--Robert Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness
If white folks decide to raise an unpleasant topic or issue, they often preface what they're about to say with these apologetic words: "Now, this might be disturbing, but . . . " People also receive warnings about movies this way, and certain web sites, as well as nearly anything having to do with race. In our current time of war, press photographers are forbidden from "disturbing" us with photographs of the coffins of returning soldiers. Graphic imagery from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also doesn't reach us, since reporters there are "embedded," and thus effectively blinded and muzzled. The horrific images from Abu Ghraib were a mistake, a leak, something else that wasn't supposed to disturb our complacent calm.
But really, what's so wrong with being disturbed? Shouldn't Americans be more disturbed, more in touch with realities that have to do with themselves and that are disturbing?
Shouldn't we prefer, for instance, real images from our current wars to the one that's become its poster image, the photo of an all-American (and thus, white) soldier emanating grit, pride, and resilience?
The man in this photo, US Marine Lance-Corporal Blake Miller, was photographed during the battle of Fallujah, an event that took the lives of up to 50 US troops, an estimated 1,200 "insurgents," and an uncounted number of civilians. One thing that I find interesting about this photo, genuinely "disturbing" in fact, is that the man it depicts has since spoken out about it, and he says that he felt nothing at the time like the stoic fortitude that patriotic fellow Americans read into his portrait.
The former Marine says he now questions the US tactics and believes troops should have been withdrawn some time ago. He said: "When I was in the service my opinion was whatever the Commander-in-Chief's opinion was. But after I got out, I started to think about it. The biggest question I have now is how you can make a war on an entire country when a certain group from that country is practicing terrorism against you. It's as if a gang from New York went to Iraq and blew some stuff up and Iraq started a war against us because of that." (commondreams)So while our current war should be disturbing and upsetting more of us than it is, we also shouldn't be holding up all-American white men as the most exemplary fighters in it, especially when they hated being there and now regret it deeply, and especially when non-whites comprise such a large percentage of U.S. fighting forces, and especially when hundreds of thousands of Iraqi fighters and citizens are being killed by our soldiers' bullets and bombs. Isn't that a "holocaust" that we're ignoring?
But let's go back, as we always seem to do, to "the Holocaust." Now that's something we all seem to agree is very disturbing, and yet, it's also a major disturbance that Americans all seem to know about, very well. We don't turn away from that one. Could it be that one reason we stay focused on this one is so that we can avoid focusing on other ones?
I've also been wondering, when it comes to white people, do they have some different feelings about the Holocaust from those of other Americans?
Consider for a minute that term, "the Holocaust." White people in particular rarely question the capital H, nor the definite article in front of it--the "the," that is. The implication of that capital H, and of "the" (instead of "a" or "an"), is that there was only one holocaust in recorded history, only one genocide. Or that if there were more, this one is the one most worth remembering. The word "holocaust" comes from two Greek words meaning "completely" and "burnt." Six million or more Jewish people, gypsies, homosexuals, and others died in an incredibly organized, systematic attempt to burn them completely from the earth, and that focused intentionality is indeed peculiarly horrific.
But if white Americans ever stopped to think about the phrase "the Holocaust" in these etymological terms, and then understood how that phrase implies the event's absolute singularity, something buried deep inside themselves would probably start to stir. It might even feel like indigestion. Unsettling feelings would likely arise because goodhearted, reasonably well-informed European Americans are conflicted about this issue. They accept the presumption of absolute uniqueness presented by that term, "the Holocaust," but they also know that unwarranted killing of millions, both deliberately and indirectly, has happened before. And not on some other continent, but here, on their land, and to more than just one group of people. And not at the hands of some other, seemingly crazed people, whose apparent collective insanity is evoked with the mere utterance of one word, "Nazis." Rather, these American holocausts were meted out by people like themselves, at least in name--"white" people.
In her 1987 novel Beloved, Toni Morrison won enormous acclaim with her depiction of a victim of one of these holocausts. When Sethe, an escaped slave, realizes that she's about to be captured and sent back, she decides to kill her own daughter, rather than have her grow up as a slave. To reveal that about the novel's plot isn't really giving anything away, at least not to those who know some history. In 1856, a woman named Margaret Garner escaped as far North as Ohio, with her husband Robert and their four children. As captors surrounded her, she managed to injure several of her children, and then she killed her two-year old daughter with a butcher knife.
That's a tragic death, a most singular murder, but it's not a holocaust. It is, however, part of a larger, prolonged, mass death at the hands of others, a mass death large enough in number that it could be called a holocaust. When white people pick up Morrison's novel and see that it's dedicated to "Sixty million, and more," they may have no idea what that number means, nor that the child killed in the novel was based on one of them, one of the estimated sixty million Africans and their descendants killed in the giant free labor system known as the slave trade. This free labor system did include Africans who kidnapped and sold other Africans, but the majority of the slavetraders, owners, and beneficiaries were white people, who used all that free labor to enrich their social institutions and their own future descendants.
These are horrible, guilt-inducing facts for white Americans, who would rather just forget. In a way, though, they can't, because a countervailing American emphasis on fairness and justice and equality means that such collective racial crimes should be acknowledged, and even compensated for. White Americans, then, are conflicted about their history, feeling a moral confusion that they usually just repress, mostly so that they can carry on with feeling good about themselves.
If you're white, you also might find another bad patch of American history "disturbing." Ask a white American sometime, "What group of people used to own the land you're standing on, or the land that your house or apartment is squatting on?" "Oh, Indians," they're likely to say. "Native Americans." Then ask, "Well, which ones? What was their name, the name of the tribe that lived on the land you now live on? The land that your white ancestors tricked away or just plain stole?"
Embarrassed that I myself don't know the answers to these questions, I asked them recently to a fellow white American. He shrugged them off, saying with a wave of his hand, "Yeah, it was all terrible, it's true, but doesn't it always happen? Isn't history everywhere the history of taking land from other people? And anyway," he went on, "didn't a lot of Indians die of diseases and such?"
Apparently a lot of Indians did die that way, perhaps the majority of them. But enough were left to resist "Manifest Destiny," the seemingly organic Westward expansion across the continent that, according to historian Reginald Horsman, was loudly proclaimed at the time as the inevitable destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race. That is, the real Americans, the white race, an exclusive club which immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Germany and other European countries were gradually allowed to join. "The United States," Horsman writes in his book about race in the mid-1800s, "shaped policies which reflected a belief in the racial inferiority and expendability of Indians, Mexicans, and other inferior races, and which looked forward to a world shaped and dominated by a superior American Anglo-Saxon race."
These ugly historical realities are difficult for the collective white psyche to absorb, too much, really, to even acknowledge. For to acknowledge the enormity of such crimes and, especially, the part they played in elevating white Americans as a whole to the top of the racial hierarchy, where they still reside in so many respects--to acknowledge that would mean acknowledging that America is not the benevolent, fair-minded, justice-seeking land of the free that it claims to be. It would mean acknowledging that it's actually been a brutally unfair place, and that it remains so. And if that's true, then our own moral standing in racial terms, as "white" Americans, isn't as clean as it seems to be.
No wonder us white folks are so repressed. No wonder some of us lash out.
UPDATE: For a solid explanation of how white denial of historical significance works on a broader scale, see Kendall Clark's argument that "one of the ongoing privileges of White Empire is its careful, unblinking avoidance of any responsibility for past horrors." ("The Global Privileges of Whiteness")