The violence unfurling in Charlottesville was as predictable—though no less upsetting—as was the response, especially from instigators and their families. Of course, many white supremacists in the photos were named, fired, expressed regret (mostly regretting the ways in which they were perceived, as if that is an event absent their influence), but all of this is largely performative and functionally obscures a much deeper and more nuanced conversation and set of truths.
It was unsurprising to hear that Peter Cvjetanovic, the angry screaming racist wants us all to know he’s “not the angry racist they see in that photo.” Of course, we knew that would happen. We also could have predicted the familial response to Peter Tefft. Tefft, one of the many white men participating in the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, was identified by his family and at first glance one might be pleased with their response. His nephew said, Peter had “turned away from all of us and gone down some insane internet rabbit-hole, and turned into a crazy nazi,” while his father said his son was no longer welcomed home and that, “ “We do not know specifically where he learned these beliefs, he did not learn them at home.”
While both Teffts nephew and father denounce him and his views, which some liberals might celebrate, they both do something dangerous which illuminates the ways in which Peter was likely radicalized, and the ways in which all Whites internalize notions of White Supremacy: they distanced themselves from their neo-nazi family member, and thus distanced themselves from their own culpability.
To the parents and family of Peter Tefft, let me briefly summon the image of my own, well meaning, liberal parents. They never once, in my memory, espoused racist ideals. They never once overtly lifted up a supremacy of whiteness, at least knowingly. They too taught me that, “all men and women are created equal” and that “we must love each other all the same.”
I think, though, of the many nights as a boy that I went to sleep after watching some action film I was not old enough to see, one in which I did not have the critical lens yet to analyze, one wherein the heroes were white-almost always cops-and the villains were of course always people of color. And in my adrenaline spiked fear, I expressed to my mother or father that I could not sleep, and in their well meaning way, they rubbed my hair and said “don’t worry, the police will protect you from the bad guys.”
In that moment, in my mind, people of color became the bad guys, and white men became the great protectors of civil society, of my own body and blood. These notions were not innocent or fleeting or passively learned: they were actively cultivated, entered my mind, and then my body, and these ideas were reinforced each film, each sleepless night, each news cycle, each joke I heard from white friends and their well meaning white parents. My parents did not provide me a critical framework with which to analyze the world in terms of race and nor did they seek one for themselves until recently: they did not need it to survive or to advance. That is their failing.
Let me summon too the image of my liberal, Obama voting uncle who is as enraged as he is confused that his eldest son became a republican, a sentiment expressed the same day he questioned (in response to Ferguson) why “the blacks destroy their own neighborhood”. He cannot understand where his son learned to become a conservative. You may never have espoused blatantly racist notions to your son, my parents didn’t either. You may have had friends of color, my parents did too, but what good is any of that? My blessing, and perhaps your son’s curse (let me be so bold as to assume given that y'all are from North Dakota), is that I grew up with a diverse cohort of friends, that I had friends and the families of friends who held me accountable, who educated me not passively but through overt anti-racist lessons, and helped me erect a critical framework with which to deconstruct my understandings of the world and of race.
I wonder how many times an uncle or neighbor came over for dinner and, in the presence of your son, said something like “black people just don’t want to work, except for this new guy I hired. He’s different” or perhaps “Trayvon Martin didn’t deserve to die, but he wasn’t a saint either, he really was a thug.” Did you speak up during these times? Or, as you admit you have been these past years, were you silent? You wrote so eloquently that,
“We have been silent up until now, but now we see that this was a mistake . . . it was the silence of good people that allowed the Nazis to flourish the first time around, and it is the silence of good people that is allowing them to flourish now.”
Your silence, however, is not only that you have not spoken out against your son since his transition into blatant, overt and active racism became apparent to you, until he carried a torch through the streets of Virginia. Your silence is also everything you did not say or did not challenge before this moment, from his first uttered word until now.
Silence, is a lesson. It is a great and ardent teacher. You may have said all the “right” things to your son about love and equality, but these lessons mean nothing if they do not deconstruct power structures and history, they mean nothing in the face of what is not denounced, he learned-very clearly-much more from all that you did not say.
It is not enough that parents DON’T teach racism, parents must actively teach ANTI-RACISM. So must friends, and uncles, and aunts, nephews, and nieces and neighbors and grandparents and teachers, and strangers. We, as white people, all benefit from white supremacy, whether we are white supremacists or racial justice activists. Your son, the nazi, is propping up a world that ultimately systemically benefits you, and me, even if it is a world which is to be abhorred. We do not opt into whiteness or racism, we are constantly inside of it; we must make the decision to leave it every day, and every moment.
Unless we are EACH actively speaking and working AGAINST racism, unless we are studying our histories and demystifying the meaning placed upon our skin, and the meaning we too place upon it intentionally or not, we are pillars, we are bricks in the foundation of white supremacy’s proliferation.
It is unhelpful to disown your son, not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because what you are really disowning is the notion of your own culpability. By separating yourself from your son you are separating yourself from your responsibility as someone with a direct hand in cultivating another human’s worldview.
In an open letter, repudiating your son's beliefs, you write that his “hateful opinions are bringing hateful rhetoric to his siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews as well as his parents. Why must we be guilty by association? Again, none of his beliefs were learned at home.” Just because you did not actively teach them to him, does not mean he did not learn them at home. It does not mean you you never once turned a blind eye to his beliefs because that was more comfortable than challenging them.
Your son was born with white skin, yes, but at some point he came to understand and imagine himself to be white-no longer German or Irish or Norwegian or Italian, but white-and he was guided along into this process. You must analyze the ways in which you helped facilitate that. He came to understand himself as pure, as righteous, as productive, as heroic, as chosen, and when these are the lessons that are internalized, the lesson of “we must love everyone” is a lesson that turns to dust and means less than dust. Disowning him is not enough. He learned from your silence. You must learn from it too. And then destroy it. That is all of our errand, if we are now considered to be-or believe ourselves to be-white. Our silence, and our comfort in that silence, must be smashed.
Michael Lee is a Norwegian-American writer, performer and educator. He has received grants and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the LOFT Literary Center, & the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. He as worked as a dish washer, a farm hand, a traveling performer, and a youth counselor for teens experiencing homelessness. He recently graduated with his Ed.M from Harvard University. He lives in Minneapolis. You can help support his writing HERE.
Writer. Performer. Youth worker. Educator. What I know is eclipsed by what I don't. Working and writing for justice in all the ways I know how. Radical imagination. Deconstructing Whiteness.