What Americans Don’t Like To Admit About Themselves
Following the guilty verdict of ex-cop Derek Chauvin on April 20th, 2021 for murdering George Floyd, I found myself thinking back to 2005 about a play I was cast in when I was 19 in college.
We mounted a performance of ‘The Laramie Project’, a play written in 2000 as a documentary-style piece in response to the brutal torture and murder of a white gay male student named Matthew Shepard in a homophobic hate crime in Wyoming in 1998.
My professor and director of the play originally hailed from Wyoming and seemed to me at the time to have been deeply affected by the pure hatred and intolerance that sprang from his home state, a place he’d expressed a complicated love-hate relationship with due to it’s now infamous attitude of intolerance and hate and his own personal experiences with narrow-mindedness there growing up as somewhat of a misfit.
I was cast as the Muslim-American woman named Zubaida Ula. I learned how to wear a hijab for the role and wore it each day at rehearsal so I could get into character. At the time, America was now 5 years into it’s War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan and though I lacked the life experience, sophistication and words to express what I was absorbing and observing about how the country was changing in those years, my diary entries at the time expressed a deepening understanding of the parallels of that event and what my professor was trying to get our community to think about by mounting such a play about hatred and intolerance in America.
Zubaida Ula was a real person who lived in Laramie, Wyoming and her presence in the play is powerful for her painful observations of the country. Her monologue is worth quoting in full here:
ZUBAIDA ULA: We went to the candle vigil.
And it was so good to be with people who felt like shit. I kept feeling like I don’t deserve to feel this bad, you know? And someone got up there and said, “C’mon, guys, let’s show the world that Laramie is not this kind of a town.” But it is that kind of a town. If it wasn’t this kind of a town, why did this happen here? I mean, you what I mean, like — that’s a lie. Because it happened here. So how could it not be a town where this kind of thing happens? Like, that’s just totally — like, looking at an Escher painting and getting all confused, like, it’s just totally like circular logic like how can you even say that? We have to mourn this and we have to be sad that we live in a town, a state, a country where shit like this happens. And I’m not going to step away from that and say, “We need to show the world this didn’t happen.” I mean, these are people trying to distance themselves from this crime. But we need to own this crime. I feel.
Everyone needs to own it.
We are like this.
We ARE like this.
WE are LIKE this.
I have this vivid memory of myself standing on stage during one rehearsal in my jeans, my grandmother’s maroon leather jacket and a borrowed gold and dark blue headscarf that I wore as my costume for the role.
My professor is standing below the stage looking up at me, passionately pleading with me: “Say it like you really believe it! But, you just can’t believe that it’s true …but you want to make sure that no one escapes the fact that it IS true and they should ask themselves why they allow it to be so.”
19-year-old me wondered what that feeling would look like expressed. I really tried to convey that feeling, that truth in my acting. Sometimes I nailed it. Oftentimes I didn’t judging by the disappointment on his face.
The ‘me’ of today is looking back wondering: How could I convey that character’s complex cynical realization about our culture effectively at that time when my undue white privilege had shielded me from being burdened by the heavy truth of white America’s historical intolerance, hate, bullying and violence against perceived ‘inferior’ others? I didn’t yet know the unpleasant side of my country’s history and as a white woman I wasn’t supposed to.
I didn’t know why it is important to seek out the dust swept under the collective American rug.
It would be another year of privileged ignorance until another professor ripped off that bandage protecting my delicate white conscious perched on a the house of cards we built the country around.
He showed me how to seek out alternative historical sources in American literature written from the perspectives of white America’s ‘others’: women, immigrants, black people, indigenous people, LGBTQ people. All trying to survive and thrive despite the decisions and actions of groups of white men seeking to artificially limit them from challenging or changing their order of things.
Twenty years after that play was written about how a community responded to a senseless hate crime, a white public servant, paid for by tax-payer dollars, held his knee on a black man’s neck for 9 minutes with a cold indifference to his pleas. It was heroically recorded by a black teenage girl for all the world to see America’s original sin — it’s 400-year-old systematic human rights abuses against Black citizens.
We all know what happened next.
George Floyd’s murder, like Matthew Shepard’s, similarly sparked calls for justice and accountability for such inhumane acts of dominance and violence.
What they had in common was that they shocked a lot of white people who were unaccustomed to seeing their town, their state, their country as a culture which treats people, Black people, gay people, like their lives don’t matter. Like the townspeople in Laramie Zubaida Ula speaks of, they wanted to show the world that they weren’t really like this. But…
Zubaida Ula was right.
If America wasn’t that sort of place “where shit like this happens” then:
Why do those things happen in a place that’s ‘not like this’?
Because hurt people hurt people. The American people have been in perpetual psychic pain since it first squatted on Indigenous lands, committed the genocide of those cultures and kidnapped and tortured Africans to enrich white landowners. This nation is the ‘richest nation on Earth’ because it leveled the playing field using unforgivable violent tactics and has done everything in it’s short history to maintain this strategy even as the culture has evolved somewhat beyond these extremes.
Whether we admit that truth or reject or ignore it, that’s where our seams have come undone as a collective fabric.
America IS a place where trauma-inducing shit like this happens every.damn.day.
Yet most of white America up until this inflection point have seemed content to ignore these social emergencies because we have long-since learned to be desensitized to the suffering of others in order to continue our comfort and pleasure-obsessed way of life.
We are a people who then somehow carry on living with the collective consequences and trauma of heinous acts of torture and mass murder and state-sanctioned gun violence day after day, decade after decade, century after century as if it’s just a given that that’s how life is instead of questioning as a group why such anti-social phenomena keep occurring at alarming rates.
Our lack of empathy seems to be in our cultural DNA.
We are people who live in towns, counties, regions, states that systematically traumatize people who are female, not white, who were born somewhere else, who love and express themselves in non-traditional ways and who are trapped in a generational system of poverty because of an old colonial narrative that teaches, in order to ‘succeed’, we must dehumanize people who are seen as obstacles to enriching one’s self, one’s family, one’s group, one’s ideology to justify exploiting them.
It’s observable that we ARE like this, as Zubaida Ula so poignantly articulated.
AS my professor tried to get me to express while in character, the question really is WHY are we like this and WHY do we keep allowing it to stay this way?
Why do we pass on these values generation after generation?
Have we not observed that traumatized individuals and communities beget more traumatized individuals and communities?
Who is really benefiting from a society that is this violent and subsequently this fearful of each other?
Do we think we are immune to societal collapse?
Or do we just not care as long as we have our needs/desires/pleasures met?
Until the inevitable next social shock, may we be moved to make changes next time by first admitting that…