Toni Morrison Deconstructs White Supremacy in America

Toni Mor­ri­son wrote against for­get­ting, against the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of denial nec­es­sary for main­tain­ing racial hier­ar­chies in the Unit­ed States. But that denial is not suf­fi­cient, she also showed. Racism always falls back on bru­tal­i­ty when con­front­ed with change, no mat­ter that the past will not return except to haunt us. This real­i­ty has dri­ven a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of Amer­i­cans (back) into the arms of white suprema­cist ide­ol­o­gy, espoused equal­ly by politi­cians and armed “lon­ers” in net­works on Face­book or YouTube or 8chan.

In a short essay for The New York­er after the 2016 elec­tion, Mor­ri­son dis­played lit­tle sur­prise at the turn of events. The lan­guage of white suprema­cy, she wrote, is a lan­guage of cow­ardice dis­guised as dom­i­nance. “These peo­ple are not so much angry as ter­ri­fied, with the kind of ter­ror that makes knees trem­ble.” A fear so great, it has brought back pub­lic lynch­ing, with high-capac­i­ty semi­au­to­mat­ic weapons.

What did Mor­ri­son think of the idea that racist mass shoot­ings are the acts of ran­dom men­tal­ly ill peo­ple? She did not offer a med­ical opin­ion, nor pre­sume to diag­nose par­tic­u­lar indi­vid­u­als. She did say that racism is seri­ous­ly dis­or­dered think­ing, and she sug­gest­ed that if racist killers are “crazy,” so are the mil­lions who tac­it­ly approve and sup­port racist vio­lence, or who spur it on by repeat­ing rhetoric that dehu­man­izes peo­ple.

In the clip above from a 2012 inter­view with Char­lie Rose, Mor­ri­son says “those who prac­tice racism are bereft. There is some­thing dis­tort­ed about the psy­che…. It’s like it’s a pro­found neu­ro­sis that nobody exam­ines for what it is. It feels crazy, it is crazy.” Some may rea­son­ably take issue with this as stig­ma­tiz­ing, but it seems she is nei­ther scape­goat­ing the men­tal­ly ill, nor absolv­ing racists of respon­si­bil­i­ty.

Mor­ri­son points out that despite (and because of) its lofty delu­sions, white suprema­cy makes things worse for every­one, white peo­ple very much includ­ed. It suc­ceeds because the belief in “white­ness” as a cat­e­go­ry of spe­cial­ness cov­ers up deep-seat­ed inse­cu­ri­ty and doubt. “What are you with­out racism?” she asks. “Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like your­self?”

In her mas­ter­ful way, Mor­ri­son showed us how to have empa­thy for peo­ple in the grip of hatred and fear with­out dilut­ing the con­se­quences of their actions. She pitied racists but nev­er gave an inch to racism. Trag­i­cal­ly, her 2016 essay, “Mourn­ing for White­ness,” is mak­ing the rounds for rea­sons oth­er than in trib­ute to its author, one of the coun­try’s great­est writ­ers and one of its most unflinch­ing­ly can­did.

In the days before her death yes­ter­day at age 88, Amer­i­cans were once again, “train­ing their guns on the unarmed, the inno­cent, the scared, on sub­jects who are run­ning away, expos­ing their unthreat­en­ing backs to bul­lets.” Mor­ri­son dares us to look away from this:

In order to lim­it the pos­si­bil­i­ty of this unten­able change, and restore white­ness to its for­mer sta­tus as a mark­er of nation­al iden­ti­ty, a num­ber of white Amer­i­cans are sac­ri­fic­ing them­selves. They have begun to do things they clear­ly don’t real­ly want to be doing, and, to do so, they are (1) aban­don­ing their sense of human dig­ni­ty and (2) risk­ing the appear­ance of cow­ardice. Much as they may hate their behav­ior, and know full well how craven it is, they are will­ing to kill small chil­dren attend­ing Sun­day school and slaugh­ter church­go­ers who invite a white boy to pray. 

End­ing with a ref­er­ence to William Faulkner’s Absa­lom, Absa­lom!, she summed up the state of the nation in one deft sen­tence: “Rather than lose its ‘white­ness’ (once again), the fam­i­ly choos­es mur­der.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Toni Mor­ri­son (RIP) Present Her Nobel Prize Accep­tance Speech on the Rad­i­cal Pow­er of Lan­guage (1993)

Toni Mor­ri­son Dis­pens­es Sound Writ­ing Advice: Tips You Can Apply to Your Own Work

Toni Mor­ris­son: For­get Writ­ing About What You Know; Write About What You Don’t Know

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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