are bad. The courageous efforts, then, of students (particularly students of color) and of faculty to remove Silent Sam are demonstrations of the clear understanding that absentminded racism is the true structure to dismantle in order to achieve racial justice.
It is the fascination with Nazi spectacle that fuels our repeated consumption of whitewashed World War II narratives; it is the fascination with Nazi spectacle that fuels the writers of The Game of Thrones (that national obsession) to think it is okay to launch a show fantasizing about a Confederate victory of the Civil War; it is the fascination with Nazi spectacle that fuels our obsession with the Charlottesville rally while preserving our blissful ignorance of the actual cultural- and state-sanctioned devaluation of and violence against black and brown lives. Nazi spectacle is a kind of pornography of whiteness, and it is the white imagination that consistently fixates on such spectacles as to center its own interestingness and uniqueness and elide the pain of racialized others in American society. It is the white imagination that seeks always to distinguish itself in some way. It is the white imagination that engineers the evolution of white supremacy beyond its overt “historical” forms while capitalizing on the cultural interest that such overt racism evokes. The white imagination enables white supremacy, reinforcing itself in our white-dominated laws, protocols, and institutions, but also in the everyday ways we view the strangers around us. Absentminded racism is a racism of the white gaze that is forged by the white imagination. Cast about casually in the classroom, workplace, and grocery store, it all the while relies on the bogeyman of overt racism amply represented by the media and entertainment industries to ensure its own secret continuity – the secret, reiterative gaze that determines at a glance that those who are not white are deficient in some way. Miguel Clark Mallet writes that in order to answer the white imagination, one needs to have experienced being marked as deficient by this imagination. “We know,” he writes, “the difference between seeing the world through a white curtain and seeing the world clearly. We counter their images of us with our own, speaking to us and asserting our reality. Against their assumed virtue, we narrate their oppression and hypocrisy and scrub away the layers of their fantasies about themselves.” Is it possible for white people to decolonize their own minds from the hold of the white imagination? I believe that the answer must be yes if we have any hope for the future of racial justice.
Andrew Kim is pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.