Growing up in White America
By Garret Koehler
Tonight I went to the red-carpet premiere of the movie DETROIT at the Fox Theatre. The Kathryn Bigelow-directed film (Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) documents the torture and execution of three black men at the Algiers Motel by white police officers during the 1967 Detroit Rebellion, a week-long social uprising that left in it’s wake 43 deaths, 2,000 destroyed buildings, and racial antipathies that persist to this day. Debate about the nuanced historical details of the movie has already begun, another sad reminder that the first casualty in war is usually truth. But the reality is, DETROIT had less to do with history than it has to do with tomorrow, and it had less to do with three black men and a white police force than it has to do with me and you.
I watched DETROIT as a White male who grew up in a predominantly White upper middle class suburb of Chicago. My parents were both teachers, and like so many White parents, they moved me, my brother, and my not-yet-born sister to a suburb they could probably barely afford to make sure we could go to “good schools.” In the context of “White flight” I think this reasoning is often deployed euphemistically, another trope in our suburban dictionary of coded language, but my parents have apologized enough for the repercussions of that decision for me to know that it was a genuine one. What repercussions? Well, like most White Americans who grew up outside of more diverse urban centers, I grew up in a world that celebrated “multiculturalism” and preached the gospel of color blindness to classrooms of predominantly White children. I grew up in a world where people constantly said “color doesn’t matter!” and called it progressive. It’s a world where we learned and lamented the “sins of our fathers” so-to-speak, and then were presented with just enough examples of Black excellence to prove a point about equality or personalize “resistance”. Black History Month was a thing, but everyone seemed happier when it went away so we didn’t have to talk about race anymore, which was (is) always awkward for the White kids who were taught not to see it. As a kid, being “white” only meant not being Black, and we just needed to treat everyone the same, because “everyone was the same”. I think I grew up in a world a lot of you would probably recognize. I might argue that I grew up in America, but that would be very White of me.
Semiotics is simply the study of symbols and how they are used or interpreted. It really wasn’t until I moved away from home at 18 and started studying semiotics and representation that I realized what it “means” to be White, which is to say that I realized that being White has “meaning” in the same way that being Black has “meaning”-- they are both symbols that “we” as a society constantly attach meaning to. It hit me that every representation of “Blackness” or “Whiteness” I’d seen since the moment I’d been born into the world had socialized me to believe certain things about blackness and whiteness at a fundamental and subconscious level. I started looking more closely at children’s books I’d read, movies and TV shows I’d watched, advertisements I’d consumed, stores I’d shopped in, toys I played with. Almost every interaction I had with representations of blackness and whiteness in those cultural ephemera had reinforced socially constructed notions of cleanliness, safety, normalcy, wealth, intelligence, morality, beauty, belonging, etc. And almost all of those representations of blackness and whiteness were controlled and proliferated by White people (and mainly men) who have spent the vast majority of their time on this planet telling people of color that they are dirty, dangerous, different, poor, uneducated, ungodly, ugly, alien, etc. This was White America. I was a White kid who grew up in White America, and White America had only very recently decided to publicly stop hating Black people.
It was 2005 when I realized the depths of this racism; the same year that Kanye West told the world that George Bush didn't care about Black people, and then White people called him insane and went back to sharing images of Black Katrina victims “looting stores.” That was the moment that I realized that everyone in my life was probably racist to various degrees, and that most White people do not have the intellectual framework to understand the countless ways in which their racism manifests itself. I remember the summer after this realization I was 19 and decided to go spend two months backpacking around rural Africa. A decade later, I still vividly remember experiencing the weight of my Whiteness for the first time while there. After living my whole life being told race didn’t exist, I couldn’t escape my Whiteness. I guess you have to take a fish out of water for them to realize they swim in it... or something. My Whiteness took up space. It takes up space. It’s not invisible or the “status quo” or normal or benign. The belief that it is any of these things is just a symptom of internalized White supremacy.
I’ve spent the last decade trying to figure out how to talk about race. Sometimes I fuck it up, so most times I just try to listen. But I talk too, because I think it’s really important for White people to talk about race, even though it’s dangerous because A LOT of us were never taught how to do it, so we do it like we do a lot of things: shittily and arrogantly. I’m infinitely grateful for the people in my life who have indirectly or directly taught me how to comprehend my own Whiteness, and I’m infinitely grateful for the people in my life who teach and show me the breadth and depth of Black excellence. I wish both of those groups could collectively re-write our police academy curriculum and strategy.
The movie DETROIT was a lot of things. (clearly)
But mostly it was one more poignant reminder that we live in a society, participate in a politics, exchange in an economy, and consume a culture that were erected and sustained by an ideology of White supremacy. That is America, and it didn’t change when the north won the war or we signed a Civil Rights act or we elected Barack Obama President. Whiteness is a cultural identity that occupies space, and it’s tied to a deep and persistent history of physical, systemic, and cultural violence towards people of color. All three of those mutually-reinforcing manifestations of violence were brutally on display in DETROIT, and all who watched it were left wondering just how far we’ve actually come as a society.
I walked for hours after the movie was done, and after wading through the emotional and mental aftermath, I found myself tearing up again thinking about something so seemingly trivial that happened recently:
Two weeks ago I went home to visit my parents in Elmhurst and stayed in my childhood home for 10 days. I think it was the longest I’ve stayed in the suburbs since moving away at 18. One afternoon while home, I was surprised to see a police car pulled into the driveway a few houses down. There was a large crowd of eager White people grouped around the car, and for a brief moment I thought maybe something very anomalous was going on in Elmhurst. After a moment of feeling tense and almost pulling out my phone (instinctively), I realized that the people around the car were just excited parents watching their kids interact with the policeman and his car, which had both arrived at the house at the request of the hosts, who were throwing a 5th birthday party for their son. I watched the kids climb into the backseat of the squad car, and then all pose for a picture with the officer. I stared, and I felt guilty about how mad it all made me feel.
I thought about that trivial story, and then I wrote everything you just read above, because it felt more important to write that then send emails about music, which is what I usually do at 1am.
Garret lives in Detroit where he is the founder of Assemble Sound.