Thursday, July 19, 2018

Surviving a Myth

Why is there such stubborn, irrational defense of Donald trump’s corruption, ineptitude and betrayal? Because an ancient myth that has guided the western world for centuries is being threatened by changed demographics and culture. It is the myth of the omnipotent white man taming the natural world and its colored inhabitants. He is branded an entrepreneur rather than a predator; an investor rather than a plunderer. A romancer, rather than a rapist. And his counterpart, the enlightened liberal, is the guardian of our natural world; the arbiter of justice; the protector of us, the white man’s burden. Two sides of the same coin. White men move history and roam the world. To the Right he brings development, culture and enlightenment. To the Left he wrecks exploitation and destruction.  Either way he moves history. We, colored people, may only react. 

Why was Barack Obama’s presidency such a profound threat to this myth? Because he was nuanced, thoughtful, humorous, and cultured.  He did not confine himself to one of the two prescribed stereotypes that male leaders of color are allowed – the deified martyr or the revolutionary menace. He dared to be fully human. Worse of all, the daughters and wives of old white men voted for him and admired him – the same dynamic that got countless men lynched throughout history. 

And is true that plenty of women and people of color protect this myth as well to maintain whatever advantage they have found by its well-worn rules. 

There is a pivotal scene in the 1967 film In The Heat of the Night when black big city homicide detective Virgil Tibbs, played by Sydney Poitier, returns a slap to the face by a Southern plantation owner – who, horrified by this unimaginable act of defiance, sends his men to kill Tibbs. Reportedly, Donald Trump decided to run for president when he felt publically humiliated by Barack Obama’s roast at a Washington Press Corp dinner. This was the spark that inspired a movement of old white men to ‘fight back’ and regain the world order they feared they were losing. 

But what of our new world where leaders of all levels of business, education and civil society are increasingly women and people of color? The old myth is crumbling by necessity due to the reality of demographics and time. Even we were to fully adopt an Apartheid system, these old men, the mass of trump supporters, are dying. So, clearly we must adjust our consciousness and evolve our myths to reflect our changed world. 

During my thirty plus years of working with Mexican American youth I have always encouraged them to see themselves as complete individuals, leading their own narratives. I have worked for them to see that their family cultures are not mere reactions to white oppression, but complex and connected as they have always been. Tragically, we have often contorted ourselves to fit within the great white myth.  But the myth was always a lie. And now, in its death throes, we see the lie on a massive, absurd, and dangerous scale. It is our urgent duty to bury it. 

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