A little over two years ago I wrote a blog post about some racist experiences I had in graduate school at Rutgers University. It was kind of popular, prompting a lot of people to comment and for the English department at Rutgers to do some too-little-too-late soul searching. While I was accused of all kinds of malicious intent, the only thing I meant to do was to expel all of the thoughts that were consuming me. I just wanted to get them out, so I could give myself some closure and attempt to move on. I say as much in the post itself. For the most part, that’s exactly what I accomplished. I stopped thinking about Rutgers at all. Writing is powerful.
So, imagine my surprise when, two years later, and less than 24 hours after a white supremacist ran over 20 people in Charlottesville, Virginia, this comment appeared on my original post:
Congratulations, commenter. You got under my skin, which I suspect was all you really intended. I have some comments anyway.
A few things jumped out at me here:
- The rank opportunism is sort of breathtaking. Imagine dropping by a 2-year-old blog post in an attempt to shame the author because he dared describe an experience in which some nice, innocent white liberals were shown to be the exact opposite. Imagine using the resurgence of far-right extremism as well as the event of a domestic terrorist act to do so. You know someone died, right? I doubt Heather Heyer would approve of her death, or the circumstances surrounding it, being used to try to guilt a black person for talking about racism.
- Since I’m 99% sure this comment is Rutgers-sourced or Rutgers-adjacent, I’m amused and somewhat vindicated by their repeated reliance on anonymity. My name, face, and career have been attached to this ever since I reported a crappy email and organized a public forum. These people have never been publicly named for who and what they are. More than even their clueless racism, the students in the Rutgers English program are notable for their absolute cowardice.
- I outright reject the claim that a relatively straightforward description of events constitutes an “attack.” Furthermore, I emphatically reject the idea that these people are my allies or the allies of black people generally. They are not. I want to be as clear as I possibly can here. People like those I described in the original post are not your allies. They may not recite the 14 words. They may not be marching in the streets with torches, or defending Confederate monuments. But they are perfectly willing to wield their whiteness against you should it benefit them personally or professionally. That is, to me, one of the fundamental points of my story. White students, with institutional power on their side, moved as a group to prevent accountability for their racist words and actions. An unerring belief in the existence of white genocide is simply not required to be a racist asshole.
As far as I know, despite my brutal attack, these students are still at Rutgers pursuing their PhDs. Still teaching. Still publishing. Probably looking to go on the job market soon. Meanwhile, I’ve worked as a movie concessions person, a stock clerk, and a call center drone. At my last job, as an English teacher at a juvenile correctional facility, my pro-Kaepernick Facebook comments resulted in a lecture about how my words were anti-cop and potentially inciteful, because criticising police obviously meant that I wanted my students to riot. I’ve been out of work now for nearly a year due to depression and anxiety. Last May, I attempted suicide because of how hopeless I felt. I don’t blame all, or even most of this, on what happened to me at Rutgers, but to deny that it has been a factor would be an obvious lie. But sure, go on about how much my “attack” hurt my “allies.”
For all of the clamor over Nazis and white supremacists, the folks who have wielded whiteness against me for their own gain, or the gain of their friends, or in service of the institutions of which they were a part, have all been “normal,” non-Nazi folk. They’ve been from every political stripe. Hell, some of them have been black. Opposing the conservative president and his obvious white supremacy is literally the least you could do. Until that spirit is active in all parts of your life, until you’re able to see clearly the connection between white supremacy and the material realities of black Americans, it means fucking nothing to anyone.
White supremacy is endemic to this country and to the office of the president. It was no less white supremacist when lead by our last two Democratic presidents. Many of these social media glommers who like every anti-Nazi, anti-Trump Facebook/Twitter post, who flash their #antifa #TheResistance hashtags will fall back to sleep when/if they manage to get a Republican out of office. Despite their insistence on their anti-racism, when the moment to articulate political principles arrives, they have nothing to say. They will use their whiteness against black people when it suits them. Moreover, they have zero critique for a candidate who, as First Lady, helped her husband usher in the era of mass incarceration, or who wrote lovingly about her prison labor slaves. They have nothing to say about the black president who never missed an opportunity to continue the pathologizing of black culture begun by Patrick Moynihan, or who refused to prosecute the banks that destroyed whatever black middle class we had. They prefer smiley faced fascism to the frowny kind.
We’ve done so much work over the last several years to disentangle the idea of racism from the simplistic burning-crosses-on-lawns variety. Now that the cross burners have come back into the public sphere, I understand the prioritization. By all means, call out the Nazis and fight them in the streets. However, when these people slink back into silence, which they will, please remember that they are merely a blatant example of something that functions much more covertly and insidiously in our everyday lives. It’s easy to denounce Nazis and white supremacy. Fucking Mitt Romney is doing it. It’s much harder to root out the ways that, in accordance with capital, white supremacy structures our lives as Americans.