I moved into my house a little more than four years ago. We’re the only white family on the block. The neighborhood, which ranges from immaculate million-dollar homes to decrepit eyesores (I live in one of the eyesores) is overwhelmingly Latino, though my neighbor on the right is black. He’s the sort of neighbor who waves every time we’re within waving distance, who trims his pomegranate trees when they start to drop fruit over my side of the fence. I like him a lot.
The wealthy Latino family on my left side, though, I don’t like, particularly the man of the house. On one level it’s justified. He keeps three large half-feral dogs in their yard in all weather; they bark constantly. Once, when I requested that he hold the noisy construction work on his house for an hour or two so my extremely sick daughter could nap, he told me (having never laid eyes on her) that she was probably faking her illness. Some people are just jerks.
Also, completely separately: I am shamefully racist.
When I first moved in, my primary complaint about my Latino neighbors was not that they were jerks but that they were loud. Not all the time, not past midnight, but yes, sometimes on Friday or Saturday nights they would throw parties and invite a (to me) ridiculous number of people. I like for things to be quiet. Not just usually, but 24/7. To me that’s what “civilization” looks like: everyone being silent and not bothering each other. Also, to me it’s okay to have strong feelings, but don’t have them loudly. Don’t sob, don’t yell. Laugh demurely if at all. Keep calm and carry on.
My ancestry is largely English, if you were wondering.
Four years in a nonwhite neighborhood, though, has gradually shifted my perspective without my even noticing. Surrounded by the noise of people being sociable in an unfamiliar cultural pattern, I began to make sense of it, to understand its rhythms as though it were a language. It became my new normal. I began to realize that maybe it was a little weird that I never had parties on Friday nights. That I didn’t know enough people to make that much noise.
Don’t get me wrong; my left-hand neighbor is still a jerk. Was a jerk to me before I even lived there. When I was nine months pregnant and checking out the unoccupied house, he peered over the fence and tried to keep me from moving in by telling me the house wasn’t built to code.
That much, I forgive. I know why he didn’t want me to live there. He guessed at a glance that I’d be the shrew calling the cops about the noise every time he tried to have a party. I was that shrew, for the first year or two, when I was sleep-deprived from new motherhood and unused to living around anyone who didn’t share my exact cultural values.
I didn’t realize how much my attitude had shifted until the night I tried to follow the 2016 presidential election results.
Right around the time my stomach was starting to sink to my feet, from next door I heard the kind of abrupt, simultaneous screams you only hear from white people when their team scores a touchdown. But these were cries of rage and anguish. This was a group of people watching television together (instead of following the election results in a room alone on an iPhone, as I was doing) who simultaneously cried out in pain, loudly enough that I could hear them from next door.
I had just put my children to bed, and I’ll admit to a fleeting thought about their chances of peaceful sleep, but it quickly gave way to the most wrenching wave of sadness I’ve ever felt for a family we haven’t spoken to since the last time my husband went over there to tell them to keep the noise down.
This time, I thought: let them scream. Let them wake everyone in America. Their every bone has just been crushed with a political sledgehammer. Maybe keeping calm isn’t always virtuous.
“My” people–white people–have the weirdest ideas about when it’s okay to raise a fuss. We clench up and futilely, passive-aggressively fight the most harmless things: red tape, noisy neighbors, long lines. Yet somehow we find it in ourselves to forgive, tolerate, or ignore the most virulent sorts of knee-jerk, unexamined hatred.
I know myself better than to say that from now on I’ll always fight it when I catch people I know being racist and xenophobic. I don’t always have the “spoons” for that type of argument. But there are enough scary things littering my own mental closet that I can keep plenty busy without poking around trying to reorganize everyone else’s.
I am already savvy enough to keep from verbalizing my racist and xenophobic thoughts, but that’s not enough. Outward politeness isn’t enough. I need to find out which of my most secret thoughts are poisonous and neutralize them before they eat away any further at what makes me human.
Most white people have these thoughts, because we’ve been fed white supremacist messages–sometimes very subtle and seemingly benevolent ones–since before we were old enough to think critically about them. The main difference between open KKK supporters and educated, cosmopolitan, “civilized” whites is that most of us “civilized” whites, out of shame, sweep our racist and xenophobic thoughts under the mental rug. We avert our eyes and tell ourselves that we’re fine as long as we don’t say it out loud.
But thoughts breed under there under that rug, in the dark. They multiply, they spread to our children through our silences and the actions we don’t take, our children spread them to their friends by imitating us, by saying out loud the things they infer from our evasions. White supremacist thought is like a rat infestation: you can’t just coexist peacefully with it and expect it to fade away on its own. There are more and less confrontational ways to deal with the problem, but you do have to confront it: swiftly, thoroughly, and relentlessly.
We’ve not been doing that–we’ve been cozy in our “post-racial” dream world–and this is what happened. The Rat King happened. And what did we do? We pulled him up a throne. Oh, maybe you and I didn’t, but we sat for decades letting the rat infestation flourish, because we didn’t think the rats would bite us.
Welcome to the nightmare. Behold the twisted mass of gnashing teeth and knotted tails.
Now might be a good time to start screaming.