Squad Goals of a Fragile Millennial

Misunderstanding of young liberals is making some conservatives unreasonably nervous.

dope butterfly

The cover story for the most recent edition of the National Review pairs features by David French and Emily Ekins with the headline “The Kids Aren’t Alright: The Problem with the Sanders Youth.”

Being a youth and one who voted for Bernie Sanders in my state’s primary, and being acquainted with many so-called “Sanders Youths,” I was compelled to pick up the conservative magazine and read what Mr. French and Ms. Ekins thought was so wrong with us.

If the two featured articles are any indication of the current conservative zeitgeist, then it’s clear to me that some conservatives have had a reaction to the phenomena associated with Sanders that is not only unfair and uniformed, but cowardly and ill-equipped to cope with the challenges of the times we live in.

“It’s hard to doubt that legendarily entitled Millennial social-justice warriors will finally go too far, and not even The Onion will be able to sufficiently parody their aggressive fragility.” When French began his article, entitled “Fiercely Frail Millennials,” this way, I wanted to discount everything he was about to say. Not only did he use the entitlement straw man, but he used “social-justice warriors” as a pejorative, which is usually a good indication of either an ignorant or mean person.

But I kept reading. To French’s credit, he lays the blame for the fragility of Millennials at the feet of a tangible source – bad parents. Some have tried to bash Millennials without also shouldering the blame for raising them, but decrying the faults of parenting becomes French’s main point. His claim is that fragile Millennials are “formed largely by parents who’ve loved their children into the messes they’ve become,” protecting them from hurt and disappointment by trying to make the world a big safe zone.

French longs for the good old days of conservative parenting, recounting how his his parents instilled character in him by not helping him: “I once told my dad that my coach threw a basketball at a kid’s head when he was talking during practice. My dad laughed…If parents ever intervened in playground conflicts, the shame was deep and enduring.” Not only does it seem French and his father wouldn’t mind Mike Rice’s tough coaching methods, but they also think the wimpy kid will gain confidence even as the big bully beats him senseless.

The article concludes with French deriding parent/child friendships, and claims that being adrift in life without helicopter parents or the security of college is what has driven Millennials to Sanders: “Responding to the fear and uncertainty, a geriatric socialist…steps in with his call for free health care and education…and protection from the rough-and-tumble world of liberty and markets.”

There are some valid points in French’s article, for without a doubt there are many parents who place too much value on comfort and not enough value on learning life’s lessons. Life is not a safe space, and children should be taught how to confront life’s challenges and grow from them.

There are, however, many problems with French’s argument. He assumes this problem only creates weak, fragile, liberal Millennials. It is absurd to suggest that Millennial conservatives do not also face the same upbringing, or that conservative parents do not exhibit such behaviors. I would think that French, being a former basketball player, would know that to complain about coaching is to be a parent in sports. And the majority of these complaints do not stem from an egalitarian perspective, but rather the very capitalistic notion that my child has earned this – they worked hard and they deserve more playing time. At no point in his article does French allow for the possibility of fragile conservative Millennials.

But French’s greatest failures is his misunderstanding of who liberal Millennials are, what they do, and what motivates them. He uses extreme anecdotes to highlight the fruit of these poorly cultivated children, but this is not just an unfair use of straw men as he, again, fails to mention the results of extreme conservatism in young people. At one point he claims that “in the name of their own alleged vulnerability and fragility, [Millennials] engage in dramatic protest, seek conflict, and relentlessly attack opponents.” Besides revealing that French is yet another conservative incapable of grasping the basic concepts of protest, he reveals that he doesn’t actually know any liberal Millennials.

Many of the liberal Millennials I know were, like me, raised by more conservative parents, not fruit-loop hippies. But, as we got older, rather than huddle in the safety of mom and dad, like French suggests we do, we started forming our own ideas and rebelled against our parents’ ideologies, bringing not closeness but tension in our relationships. We learned more about the world and found America isn’t so perfect as we were raised to believe. We learned about social and economic inequality. And so we changed – we adapted.

Me and my young Millennial friends are entering adulthood in a country that isn’t perfect by any measurement, and we want to make it better. So how do we do that?

Well, one of my friends decided to head up an environmental club on campus and do the hard work of passing a Green Initiative Fund while raising awareness of different environmental issues. He didn’t ask his parents for help. He just did it.

Another one of my friends led the effort to plant a garden on campus to help educate people about sustainable living practices. The same friend organized a campus event that would give students and faculty the chance to share stories of marginalization. She didn’t attack people – she invited them to listen.

These are just two of many young liberal Millennials who have decided to be the change they wish to see, and their attitude and mindset is the kind I generally find among this demographic. It’s an ethos focused on helping others much more than it is about protecting our fragile feelings. We aren’t here for handouts and pristine happiness – we’re here to work for change. We don’t want to make America great again – we want to make America better than it’s ever been.

Emily Ekins examines a specific ill associated with the Millennials of French’s world – support of Bernie Sanders. In her article, “The Sanders Youth,” Ekins examines what “socialism” mean to Millennials, and why they are so ready to support a socialist candidate. She writes that, “The time has come to start explaining to the next generation how socialistic economic planning hurts people.” While we can do without the condescension, I appreciate that Ekins actually walks through what she thinks socialism really means.

Like too many pundits, she makes the mistake of bringing up the Soviet Union and the government oppression that supposedly comes with socialism. Using Joseph Stalin to discredit socialism is like using Mussolini to discredit conservatism. However,unlike many commentators, Ekins actually bothers to address how “socialism” in American terms relates to the examples of Scandinavian countries. Her conclusion is that countries like Sweden aren’t socialist, but instead have socialistic tendencies. And she’s right.

But Ekins, like French, misunderstands what Millennials are looking for.

We ain’t here for the socialism.

It’s just a word. What socialism actually means and however socialist Sanders actually is do not matter. Young liberal Millennials, in all of our cowering fragility, want Sanders and his socialism because we believe he is the one candidate in the field who is honestly committed to working towards some of the changes we want to see. If a Republican had real plans to invest less in the military and more in health and education, and voiced concerns over the environment, and used progressive rhetoric concerning various types of discrimination, then, yah know what, I’d probably vote for him/her. If they talked about getting money out of politics, all the better. It just happens to be that the candidate with these types of objectives is a loosely-defined socialist.

So I’m not really sure what it is that frightens French and Ekins. Yes – there are some wacky liberals out there that Jessie Watters tracks down for his segment on The O’Reilly Factor. But that’s hardly a representation of the so-called “Sanders Youth.”

Why react to these young people with condescension, anger, and even fear? Why declare that the kids are not alright? I would hope that the people running the National Review would look at this movement, this liberal youth movement behind Senator Sanders, and see not an army of whiny snowflakes, but instead a demographic that is thoughtful, hopeful, educated, and a little pissed off. Why not consider what these people want, and in what ways they are working to achieve it? Is it that impossible for a bunch of kids to have some valid ideas?

Of course it is – if you, like David French, are deluded by the conservative utopia.

It’s easy to call Sanders’ vision a fantasy, but, for whatever reason, the ideals of conservatism don’t face the same scrutiny. Ekins claims that “the way forward is not through increased government management of the economy but through the free-market model.” Again, she’s right. That is, she would be right in an ideal world. If the rich play nice, and no one cheats, and everyone is generous, then yeah – yeah the free-market model would be the best. But that’s never going to happen. French longs for a world where kids could sort it out on the playground themselves, but apparently he doesn’t know that some kids just aren’t built to fight. And I can’t help but question whether or not Mr. French would be so supportive of black children sorting out their problems with violence, or if he might read into that a little differently. It would be great if kids could just fight and build character, but I think we all know that this kind of foisted machismo isn’t good for anyone – our culture’s notion of masculinity is the source of all sorts of problems.

In the conservative utopia, American history shimmers with glory, discrimination is an excuse, and anyone can advance themselves through some rugged individualism. It would be great if the isms and phobias were dead, and I like the idea of true meritocracy. But. These. Things. Aren’t. True. The conservative utopia is every bit as fallacious as the visions of sugarplums dancing in Bernie’s head. How is it that conservatives can continue to deride liberal America for its vision of change all the while building up a fortress around a keep that doesn’t exist?

It’s the insistence on this utopia, this illusion of Americana, and the fear of having that dream taken away, that makes some conservatives fearful and hateful of young liberals. We are a loud voice calling them to get woke. And no one likes to be rousted out of bed. That’s what makes us seems so threatening.

I admire much of the libertarian vision. I respect many of the policies of conservatism. I know that conservatives protect what good the past held, and that this good needs to be a part of America’s future. But things have got to change, and I look forward to working with both liberals and conservatives who reject the notions of utopia and instead are prepared to work for a future that is not great like we used to be, but better.

If you want to call us snowflakes, go ahead.

But just know that winter is coming.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria


The Morbid Beauty of Marat

Allow me to explain why a painting of a man murdered in his bathtub is one of my favorites.


The above painting, The Death of Marat, by Jacques-Louis David (1793), is one of my most favorite paintings, and it has been ever since I came across it in a history textbook in eighth grade. The subject of the painting is Jean-Paul Marat, a radical journalist from the French Revolution who was murdered in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday, a political enemy. Painted just months after Marat’s death, it has become one of the most famous images from the revolution.

I believe we most appreciate art when we

  1. admire it on first glance, then
  2. grow to appreciate it more when we learn the story and see the details, and
  3. make some aspect of the work applicable to our own life

This, obviously, is just my own rudimentary outline, but I think it holds up.

Like many (but not all) works of art that I admire, Marat intrigued me upon first look, in spite of its violent material. It is, like so many of the best paintings, one that is visually attractive even as we might react with shock or discomfort. It’s a sad image of a man either dead or dying in his bathtub, which should instantly make us wonder – why did the artist paint this? What’s the story? Why was this worth taking the time to turn into a work of art? Who was this man? However, the detail achieved through the oil medium, the use of lighting, and Marat’s idealized figure all remain visually compelling. What I did not know until recently was how similar Marat’s figure is to Jesus in Michelangelo’s Pieta (which is up there with my favorite sculptures) and in Caravaggio’s Deposition of Christ (also a favorite of mine), and given the acclaim for all three of these works, it suggests that this pose resonates with people.

These initial impressions of beauty and gravitas develop upon observing the painting more closely and learning more of the story. You might notice that the murder weapon is still at the scene, or that Marat is surrounded by white cloth (important symbolically), or that he is still holding his quill pen, even if death has already taken him. You might also see that writing is visible on the letter and the box, and pursue what those French words mean (more on that later).

The painting’s meaning enhances when we pursue answers to those questions about the subject and its importance. What we find in this painting is that Marat was a radical journalist, writing about politics during the turbulent French Revolution. His enemies believed his rhetoric dangerous, and, as a result, he was silenced.

And that’s when it might hit you – he was killed doing the thing that got him killed. So maybe the cause of death is resting in his hand, not on the floor beside it. This enhances Marat’s martyrdom, as a writer who was killed while engaging in written correspondence.

And, not only that, but he was still writing even though his skin disease (which David opted not to depict) had forced him to semi-retire. He was bathing regularly to help his condition, and still kept writing.

But what about those French words? Well, the letter says Il suffit que je sois bien malheureuse pour avoir droit a votre bienveillanc, which can be translated as “Given that I am unhappy, I have a right to your help.” This seems rather inconsequential, to me at least, until realizing who wrote the letter: Charlotte Corday, the woman who murdered him. Corday was able to get close enough to stab Marat because she had written him a letter promising him aid in his cause. This makes Corday that much more villainous, and the death that much more tragic, but even this has a story – Corday did not flee the scene. Rather, she waited for police to arrive, and she was executed four days later. So are there really two martyrs here?

The writing on the box was, so far as I can tell, added by David in later versions after the original just contained David’s signature (“To Marat – David”). This version reads n’ayant pu me corrompre, ils m’ont assassiné, which can translate to “Unable to bribe me, they murdered me.” With a little more information, what was at first a beautiful but also thought-provoking painting unfolds into a story that augments the narrative the image was already suggesting.

And, then, finally, I believe that a work of art secures itself in our imagination when some aspect of the work becomes applicable to our own life. I’m a writer, so to see an image of a slain writer is going to resonate with me in particular ways. Marat wrote things that were so piercing, so politically charged, that his craft resulted in his death. He died for what he wrote, and he died while still writing. Will I ever write something that moves people in such a way? Will my thoughts on religion, race, and other controversial topics make me an enemy to some people? Will I have the courage to keep writing even as I take on the vitriol of my detractors? I know what it’s like to labor over a work of writing, to worry about what others will think, to receive criticism, and to feel like I’m about to die as I type away at a computer. And so did Marat, but at a level I can’t imagine, and though he died hundreds of years ago, still he dies in my mind’s eye, surrounded by ink and blood, if they really are, for him, different.

These applications do not fade – rather, they are refreshed as I continue to pursue writing and as I read what others write. I have said, and I continue to maintain, that internet literacy is a problem my generation must confront, and that the wild west of idiots with an internet voice (of course I’m being ironical) must be refined into something more useful. Is everyone on the internet ready to write with the gravitas of Marat? The better question: is anyone?

There you have it – in a thousand words I explained why I like this painting, and perhaps I’ve helped you to appreciate it, too. But that isn’t the sum of purpose for this post.

I wish everyone could readily name a favorite work of art, and then, for the sake of good conversation, tell me why. Could you? Could you name a work, and then take me through the three steps that I outlined earlier? If not to the same extent as I did, at least with the same verve and vigor?

Art matters even if we don’t talk about it. But it’s meant to be talked about. It’s meant to be appreciated – not just in our minds but in communal expressions of “I like this!” and “Whoah what is that?” and “Ohhhh, now I get it!” We already do this – what do you think makes Pinterest so popular, or trending topics so compelling, or comment sections so irresistible? So why don’t we do it with art? There’s a vast ocean of art just a few clicks away – you can see everything from ancient cave drawings to Renaissance sculptures to contemporary DeviantArt posters – and it need only take a few minutes of time. Why don’t we fill up our Facebook and Twitter timelines with great works of art?

Why not start right now?

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

The Problem with Happiness

dope rainbow artwork

Freshness of Cold by Leonid Afremov

“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” seems pretty straightforward as far as founding documents and stump speeches go. And, in a country where little can be agreed upon, this is a famous statement that anyone can nod along to. However, there are some particular problems with this phrase, and not just the hypocrisy of land-owning white men declaring these things as “unalienable rights” even while maintaining chattel slavery and a firm patriarchy. The one I want to parse out is “the pursuit of happiness,” which, while appearing to be the most obvious and benign of the three rights, may be as revealing of the American imagination as either of the other two. What I mean is, while life and liberty as rights was a newer concept in the world (The Declaration of Independence would heavily influence France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen 13 years later), the pursuit of happiness has also not been something guaranteed, or even available, to the average citizen. But, in 1776, Thomas Jefferson decided to put life and liberty right next to the pursuit of things and activities that make people experience happiness.

In America today, the right to life is, for the most part, taken for granted (although this time the hypocrisy suggests that life is a right only for born persons). We assume that all most people have the right to life. Liberty is the one that gets the most controversy, as doomsayers like Ted Cruz claim that religious Christian liberty is under assault and issues of gender and sexuality become some of the most important new discussions in society. The Libertarian movement suggests that liberty is as important as it is elusive.

But enough about those things. It’s the pursuit of happiness which has come to be America’s real sacred cow. The quality of our life and liberty have come to be predicated on how happy we are. Things and activities that generate happiness have become the very things for which Americans aim, and the rewards that are promised for hours and hours of work.

And this is fine – now that humans don’t have to fend off wild animals and we have medicine to keep us around for more than fifty years, it’s great to fill up spare time with leisure, recreation, and the things from which we derive happiness. But there’s a problem, and this is the thesis to which this overwrought introduction has built:

Happiness is cheap. And the exaltation of this cheap happiness is a road to misery that bypasses fulfillment. I hope to show that, while not having the same ring to it, the pursuit of fulfillment is the thing for which we should aim instead.

I can’t say for sure what Jeffy had in mind when he penned the Declaration – maybe he really envisioned all that I’m about to say. And I can’t really say exactly what my fellow Americans have in mind when they think of the pursuit of happiness. But what I see being sold to us, what I see being pursued, what I see being exalted and protected, is happiness that comes from fun, from thrills, from pleasure, from smiles and sunshine and puppies and rainbows. I don’t mean to be sardonic – I really think that happiness, for so many people, amounts to good food, good drink, good sex, good laughs, and good fun. And when we’re not doing one of those things, it is expected that we should keep a good mood. We should just be happy. If we’re not smiling that must mean something is wrong. And Lady Liberty forbid something should be wrong. The happiness I’m talking about isn’t just another word for materialism, but it’s the mindset that being in a happy state of mind is what makes up our quality of life, our measure of success, and the definition of our purpose.

This isn’t right. This is a distraction. We have greater aims in life than the nice feeling we get from being happy. Happiness is great – I like being happy – but devoting our lives to gaining as much happiness as we can is doomed for failure. C.S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” I think we might say, for the purposes of this essay, “Aim at fulfillment and you will get happiness thrown in. Aim at happiness and you get neither.”

The song “Injoy,” from Beleaf’s depression-riddled album Red Pills + Black Sugar, presents this tension as Beleaf and his guests rap about the troubles of life but also the pressure they feel to appear happy. Beleaf laments that his “smile is counterfeit” and wishes that he could appear happy while also growing as a person. It’s a pretty good song, but its best moment is the very end, in which Beleaf says, “Yeah I’m supposed to fake it till I make it huh/Yeah I’m supposed to be happy, happy/But this life keeps getting worse/But I just keep smiling and pretend that I’m happy, happy.” It’s unsettling, and it should be. The song is inspired by the second verse of the Book of James, in which Jesus’ brother implores his audience to “Count it all joy when you meet various trials.” What Beleaf reveals in this disconcerting end to an anguished song is that to count it all joy does not mean “don’t worry, be happy.” He is struggling with the Christian belief that Christ is ultimate joy, even while experiencing human suffering.

Despite the call for joy, I don’t think there’s much case to be made that the Bible directs Christians to be “happy” all the time. Was Jesus happy when he wept for Lazarus? Do all of the Psalms end with cheerful assurance of God’s help? On the contrary, the Bible is full of sorrow and even anger (Ephesians 4:26, Jesus clearing the temple, etc). And there’s a very good reason for that – it’s through trials that we grow. Growth doesn’t happen in times of ease and comfort – rather, it happens when the trials are very real. C.H. Spurgeon, who struggled with depression throughout his life despite his spiritual zeal, said that “They who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls.” Some Christians like to say the world will know them by their love, or by their hope, and neither of those are the same thing as happiness.

I generally approach this sort of topic with a Christian and American framework, but I don’t mean to confine it to that lens, even if Christianity is important for my angle on this in particular. The Tao Te Ching, a spiritual text for which I have great admiration, is also lowkey on happiness. Peace, wisdom, balance, harmony, and humility are some of the things of much greater importance to Lao Tzu and other followers of the Tao.

But this issue can’t be confined to spiritual and religious persons either – I think this plays out for just about any spiritual worldview.

Where else to look first but the song “Pursuit of Happiness,” by Kid Cudi, one of the great secular philosophers of our time? In all seriousness, I don’t care if Cudi makes terrible albums for the rest of his life – Man on the Moon: The End of Day is enough to make him a genius forever. The thirteenth song on that album, “Pursuit of Happiness,” has become an anthem for the party lifestyle, but the song isn’t about celebrating drugs, alcohol, and the other things associated with wealth and fame. Rather, the message is that, no matter how much he pursues happiness through the party lifestyle, he’s left unsatisfied: “I’m on the pursuit of happiness and I know/Everything that shine ain’t always gonna be gold/Hey, I’ll be fine once I get it, I’ll be good.” He knows that there is something higher beyond getting high that will satisfy, but has yet to find it. This is one of the messages of his masterpiece album, summed up in the album’s final poem by fellow rapper Common: “The end is never the end. A new challenge awaits/A test no man could be prepared for/A new hell he must conquer and destroy/A new level of growth he must confront himself/The machine in the ghost within/This is the journey of the man on the moon.”

Of course, you might reject Cudi as an outlier with a troubled psyche and a drug problem, but this sort of pained expression is hardly unique to Cudi. It begins with slave songs and black spirituals, which created the blues, which would become the taproot genre for jazz, rock ‘n roll, R&B, Gospel, and hip-hop. In other words, the pain of slaves eventually evolved into almost all of the most popular genres of American music. It also appears in the written poetics of Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and others. This music, this deeply affecting music, does not spring from sunshine and rainbows, but rather comes from the stirring of pained souls longing for something else.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to America in the early 1930’s, he was affected by the mistreatment of black Americans, by the beauty of black spirituals, and by the sound preaching happening in black churches. His time in America moved his theology to theologia crucis, in which the Gospel is hidden and found in suffering. This was a change from his theologia gloriae, which placed God in the presence of a people’s success and well-being, a theology that would have exalted the success of the Third Reich and turned a blind eye to the Jewish people. Finding the Gospel among the oppressed in America helped move Bonhoeffer away from supporting the German government to become a conspirator plotting to overthrow Hitler to save oppressed people from his murderous policies. (ht Reggie Williams, PhD).

I’m not saying that the black experience was bereft of happiness, or that good music and good religion can only come out of prolonged suffering, but these examples illustrate something lasting and something gratifying that exists even when happiness proves difficult to pursue. These examples hint at deeper longings that are more crucial to our well-being than fits of happiness.

This calls to my mind J.R.R. Tolkien’s statement about spiritual longing: “We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile.” This truism shapes his fiction, and we can see some of the ways in which a longing for something better supersedes our quest for happiness. In Middle-Earth, the hobbits are not materialistic happiness-seekers because they spend their time eating, drinking, and smoking. Hobbits do those things, but that’s because that’s what hobbits do – they’re bucolic beings with a love of growing things, and they are in a state of fulfillment when they are growing plants, eating plants, and, of course, smoking plants. Not because they’re bent on happy feelings, but because they are earthy beings with a love for hearth and home. Likewise, the elves are not somber because they can’t find fun things to do – they’re somber because their time is fading away as connections to the natural world become weaker. They aren’t sad because they don’t have meadows to play yard games in – they’re pained because their natural way of life is fading from the world. In short, the joy found in Tolkien’s world is not based in the pursuit of happiness, but in the glimpses of Eden that drive characters to do what is right – to defend their friends, to fight evil, to take care of the earth.

It is clear that many people – writers, ministers, artists, philosophers – have found their greatest meaning not in happiness, but in fulfillment. Why? Maybe it’s because happiness is fleeting but fulfillment endures.

What can pursuing happiness guarantee other than the insatiable need to pursue more happiness? Food, drink, cars, houses, sex, sports, and things like these brings happiness, but do not secure our position against the storms of life. Trials will come. And we need those trials. But how can we expect to face trials and grow from trials, or how can we even expect to survive trials if we are determined to make happiness our default setting? If we spend our lives running as fast we can away from pain and sadness, what foundation do we have when trouble comes?

I find many of these answers presented by Beautiful Eulogy in their song “Anchor,” which has given me much peace and profound joy, even though it has never made me happy and even though it is not a happy song: “It helps me/To understand that we stand on solid rock not on sinking sand/Through the providence of pain you perfect your plan/Predestined to be tested when the works and the Words of/God cooperate and educate men in the great gift of Grace/And Faith. And even though its obvious when my outlook’s/Ominous you’ve bound my heart and my conscience and gave me a constant calmness.”

Whether you believe in purpose and design, there is a space inside all of us that is reserved for fulfillment, and this space can’t be filled with happiness, no matter how hard we pursue it. As a Christian, I might call this “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). I expect that a non-Christian would have their own answer for purpose and fulfillment, pre-ordained or otherwise – but I should hope that it recognizes the futility in filling life up with happiness generators rather than the things that lay the foundation of fulfillment and thus provide happiness in turn.

Stop chasing happiness. I don’t think you will ultimately find it. Life is tough and people are fickle. What pleases you today may bore you tomorrow. Pursue fulfillment instead. There are deeper, more beautiful, more worthy things to set your attention on than a comfortable, easy, happy life. The most beautiful roses in life come with unhappy thorns.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

White and Woke: How Whiteness Regulates Renegade Members


Almost a year ago, I wrote that I was done being a white man. I gave the reasons why, and I set out a new course for my racial identity.

Almost a year later, I’m still a white man.

The fact that I have, when possible, declined to give my race on applications and such has not changed the fact that anyone who sees me knows that I’m white. Even as I figuratively scrub at my skin like Lady MacBeth, I can no more change that damned spot than can the leopard – I remain in my pale camouflage that comes with a history of superiority and a future of possibility.

This is not an affliction. Being forced to retain privilege isn’t something that will ever make me ask for sympathy. Even if remaining trapped in a fallacious race is frustrating, well, at least my name will never cause my job application to be summarily thrown out. Don’t mistake this post as a diatribe of fake problems. My frustrations are very real, but I can’t claim that I’m a victim of injustice in this case.

Even though my physical condition has not changed in the past eleven months, I have continued to read and observe and listen and learn, expanding my knowledge and understanding of race – of blackness, of whiteness, and of the way in which the farcical American melting pot has boiled at such unbearable temperatures. I’m no expert, but these are things about which I’m often thinking and learning.

Whiteness is, of course, defined by what it is not (namely, not colored), but, just as much, whiteness lives on because of what it is. Or, more precisely, what it pretends to be. The fantasy of whiteness is built on the foundation of white supremacy, and it engenders what Ta-Nehisi Coates might call The Dream. This Dream is an American Utopia built on comfort and stability and the freedom to pursue the things that people are led to believe will make them happy. There is no room in this world for disturbance.

Awakened Americans with white skin are a threat to the comfort and stability of whiteness. So whiteness must have a solution for the thoughts, words, and actions of people like me, just as it has come up with ways to defend itself against red, brown, black, and yellow people. The solution has been to attempt to prove me wrong, to make me change my mind, or to silence me. Whiteness won’t try to expel me, but it will try to make a part of me disappear, even as it lays claim to my ethnicity. I am still white in the eyes of the world because whiteness will not let me go. Whiteness wants me to holistically blend into society. It wants what I have to offer just as long as there are no racial strings attached.

The strategy revolves around discrediting my views on any grounds that will deny racism and thus perpetuate white supremacy. So I’m told that I’ve been swayed by liberal media – that either my naivete concerning propaganda or my political party affiliation is what has misguided my racial judgement. I’m told that I’m too young to have any accurate idea of who Malcolm X was, or what the Black Panthers stood for. I’m told that I’m insufficiently educated, and that my understanding of history is wrong. I’m told that I can’t possibly understand police work because I’m not a policeman. I’m told that Christ is the answer and I should be more worried about the Gospel and less worried about social issues. In each example, an aspect of my identity (maturity, political ideology, age, education, occupation, religion) bears the brunt of my correction so that my whiteness may remain pristine and a view of people of colored may remain undisturbed.

This is no different from how whiteness explains the actions of other white radicals. When whiteness recognizes actual factual racists (which it rarely does) it explains them away based on geographical location and antiquated heritage – making obvious white supremacists a benign piece of Southern Americana rather than a fabric woven into the entire American tapestry. Whiteness sees armed organizations attacking state property and calls them “militias” with a slightly overzealous love of freedom. Whiteness explains away murderers like Dylan Roof on the basis of mental health. In each instance, whiteness insists that whiteness cannot be the problem.

Whiteness deals with me like it deals with out-and-out racists, civilian armies, and domestic terrorists: it comes up with a reason for us being wrong that preserves the felicity of whiteness.

There is another strategy which is perhaps the most insidious tactic of regulating awakened whites. It is to trap them on one side of the veil and to keep them on one side of the colored line. This tactic uses our own whiteness against us by claiming that, because we are white AND young/uneducated/liberal/idealistic/etc we cannot possibly know what life is like for non-white people (and in my case this has referred to black America). My opinion is discounted because I am not black, let alone poor, urban, and black. Whiteness quiets my opinion of blackness because I am not black, and this will, of course, not change because I can never be black.

But here is the coup de grâce: if I somehow did become black, my opinion on race still wouldn’t count. People of color have been shouting about race for generations and whiteness has not listened. Rather, they are maligned for unsettling the peace and comfort of The Dream. Protesters today are called thugs who whine and complain about imaginary problems instead of dealing with their own issues. Even as whiteness mitigates the offense of the Bundy “militia,” it lambastes every move of Black Lives Matter.

That’s game over, isn’t it? My opinion doesn’t matter because I’m white and don’t really know what goes on, but if I was black, then my opinion wouldn’t matter for an entirely new set of reasons.

But I don’t believe it is game over – otherwise I don’t think I would do what I do. Bleak as it may seem I think there is a way forward, and it will come when people of all colors work together towards these goals. James Baldwin writes: “If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” And, whereas Baldwin mostly rejected religion, I believe that the Gospel does have the power to help unify people across racial lines.

Yet, even when peaceful racial unity and reconciliation is the mission, whiteness feels threatened. Dr. King was murdered. The FBI assassinated Fred Hampton. Do not forget that.

And, as whiteness continues to regulate renegades like me, I wonder how to awaken white people – how to insist on or create their consciousness – when there was no red pill in my own experience. My awakening was a long and complicated process. I don’t know if I began to mortify prejudice because I liked aspects of black culture, or if my interest in aspects of black culture prompted me to mortify prejudice. There’s no fool-proof formula. All I know for certain is that education is key, and that’s why I hope to teach people about these things going forward.

But a further complication is the racial ambiguity that awaits whites who awaken. To deny your whiteness is to deny yourself a race. I hate my whiteness, so even though I will be white forever I will never feel like I’m a part of the white community. But I can’t be black either. There’s no home for my identity offered there. And rightfully so. I can’t become black just because I like Kendrick Lamar, The Wire, Lupita Nyong’o, or any other aspect of black culture and heritage (and trust me – I like a lot of them). Just because I get emotional listening to “Glory” from Selma doesn’t mean that I can really put myself in community with John Legend when he sings “One day when the glory comes it will be ours” (well, depending on how you look at it, I can and I should, but that’s another discussion). I can’t be sure yet what toll this will take, and how that might affect potentially awakened whites.

So, nearing the end of my first year of attempting to deny whiteness, I’m still white. No surprise there. I knew that wouldn’t change. What I didn’t know was how fiercely whiteness would fight to keep me. I didn’t know how ruthless the regulation of race could be.

I didn’t know I’d be such a nightmare for The Dream.

Recommended Reading

  • The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson
  • Quicksand by Nella Larsen

Forth now, and fear no darkness (or whiteness).

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter