In her writings about Adolph Eichmann, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt spoke about the “banality of evil.” This was a new concept to me when first I read her work; I thought of people like Eichmann as the most extreme examples of white supremacy–hardly banal. But Arendt made clear to me just how “ordinary” the prejudices against Jewish people had become, and she forced me to begin considering ways in which my deepest seated prejudices evidenced themselves in small and seemingly insignificant ways. As I’ve watched America move through many decades of racist behaviors toward black Americans, I have often returned to Arendt’s thesis. Quite recently, I found the amazing collection of prose poems by Claudia Rankine entitled Citizen: An American Lyric. Poem after poem caught my breath as Rankine showed me scenes and language that illustrated how “every day” or banal can be white people’s inherent thoughts and practices that remain racist at their core. I am a white Southerner who grew up in the very bad old days in Alabama when white men like George Wallace and “Bull” Connor proclaimed from the rooftops how dangerous “Negroes” were to the established customs and beliefs of the South. But I like to think of myself as having done loads of hard anti-racist work to free me from such embedded prejudices. And on all the obvious scales of measurement, I have left such irrational and destructive attitudes behind.
But Rankine’s poems drove me deeper into responses to certain “cues” that are still lodged in my psyche. For instance, when I hear a black person speaking eloquently, I think before I can catch myself “S/he’s really articulate.” It’s the seemingly harmless adverb that belies the depth of my racist stereotyping–“really” gives me away as someone who finds such behavior unusual or surprising. Or, though I genuinely engage black people I know when I meet them in public settings, I almost never have those same people in my house for a cup of herb tea or a shared bowl of soup for lunch. I depend on our finding ourselves in the same physical space rather than taking the initiative to allow social contact. As more and more black writers are pointing out to self-styled “liberals” like me, it is in our “cultural practices” that we reveal our remaining racist attitudes. It is in the everyday choices like who is on our Facebook lists or whose phone numbers are included in our speed dial lists or what ancient pigeonholes we keep blacks in even as we vote correctly and contribute correctly and look askance on our fellow citizens who make overt racist statements .
The work Hannah Arendt or Claudia Rankine, separated by many decades as well as by race and cultural background, would ask of me is simple and extremely difficult: They would ask me to dig below all the surfaces until I find the gnarled roots that keep surfacing unbidden and that must not remain unexamined. If I can ferret out these remnants and admit that I have them, I stand some chance of removing them. If I refuse this last deprogramming exercise, I’ll continue being haunted by my Southern white ghosts. And I’ll continue to miss out on genuinely deep connections with the black people in my life.