By Anna Prouty
In Ferguson, they’re spraying protesters with tear gas. In Ferguson, they’re forcing the journalists out of the streets, telling them to turn off their cameras and arresting them. In Ferguson, they have SWAT teams with guns trained on peaceful protesters. In Ferguson, they shot an unarmed black boy.
In 28 hours, somewhere in America, a cop or vigilante will shoot another black man. Then another. And another.
I would like to say I can’t believe this is happening in my country, but my country isn’t a place I recognize anymore.
I’m not sure when I was first indoctrinated into America. I spent my childhood saying the Pledge of Allegiance and learning about democracy. You know, Founding Fathers, representation, revolution. The country they taught us about was a utopia of individual rights and freedom, but that word – utopia – was never used. They replaced it with America. It’s like they slipped it into our food: America equals democracy, equals freedom, equals opportunity, equals righteousness.
I spent my childhood building up this pathos of the utopian America, and I’ve spent every year since unraveling it. From the 2000 presidential election, which taught me even a majority of the country doesn’t get a voice in choosing its leader, to 9/11, which taught me that American ideals no longer apply to Arabs, to the wars that followed it, which showed me how easily the American pathos could be invoked. You can plaster it over even the most atrocious war crimes. Call it in service of democracy, or freedom, or America.
It wasn’t until I went to college in New York that I understood (as well as a white person can) what white privilege was. My America had always come with cut-out posters of children in every shade of Crayola beige and brown holding hands, usually around a construction paper globe. My America didn’t come with that world divided: The white hands get life, the black hands get killed. The white hands get liberty, the black hands get mass incarceration. The white hands get the pursuit of happiness, the black hands get the pursuit of justice in a country that so appallingly calls itself post-racial.
Kiss your pathos goodbye and welcome yourself to the new normal.
Not that any of this is new. For many people, the pathos never stuck because the conflicting reality was always so present. But for white people who genuinely believed in America the Utopia, talking about Troy Davis and Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown is new.
Ferguson has woken up this country’s white folk. For seemingly the first time, the population who grew up suckled in the American Kool-Aid is realizing that isn’t the world we live in. We’re seeing the difference between America, the nation Super Hero we grew up deifying, and this place. This isn’t America the way it was taught to us.
You see so many white people holding onto the myth and wanting it to be a reality so much so they become the very ones destroying it. The people defending Darren Wilson and George Zimmerman, defending the police and the prison system, these are the people who should be out on the front lines in Ferguson.
Admittedly, many of these people are probably just racists, or they watch Fox News. But I think for many, perhaps a majority, they have to find a way to hate Michael Brown because they’re patriotic. Black men don’t die by unnecessary systemic racist violence in the America they believe they live in. The killing of black men must be justified, because if it isn’t they’ll lose America.
The myth of America doesn’t fit the facts, so the facts must be wrong. They believe in their country so strongly that it’s become a delusion.
I don’t condone this denial of the American myth, or excuse the horrors such denial perpetuates, but I can try to understand it. It’s akin to growing up a devout Christian and one day experiencing something that destroys your faith in God. When your whole world has been built on an idea, and you learn that idea isn’t true, it shatters you. On a personal level, it’s incredibly damaging, and incredibly painful.
For me, the process of unraveling the myth of America has been at times excruciating, but I’m still glad to have been indoctrinated. I’m glad to have been raised to believe in America, and I’m glad to have discovered America is a lie.
I don’t think this makes me unpatriotic – in fact, quite the opposite. It’s allowed me to be a true patriot.
Anyone who accepts the state of affairs in this country — police brutality, mass incarceration, systemic racism, tyranny of the 1% and the steady disenfranchisement of the masses, policing of women’s bodies, imperialist resource wars, environmental degradation, corporate control of everything and the end of the middle class – these are the truly unpatriotic. These are the people keeping America a lie.
It’s hard to believe that Ferguson could happen in America. But I know now that the pathos of America is just a myth.
And yet – I still believe it.
I believe that a utopian America is possible. It exists in every protest, in every hashtag, in every article shared on Facebook. We are building it.
The first step is to look at the country we live in and we see it for what it is. But we the indoctrinated people still believe in the American pathos, and so we fight for it. Because freedom and democracy is all we have ever known, even if it has never existed.
Even when Americans act as racists, sexists, corporate drones, homophobes and lynch mobs, those of us who grew up addicted to the American pathos know this is not what it means to be American. Even though there has never been a single point in history when America was truly America. Even though the utopian myth has always been a myth. What it means to be American is to believe in it like it’s a reality. Not one that exists, but one that is possible.
You remember this, right?
“When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Right there, from 1776, to now: To be American is to see injustice and revolt against it. It means acknowledging Ferguson and fighting until our country stops being a place where Ferguson could happen. It means saying: Police brutality ends here. Institutionalized racism ends here. The New Jim Crow ends here. And instead saying: Here is where democracy begins. Here is where equality begins. Here is where freedom begins. Here is where America begins.
Editor Note: The original submission has been slightly edited for length and clarity.