Every other day, it seems, there’s another racist act to stir outrage. Far too many of these involve terror in places of worship, at parties, during police stops, and more. Others involve the N-Word or blackface. None of these are surprising or out of the ordinary, of course. But we get exposed to them consistently on social media.
I often feel frustrated when these incidents go viral. Not because I don’t think we should call out racist acts. But I get worried that when we only pay attention to the most despicable acts by white people, the more we internalize the lie that those people are the racists and the rest of us nice, white people are off the hook.
The outrage becomes addictive. It spikes, weans, and then something else happens to spark outrage, and we go through the cycle all over again.
Well, last weekend, I happened to witness one of those moments up close when a group of white nationalists marched into Politics and Prose, a Washington, D.C., independent bookstore, and disrupted a talk with Jonathan Metzl on his new book “Dying of Whiteness.” With a bullhorn and their own videographer, they spewed an incomprehensible string of words before they started chanting, “This land is our land. This land is our land.” They were met with boos and some middle fingers, which made their faces smirk even more, and then they marched out right past me.
That’s the part I filmed — capturing their smug faces, a few (including one woman) trying to hide behind sunglasses, others proudly staring down the camera. One guy even winked as he passed me. He’s the one I can’t get out of my head.
The whole event lasted about five minutes. After an internal debate and conversations with others around me, I decided to post the video to Twitter.
Within 24 hours, the video had more than one million views, and most major news outlets were covering the incident. Tens of thousands of people on Twitter were talking about it; I was getting phone calls from reporters and messages from distant cousins and childhood friends. The trolls showed up, too.
Another dose of outrage.
In my everyday life, I get to work with a dedicated group of artist-activists. We make documentary films that deal with race and racism and we’ve never had anywhere near the number of eyes on our work that the video I filmed this weekend had.
In fact, the reason why I happened to be near Politics and Prose was because my colleague André Robert Lee and I were screening our documentary I’m Not Racist… Am I? at the first-ever Antiracist Book Festival, organized by the Center for Antiracism Research and Policy at American University.
Our film follows a group of teens through a yearlong exploration of race and racism, and we’ve been screening it around the U.S. as a way to spark a deeper level of awareness about racism and to build the kind of community connections necessary to take action and make systemic change.
It gets messy and complicated and emotional. But, little by little, we see people waking up to understand how racism has been institutionalized and learn the hard truth that one of the young people in our film states so poignantly, “You can’t get rid of racism just by being nice to all races.”
Every time we screen our film, wherever we are, at least one audience member will ask, “Well, we get it here. But what’s it like when you show it up North/in the Midwest/down South/out West where people are actually racist?” This never fails.
All the racists are always somewhere else and someone else.
And this is why I still feel conflicted about posting that video to Twitter. Do we look at those bigots and think that’s the only version of racism? To paraphrase a lesson in our film from the organizing group The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, if we rounded up all the racists and sent them to outer space, would that get rid of racism?
The answer is no.
Racism is a brilliantly designed, built-to-last system. Which means it’s going to take a long time and an almost unimaginable collective effort to take it apart and build something new. But we must try. And we can’t make progress if we don’t understand it as a system of laws, policies, and practices that benefit white people at the expense of people who are not white.
I’m going to reference our film one more time. I can’t help it. It’s filled with wisdom from some of the most effective antiracist educators around. Working with the students in the film and addressing the guilt that the white kids feel about the benefits they have, Dr. Liza Talusan says to them, “Guilt is a feeling. Not an action.”
If my viral video compels you to pay attention to anything I say, let me tell you this:
Outrage is a feeling. Not an action.
Feel that feeling. It’s normal and necessary. But, please, let’s take that outrage and use it to motivate ourselves toward learning more and taking action. Become an antiracist, not just an outraged voyeur. I’d like to see that go viral.