Discomfort in Desperate Times

I have been amazed by how quickly and graciously forgiveness has come in the wake of Charleston. Too quickly, I have been thinking, and this essay has helped me to realize why.

It’s not OK. Forgiveness is not deserved. That forgiveness is expected or demanded is just plain wrong.

Don’t you grow weary of this tired social performance? With full awareness that nothing will change, the right and the left start rattling their swords and casting blame. Carefully scripted (even if heartfelt) expressions of grief on the part of social leaders and routine (even if authentic) memorials, demonstrations, and vigils may look nice and feel nice, but they aren’t going to keep guns out the hands of people who would use them to act on the racist views they acquire from the false, glamorized histories they are taught. Kumbaya moments do not weaken the legal, economic, and cultural scaffolding that maintains our race-based social inequality. Visible expressions of grief do nothing to undo individually held racial bias nor provide the future victims of prejudgment social protection from the very real impacts the expression of bias has on everything from employment to self esteem.

My students sometimes complain that my classes can leave them depressed. The reproduction of class status and inequality, educational inequality, overpolicing, documented discrimination and bias in contemporary society, the long history of immigrant exploitation, and the construction of idea of white America. “Do you want me to treat you like small children and end each meeting with a silver lining?” I ask. “Should we make up some fairytale that leaves you confident that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated?”

And then I give a version of my “facing difficult truths” speech.

The point is to be uncomfortable. Beyond uncomfortable. Hurt. Horrified. Disillusioned. Angry. Desperate. Awakened. We face tragedy in my class, because I hope that doing so will help you to engage painful truths about this society. Too look long and hard at our failings and gauge the distance between lived reality and lofty ideals. To learn as much as possible about what we have done wrong and what we still do wrong. I want you to see through the shallow tropes that people employ when they are trying to get you to accept the current state of affairs. And, I hope, that then we will be able to work together to see the way out. What imagined future should motivate us? Given the wealth of knowledge we have about how things work, what can we be doing today to achieve our desired future? Then, what we will do tomorrow? The day after that?

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