Robert Azzi: ‘Whitesplaining’ Americans, and what truly makes this country exceptional

For the Monitor
Published: 6/13/2021 8:00:35 AM

I am increasingly tired of white people, or non-white people seduced by their proximity to whiteness, trying to ‘whitesplain’ away the existence of systemic racism or Critical Race Theory (CRT) as some sort of insidious socialist, Marxist, communist, wokeness, leftist, BLM conspiracy to undermine an exceptional [white] America, as alien usurpers trying to dethrone God’s chosen guardians of American “excellence” and “exceptionalism.”

The message embedded in their anti-BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) screeds — and in the anti-American legislation they inspire —is racist. Opposed to anything that post-dates The Donna Reed Show and Father Knows Best and which presumes that they (white Americans) know better than people of color what the oppressed and disenfranchised have endured for generations and continue to endure.

Their message is a condescending twist on old orientalist prejudices. Not only do white people know marginalized peoples better than they know themselves, but white people know better than non-white people what people of color think, believe, need and have suffered on this land for over 400 years.

Whitesplainers, knowing that soon they’ll no longer be a majority in America, try to sustain their privilege both by insisting upon promulgating a false and exclusivist white supremacist and racist historical narrative and by trying to suppress the franchise of Americans of color.

Whether they’re successful entrepreneurs trying to preserve privilege for their children, politicians polishing their Republican bona fides or real estate brokers misappropriating MLK’s words (all occurring recently in New Hampshire newspapers) most whitesplainers share similar objectives— to suppress inquiry and truth, and the aspirations and votes of Americans who don’t look like them.

It’s abhorrent for whitesplainers, indifferent to the effects that their mendacious speech has on our health and prosperity, to attempt to speak for marginalized peoples from their privileged perspectives.

It’s equally abhorrent that a politician claim, “Excellence isn’t as encouraged or celebrated [in America] as it once was,” while praising Winston Churchill, whom he says “believed in exceptionalism,” ignoring that in 1937 Churchill said, “I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the Black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”

Churchill, an inveterate racist whose vile prejudices afflicted continents, might have been the right man for WWII but his universal values aren’t those most Americans should want to emulate.

That’s why we need Critical Race Theory, to contextualize history, contextualize the American experience.

Imagine, as one commentator did, praising as exceptional the fact that the first 12 people to walk on the moon were Americans — white American men to be exact — while ignoring the reality that an African-American, USAF pilot Edward Joseph Dwight Jr., who was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to train as the country’s first Black astronaut, was forced out of the NASA program after Kennedy’s assassination.

He later resigned, partly in response to racist comments by Astronaut Gordon Cooper, “When we find (a woman or) Negro with the right qualifications, they’ll be selected – presently no Negroes (or women) have been found to be anywhere near qualified,” that wasn’t disavowed by NASA.

That’s why we need CRT, not to elevate one people above another, which CRT does not do, but to understand the corrosive nature of systemic racism that persists to this day.

We need CRT, too, to understand that for years many of NASA’s Black female mathematicians, including Katherine Johnson, whose calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to American crewed missions, including for Cooper’s Project Mercury-Atlas 9 spaceflight, labored in segregated environments so infused with systemic racism that many couldn’t use the bathrooms in the building where they worked.

It’s so much easier to be white. It takes work and humility to be human. That’s why we need CRT.

Perhaps, for the legions of whitesplainers who believe that supremacism and exceptionalism are related, the problem is that many Americans being exceptional today aren’t white enough for them.

Exceptional is Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, a Greek-born Jew whose parents survived the Nazi ethnic cleansing of Salonica, teaming together with Turkish-born Muslims, Ugur Sahin and his wife Özlem Türeci of BioNTech, to develop the first approved COVID-19 vaccine.

Exceptional is Hamdi Ulukaya, who left his homeland due to Turkey’s oppression of its Kurdish minority, building the world’s largest yogurt factory plant (Chobani) in Idaho.

Try telling Pepsi’s CEO Indra Nooyi and Ford Motor’s Linda Zhang, who led Ford Motor’s project to develop the F-150 Lightning, an all-electric pickup, that they aren’t exceptional.

Try telling Rep. Ilhan Omar and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, two women whose lives began as refugees in Somalia and are polar opposites politically, that they aren’t exceptional.

Try telling that to Jacob deGrom, Simone Biles, Serena Williams, Patrick Mahomes, and LeBron James.

Tell Major League Baseball that it isn’t exceptional because it has over 200 players born outside the United States who represent approximately 17 countries and speak multiple languages.

Tell Gold Star families who mourn fallen warriors that their loved ones weren’t exceptional.

Whitesplainers have two options: to re-imagine their vision of America, open their hearts and minds, educate themselves to understand the experience of the other and join in the struggle for the right of every American to live exceptional lives freely, or remain complicit in the racism, denial and anger that today rends this nation.

In his farewell address, President Ronald Reagan said, “You can go to live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk or a Japanese. But anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American.”

They arrived as enslaved peoples, as huddled masses and privileged elites, as refugees, as displaced and dispossessed peoples, all yearning to be free, and they became Americans.

They are who we are.

That’s because being American is an idea, not an ethnic identity, not the privileged plantation of melanin-deprived people who, clutching their privilege, pearls, purses and pistols, fear a multicultural and diverse America no longer divided by some narrow 17th-century definition of race, but affirmatively struggling to fulfill its promise as a land where all people are created equal.

That’s who we are.

(Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. He was the 2018 Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications’ First Amendment Award winner. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com and he c an be reached at theother.azzi@gmail.com.)




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