Seeing What Is: “White Privilege,” “Antiracism,” The Police – Lessons from a Losing Culture on the Authority of Language at a time of Movement08-13-2020
By Nikita Nelin
In January of 2020, my fiancé and I finally stood at the edge of the American Dream. After earlier lives as traveling artists, we had taken up “acceptable” jobs, however undreamy – her, as a therapist in community mental health, and me helping to manage a restaurant in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood and as a freelance writer. We had repaired our credit scores, consolidated our student loans, and finally bought a little home; not in Seattle, where most of our network lived, but an hour south in a blue color city on the inlet. We are the first in either of our immediate families to own a home. We got engaged, preparing for a summer wedding, and started talking about kids. Then the pandemic hit. My industry crumbled and hers pressurized. Social distancing left us sheltered in place in our new neighborhood, as we watched the world outside first shudder, and then take to the streets, while we tried to reconcile our place in it with the disappearance our own dream.
After the killing of George Floyd many of my friends took the streets of Seattle. I drove up, boarded up the windows of my restaurant for the second time in three months, made some food for the protesters, and returned home to make my fiancé dinner after her exhausting day at work and monitored the campaign through social media and texts.
I had been slow to fully dive into the movement and it’s momentum. I am an immigrant from the Former Soviet Union; have studied the history of my own abandoned culture and how its once just cause became warped in reactionary tactics. I have studied movements in the U.S. I have written about Occupy, and Standing Rock, and in 2019 published a long essay in the Hannah Arendt Journal on what a “speculative” global movement beyond performance could look like--and this fit much of the criteria. And yet, I found myself reticent, questioning the devotion many of my friends gave to the cause of abolishing the police. Some innate sense in me was searching for a prism that could frame the complexity I intuited at the moment. I found that prism on the corner of my neighborhood.
On the Monday of June 1st, as a dumpster and a police cruiser burned outside of my restaurant and the sidewalks hissed with tear gas, 45 miles south my fiancé and I settled into our COVID routine; dinner and a quick show before she went off to bed. All the sudden we heard children screaming outside. My fiancé was cautious about me going towards the sound as crime has been up in the last three months. A gas station four blocks away had been broken into 3 times. Someone had rear-ended the glass door of a Walgreens at night and tried to steal an actual cash dispenser by tying it to their pick up. And one night we had been woken up by the sound of glass breaking in the kitchen to find a rock having been thrown through our window; windows were also shattered in both our cars, in addition to six others on our blocks, though the only thing taken was my headlamp from the glove compartment.
Still, you hear children screaming, you go outside. Something I’m learning about staying in place, belonging, and being “American” – that there is no getting away from one's neighborhood.
At the cross street of my neighborhood, there was a fight going on. Two black teenage boys were pummeling each other. Another six kids were trying to separate them by punching and kicking the older boys who rolled on the ground. Two other neighbors had come out and were trying to talk to the kids, failing to stop the fight. I ran over and pulled one of the boys off the other, but immediately he sprang back into the fight. I pulled him off again and got myself between them, focusing on the larger kid, trying to get him to walk away with me, my hands out in a non-threatening gesture, eyes loose, asking him to “walk with me, walk with me.”
I’m not a stranger to breaking up fights. I grew up as a transient immigrant in poor neighborhoods and fighting is one of the ways we got to know each other. Working in restaurants, and especially at the one in Capitol Hill, Seattle, I am accustomed to the intersection of cultures. The German émigré cultural theorist Hannah Arendt once wrote that it may be the peculiarity of America, due to the gift of its plurality, that it is bound to have conflict. I have, in some ways, accepted this and practiced my role as someone from an in-between culture. I know enough how to put a strong hand on someone without fighting them, and how to come off as a mediator rather than threat.
Usually I will work to get the larger fighter to walk away with me, offering the words “breathe, just breathe man,” as most fights need just 3 minutes of pause and breathing to cool. And yet as I divided the boys all sorts of new things were running through my mind: “Could we, should we even, call the cops right now?” “Don’t say ‘breathe’ to the boy. You can’t say ‘just breathe.’” And as I focused on the larger boy, a rock wheezed past my ear and the other boy leaped past me with another rock in his hand pummeling the bigger boy again.
I jump back in. The little kids are back in again as are the other two neighbors, one, white and a retired community counselor, the other white presenting but with some Hispanic influence, trying to pull them off. One of the girls who had been thrown off the pile stomps away screaming, “Why has no one called the cops?” Blood is gushing from both the boys and onto me, and then I hear, “He’s got a gun!”
I turn my head to figure out where the new danger is coming from, and on that same corner another neighbor is standing in his yard waving a shotgun. He is a white man, older and a hyper recluse since March. He’s been around more lately, likely having temporarily lost his job, mowing his lawn and fixing a car. I leave the boys and rush directly towards him, with my arms out again, screaming “no, no, no. Please, please, go inside!” He retreats into his house yelling, “you better handle this!”
At the same time I hear another neighbor, a black man living at a house on that same corner, scream out from his window to the boys, “you all stop acting like animals!” and then his window is shut. And I’m back with the boys.
About two minutes later the cops arrive. Quickly we have five or six cruisers in the neighborhood. They cuff the boys and separate them into cruisers. Just then the mom of one of the boys and of most of the little ones shows up, yelling, “don’t take my boy!” They live on that same corner. She looks ragged and exhausted. I realize this is the first time I have ever seen the mom, while the kids I have seen almost daily, including in another smaller fight a few days after the rock came through our kitchen window as my fiancé and I took our COVID walk around the neighborhood and I promised her I wouldn’t get involved even as I spotted one of the kids wearing a bright headlamp.
I stayed for a minute but sensing no need to talk to the cops, and my body shaking with adrenaline, and my fiancé nervous on the steps of our house, we went inside and tried to process what just happened after I showered the boys blood off of me.
Again, she works in community mental health in our city, facing, often, a system that is underfunded and compressed, and a clientele that has either given up believing there is help or is facing unwinnable circumstances. Some of her clients just expect her to fix things without any investment on their part as well, while others are conditioned to a world set against them. It’s complicated. Almost anyone on that corner could be her client one day.
For me, I was overwhelmed by the terrible poetry of the moment. As friends in Seattle yelled “disband the police,” I was stunned by the pauses I had seen enter my own thoughts in the heat of the fight. “I couldn’t say ‘breathe’” I said to her, as if in that stunted parapraxis lay the key to everything. “It’s too loaded,” I said. And I didn’t know how I felt about the cops being called, even though I knew that we could not fully deescalate the situation without them. Again, it’s complicated. For an immigrant, ultimately an outsider here, it is complicated in other ways.
Language matters, you learn when you are confronted with a new one and a new culture long after having gained consciousness. I came here when I was ten, after having traversed Europe as a “stateless” entity with my mom. In my life I have, to some degree, spoken 4 languages. Russian, Italian, Hebrew, and American English. There is a truly unique quality about American English in that it cannot fully be learned on your own. There are social rules no one codes into the alphabet and grammar. If you want to learn, you have to seek authority to tell you, the authority of the moment. There is not a complete logic to it. In a way, to learn American English, you have to ask permission, as some words or phrases become forbidden, depending who is on top.
I am not a linguist but I am a writer, and I likely chose that path because I was fascinated by the accidents of language. I love discovering language. It is where I find guidance in the world, and freedom of thought. I love playing with it, using it to immerse myself into other perspectives, a thing hand in hand with the never-ending mandate of the immigrant – to assimilate, though I warn here that assimilation is never complete as its conclusion would ultimately be erasure of everything that came before the new culture. It is in the accidents of language that I perceive the animation of cultures’ ghosts and the soft points of their traumas.
But recently language feels more and more like a mine field, or a power game. You can step into an otherwise neutral thing and be destroyed by its charge. “Privilege” is one such minefield, further carried into the lexicon by a corporate advisor as a Trojan horse for a philosophy that at times feels like it furthers the divides, confronting the “un-woke” white America with the “woke.” Something that almost feels like the continuation of another American trauma, the righteous zealot-ness of moral crusade.
The other minefield is “Anti-Racism,” coordinated with “privilege” to ensconce white America in an ideology of the pure and the sinned, dismissing any argument against it as the enemy of justice. If American “whiteness” is an erasure of history, “Anti-Racism” is an erasure of any vision of America that does not begin with race. In a sense, to me, it feels like it further propagates the erasure, while claiming to be its corrective. I am not studied enough in either Robin DiAngelo or Ibram X. Kendi to give an in-depth analysis of their troubling logic. For that I would steer the reader to Matt Taibbi who recently did a deep dive into White Fragility and Thomas Chatterton Williams who presents a nuanced counterpoint to Kendi’s philosophical tautology. But I am well studied in the history of my own losing culture, that of the Soviet revolution. When everyone on my timeline got busy examine their “white privilege” I took another look at my own cultural trauma, and its lessons.
In Russia, prior to 1861, one's worth did not depend on how much land they had or how much gold they sat on, but on how many “souls” they had working their land. In 1861, a year before the emancipation proclamation, Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs in Russia, releasing the souls. But the economic system of land ownership created a new caste system where the freed serfs worked for meager wages for their old lords. Shortly after, a new wave of liberal, upper class intellectuals began playing with theories masking their savior pathology, casting their ego of exceptionalism to transform the world. The following generation of active intellectuals galvanized a disenfranchised mass and capitalized on famine, war, and soon a pandemic, to overthrow the old with the motto of "the ends justify the means," and ‘down with all of history’. In the process, a potentially just and inspired movement began to compromise its mission in a righteous fever to erase everything before it and censor every voice that questioned its movement. Words became lethal. The soul of the movement was lost.
The spirit of revolution is neither good nor bad – it is momentum. Whether it is good or bad is decided by the real-time actions of the people involved in it, of whether it retains or loses its soul. Only the future is morally pure, and that’s only because it hasn’t lived yet. Moral rightness is a peculiar luxury of an intellectual exceptionalism that deceives its personal traumas and sublimates the ego. It is a religious statement rather than an exercise of humanistic thought. It is justification for a crusade.
One very special aspect of studying Russia of the 20th century is that history books written in that time fall short of describing it. Most of those that were written by the Soviets and survived to publication were edited by the party, under the mandate not to compromise the cause. If you want to learn what happened, and how, you have to read fiction and poetry, either of the silenced generation, or of the authors who devised inventive ways to code their more explorative and questioning messaging in their work. Writers like Isaac Babel, Michael Bulgakov, Boris Pasternack, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, and others. Even Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who masked nonfiction as fiction, begins his classic One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich with a betrayal of the revolution by describing the first state of his protagonist by the waking of senses. Even this was a danger to the movement (however stagnated by then it had become), because if you begin by trusting your senses, then the movement can no longer dictate what is right and who you are.
Other works worth reading to illuminate how wayward a just cause can become are Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy which tracks how ideas are activated into waves on the ground, and Alfred Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, which describes the danger the first person singular poses to the ideology of a movement. It does not escape me that many of these writers would be found “problematic” (another minefield of a word) by today’s radical leftist ideology. And yet, that does not erase that they had, however accidently, preserved something for us – a roadmap in how to retain our humanity in the wake of a just cause in active motion.
Over the last four years America has been facing its original traumas, one by one: the devastation to the native population, sexism, slavery and racism; we see now the righteous, religious zeal of the morally clear missionary further empowered by a frontier maverick-ness and a religious crusade to manifest its destiny as empowered by god. These traumas have weaved themselves into our collective psyches, and no movement, no political line, is clear of their effect. In a way, this is Trump’s “gift” to us (if I am to use DiAngelo’s terminology); the orange trickster in the White House has animated our traumas. If we are to relate to them as though they are sins—demand penance, public denouncements, absolution, and the performance of being born again—then we are still caught up in the ghosts animating us, and we heal little.
I don’t have an answer to all this. We are doing this all very real time, in the vacuum of “shelter in place.” But what I clearly see is that we are alive, rattled awake from the American Dream and actively, painfully even, renegotiating it in real-time, through a cultural minefield which, like its language, is impossible to navigate alone. As someone who has ‘escaped’ a losing culture once, I can tell you there is no escape. We are stuck, together, in our national neighborhood.
This brings me back to Hannah Arendt. The main thrust of Arendt’s view of the world had no prescription for its utopia, as she understood what every fiction writer intuits, that it is impossible to write one. Instead, she asked that we love the world, and to love the world, she said, is to see it as it is, without holding on for prescriptions from history or surrendering ourselves to the psychosis of utopian ideology. “For love, although it is one of the rarest occurrences in human lives, indeed possesses an unequaled power of self-revelation and an unequaled clarity of vision for the disclosure of who, precisely because it is unconcerned to the point of total unworldliness with what the loved person may be, with his qualities and shortcomings no less than with his achievements, failings, and transgressions. Love, by reason of its passion, destroys the in-between which relates us to and separates us from others.” This is not the hippy meme of “love,” that brands itself to sell more Coca-Cola. This is a real-time adjective that, it seems to me, can join us against a single enemy, the “in-between” – the trauma that animates us.
So as I watch the upheaval of recent months I have to force myself to get into the fight, despite the threat of judgment from those who have ensconced themselves in the polarity of right and wrong. The video of George Floyd pleading for his breath as a grown man knees his neck, refusing to see the human before him; the sense of betrayal in the police force that has been sent in to keep an impossible peace in its devastated streets, as the country turns its back on the wounded warrior in blue; the terror of a sheltered country living through a pandemic and further compromised by its leaders; the protests of an individualist mob that wants its haircuts and fears economic depravity to come, as well as the protesters who fill the streets exhausted by America’s ongoing race war; my own failing idea of the American Dream and family; the two boys pummeling each other with rocks for god knows what reason; the tired mom; the powerless neighbors; the scared and isolated borderline bigot with the shotgun; the adult black man opting out from his window, paused from action by the unique consequences he faces were he to get involved in an event that summons the cops – I need to challenge myself to carry together all these images and hurts, that others tell me I can, and should, only carry apart. To love the world, is to see it as it is.
After processing with my fiancé for 20 minutes I went back outside, to see if I needed to talk with the cops and, in part, to make sure nothing violent was occurring. It was dark. I couldn’t see too well. Only two cruisers remained, and I could hear a conversation. I stopped. One of the boys was now leaning against the cruiser, out of cuffs and with a blanket over his shoulders, his exhausted mom next to him. One of the cops was across from them. A black cop.
“Now you,” the cop said, “you keep on fighting we’re gonna have to come back. You know that, right? You don’t want that. We don’t want that.”
The boy nodded. I think he was crying. The cop takes a beat.
“You play football, right?”
“Yeah,” the boy says.
I didn’t approach. I didn’t need to. I just let myself see it as it is – with no parable, metaphor, ideology, or easy conclusion.
I suppose there are circles which, writing this, or at least in the way I write it, would accuse me of racism, or at least non antiracism, which for some now equates to the same thing. But I can only write what I see, in the struggle of your language, because I came here from a place where the trust in language was lost, and with it the soul of a just cause.