The first time a white man punches my brother in the face, he’s at a red light. It’s the early 2000s in Providence, Rhode Island, our hometown. A man comes up to the window, strikes him, and walks away. My brother, stunned, can’t leave his car.
The second time, I’m visiting my brother in Kentucky, where he moved to be with his partner and their newborn son. He’s been having a rough year. He started out in Los Angeles selling insurance to Latino small business owners. Kentucky is a harder place for him as a tall, broad-shouldered brown man. Why would I give my information to you? he hears.
I want to cheer him up. I visit around his birthday, which coincides with the week of his office party. Afterwards, he and I go to a bar playing ‘90s hip hop. As we dance, a white man walks by. He punches my brother in the face.
I see my brother knocked backwards, hear his head hit the ground.
Earlier, in the Muhammad Ali museum in downtown Louisville, looking out a window at the Ohio River, my brother reminds me of the time when we were kids and he fell asleep on an inflatable donut in the ocean. When he woke up, he was far from shore. My mom and I saw him, but she couldn’t swim. I ran into the water and swam until I reached him. I had forgotten this memory until he tells it. I remember how my arms ached.
He’s getting up. Slowly.
I’m sobbing. We are rushed outside by security. A young white police officer gets frustrated as we try to describe the assailant. It happened so fast; we don’t know exactly what he looks like. We plead with the officer to question those still in the bar. He snaps his notepad shut, calling over his commanding officer.
If you go to shady places, you can expect shady things to happen, the superior says. My brother is bleeding from his face and I’m shouting: This is Why People of Color Do Not Trust the Police. My brother is yelling now, too. The commander arrests him. My brother spends the night in jail on charges of disorderly conduct.
When he gets out the next morning, his face is swollen. His medical treatment has been ibuprofen and a cotton swab . He has a loose tooth and a split lip. He tears up and asks me if he did something to provoke that guy. I cry and say no. He came out of nowhere.
We never find out who or why.
A month before, a new president had been elected, promising a return to greatness and a wall around it.
“Please don’t get upset,” she said. “But when I go to my neighborhood park, it’s all Mexicans now. And I don’t want to feel like I’m in Little Mexico.”
I was confused at my friend’s words as we had dinner and drank wine in my apartment in Los Angeles. She is a white friend from high school in Rhode Island who moved to California for college.
She studied abroad in Brazil. Went to Mexico regularly for spring break. Including me, all her bridesmaids except her sister-in-law had been Latinas. She worked as a nurse and once told me she appreciated how the Latino families visited their loved ones in the hospital the most.
She and her husband had two kids and bought a house in Orange County on a street with the kind of lawns and wide streets that made me think of the movies.
Taking a sip, she waited for me to respond.
“What are you afraid of?” I asked.
Demographic projections that the United States will be majority minority by the middle of the twenty-first century have sparked fearful responses among voters and racial extremists. Social scientists have found that in response to such forecasts, some Americans are more likely to support conservative socioeconomic policies, believing their place in the social hierarchy might be at risk. Studies have also found that news outlets and media platforms can “activate whiteness,” prompting a reactive racial identity.
A 2018 National Geographic article—part of its “Race” issue—is titled “As America Changes, Some Anxious Whites Feel Left Behind.” It quotes white people fearful that their Pennsylvania town is becoming majority Latino.
A bartender remarks, “We joke about it and say we are in the minority now…. They took over the city. We joke about it all the time, but it’s more than a joke.” A coffee shop owner says she avoids certain areas now because they are “too scary.” But she feels reassured that things will change because “we have one of us in that White House… We are going to make America great again.”
In addition to these folks, the article quotes an English professor from another state who expresses his begrudging acceptance of the demographic changes:
In the 20th century, the white man was the best deal that anybody ever had in the history of the planet. I mean, in America you could feel like you were at the center of everything. You didn’t have to justify yourself… People of Color are moving into the mainstream now; “White” is no longer the default setting for “American.” And though it’s clear that this process is inevitable—it’s just a matter of numbers and demographics—a lot of the time, to be honest, I’m sad about it. The country is changing in ways that aren’t very good for me, and I’ve got no choice but to adapt.
These responses, ranging from anger to reluctance, nervousness to nostalgia, indicate that demographobia, which anthropologist Sami Alim has defined as “the irrational fear of changing demographics,” gets expressed through an array of emotions and from people across class and education.
To me, it’s not irrational to fear change.
It’s irrational to think the change would be a negative one.
The fear of changing demographics is not new. There’s always been a fear of cultural and racial change, and attempts to preserve existing hierarchies.
There’s too many… Germans… Irish… Chinese… Mexicans… Muslims… Haitians! You will not replace us!
The task of right-wing populism, Corey Robin explains, is to “harness the energy of the mass in order to reinforce or restore the power of elites.” It speaks in the voice of the outsider, “to and for people who have lost something, whose aim is recovery and restoration.” Fearing an upset to the status quo, conservatives use the language of empowered victims. As an ideology of reaction, conservatism was marshaled against the French Revolution, for example, and in the United States more recently, in response to the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
The end of de jure segregation in this country led to seismic cultural and economic shifts, an opening up and a retrenchment. Admittance to workplaces and institutions of higher education has occurred for non-whites in unprecedented numbers. Yet a restructuring of the tax system also enabled wealth to balloon upwards. The opening of quotas in the 1965 Immigration Act allowed greater immigration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the post-1970s period, however, more of the social safety net has been cut for everyone except those at the top.
For some, there’s the sense of a grave loss, the end of an era in which whiteness was a winning lottery ticket. As Claudia Rankine writes in her 2016 poem “Sound and Fury”:
In the old days white included a life, even without luck
or chance of birth. The scaffolding had rungs
and legacy and the myth of meritocracy fixed in white.
“White is living its brick-and-mortar loss,” she goes on, addressing a vulnerability intensified by the economic state of
foreclosure vanished pensions school systems
in disrepair free trade rising unemployment unpaid
medical bills school debt car debt debt debt.
The poem presents “white” as an identity, a set of expectations, a structure, a color, a state of being, and an actual being. The personification continues as white can no longer distance itself from the “day’s touch.” Increasingly aggrieved, white hardens its eyes, jaws, hands. Unable to see its own oppressiveness even in the daylight, white is unable or unwilling to “strike its own structure,” instead doubling down on supremacist rage.
A 2019 Pew Research Center report finds that a majority of Americans are pessimistic about the future.
Among people’s fears are widening wealth inequality, automation, and terrorism. When it comes to the issue of changing demographics, the report finds that “42% say this shift will be neither good nor bad for the country, while 35% believe a majority-minority population will be a good thing, and 23% say it will be bad.” However, responses vary by race and ethnicity: “nearly half of whites (46%) but only a quarter of Hispanics and 18% of Blacks say a majority-minority country would weaken American customs and values.”
Nearly half of whites.
What happens to that pessimism, that fear, that resentment? How many walls, cages, bans are required to soothe, allay, appease? When white men issue cries that whiteness lies in precarious balance, in danger of extinction, that white people will experience genocide, will be replaced.
Will this lead to more violence and preemptive measures, gerrymandering and policing and detaining and underpaying and controlling everything from algorithms to wombs?
My friend revealed that she didn’t feel comfortable with so many Mexicans (they might not even have been Mexican) in the park near her house because she thought they were judging her. Her three-year-old son was exhibiting behavioral problems, would hit other kids at birthday parties and throw tantrums on the playground. She felt the park-goers were staring at her, silently calling her a bad mother for not being able to control him.
I love this friend, and ultimately, she came to see that she was making assumptions based on her own fears. But I know projections like this are being made, softly, loudly, explosively, all over.
I saw the movie Manchester by the Sea when it came out in 2016. Starring Casey Affleck, the film follows one man’s emotional journey after suffering a grievous loss. After getting drunk and high one night, he leaves the fireplace burning while he walks to a minimart for beer. The house burns down with his two children inside. His marriage collapses and he ends up alone in a one-room apartment, working as a janitor. The first time I saw Manchester by the Sea, I cried. The second time, I cried again. Its portrayal of trauma and the inability to cope made me think of all the people I knew who would never acknowledge a need for help, let alone ask for it or accept it.
Once called the “Walt Whitman of advice columnists,” Cary Tennis wrote the “Since You Asked” column for Salon from 2001 to 2013. In one letter, he was asked how to help a friend struggling with alcoholism. As someone who had battled alcoholism and depression himself, Tennis responded that people have different thresholds for pain, and some people are willing to die before they ask for relief.
I thought about a much-loved friend who took her own life, leaving us, without a note, without an answer to the question we will always ask.
Pain had become enough of a reason not to stay, Audre Lorde understood.
When I read Tennis’s letter years ago, it was the first time I encountered the idea that rather than be tougher, to withstand more, one could pinpoint and lower one’s threshold for pain.
Affleck’s character is unable to process his emotions. He is so bottled up that, in two separate bar scenes, he starts hitting people left and right. I first watched the film several months after the assault on my brother. This film asks us to sympathize with a man who could just throw punches in a public place without any repercussions.
Media socializes us to how much White Feelings Matter: white tears, white fragility, white rage.
I think of all the people like my brother who could never express their feelings publicly. Futures would be arrested, pain compounding in a human cage.
When my brother was in high school, we were sitting in his car, waiting for fast food. I made a joke about how ugly he was, low-hanging sibling fruit. He punched me in the face.
I covered myself. I didn’t know you were that insecure!
Maybe I am!
What could I say to that? We had both grown up in the same place and time, ideas about love and attention hitting us harder than our parents ever could.
We learned early on in Catholic school to sit with our hands clasped. If we sat quietly, teachers would think that we were good. We could go to recess more quickly or get dismissed and go home. My brother and I still do that when we sit, as passengers, in an audience, while waiting, our hands clasping by default. Keeping everything inside until we can’t.
When I remind my brother that he hit me, he denies it ever happened.
Americans in love with the fantasy of a racial democracy must live with a perpetual forgetting. Must forget that every white star on that flag is a marker of land taken, people displaced. That the United States still has colonies and people who bond over bondage, then and now. That we love redemption stories, as if treaties were honored, proclamations led to full emancipation, or past wrongs could be remedied with holidays, month-long programming, representation over redistribution.
Karen Tei Yamashita writes in her novel I Hotel: “A group could act as a single fist or as an open handshake.”
Many of us don’t know if we will be struck or shaken by American love.
“We are a dark people,” my father told me, “and your mother was so light.”
This was his answer when I asked what attracted him to my mom, who he first met when they were both teens living in the same pueblo in the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico. A place, like many others, where people have nicknames like Guëra, India, Negra. Hierarchies and intimacies intertwined to preserve power long after the era of colonists and missions.
In my twenties, I dated a guy whose family nickname was Feo, meant as an endearment, though he never felt endeared to anyone, let alone loved as the darkest one in his family.
He was the first man outside my family I had seen cry.
Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about, he had heard, as did so many of us.
When embattled history and banned books signal an investment in amnesia—in the willful not knowing of why so many live with inherited pain, strike out, or are on the move—how can we honestly discuss past and present links between systems of power?
Colonization set in motion the class dynamics and political circumstances that would ultimately lead the global south to migrate to the global north. After centuries of extraction, uneven development, and political destabilization, millions on the margin headed toward the center.
Capitalism set in motion the class dynamics and political circumstances that would ultimately lead climate refugees to migrate to…
When I moved to Los Angeles, a stop in my own migration, I Googled my new neighborhood and came across a Twitter page for Koreatown. “It’s a misnomer,” the profile said. “We’re all Latino.”
I don’t know who made that Twitter page. In my experience, the community remains Korean but is very diverse over all. You can eat at Korean BBQ restaurants where you cook your own meat on the grill in front of you. Or you can find places that sell poke bowls or veggie burgers with tater tots. Vendedores on the street corners sell tlayudas, pupusas, tacos. Boba and artisanal coffee shops sit next to panaderias where you can get 50 cent coffee in a Styrofoam cup. There are karaoke bars and at least one speakeasy, which puts its passwords out on social media. Bars that play banda and cumbia. There are huge malls with grocery markets, furniture stores, spas, while down the street, discount stores sell everything from cooking utensils to makeup to party supplies. Folks in suits walk next to students and laborers. High rises and million dollar homes sit alongside homeless encampments.
Every day, I pass men and women hauling groceries or pushing carts filled with jugs of water. Water stores abound in Koreatown. On my way home, I pass Asian and Central American women carrying umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun.
After growing up in New England, Los Angeles is the first place I’ve lived where I haven’t felt wrong.
At the same time, living in this neighborhood and having my water delivered by a company, I wonder: Am I a gentrifier?
I also wonder why we are all buying our water.
Recently, I taught a graduate seminar on “Race and the Novel.” One of the questions we explored was whether it was possible to decolonize the novel, which is traditionally regarded as a European narrative form. We read authors including D’Arcy McNickle, Gayl Jones, and Daniel José Older.
One of the student evaluations I received made me fearful. A student accused me of asking about sex until he snapped, of allowing other members of the class to harass him with insults and accusations of racism, of filing complaints against him with the university. He said I was a good teacher until these things started to happen. He believed I had been enlisted by interest groups outside of the university.
None of this happened. I suspected the comment came from a person who identified as a literary conservative. He wanted to study Anglo-Saxon culture and was protective of the canon. I wondered why he had signed up for class. He was mostly quiet, and because we switched to Zoom midway through the semester due to the pandemic, we only met in person a few times.
I sensed I was an outlet for anger that was not about me. When I talked to department administrators about these comments, I learned he had withdrawn from the program.
I didn’t feel less afraid.
But you’re white, my mom has told me.
You’re white presenting, a Latino friend has said.
Both say it with amused insistence, wondering why I am so angry at racial violence, when, to them, I haven’t been harmed.
If whiteness offers so much, “a public and psychological wage,” as W.E.B. Du Bois put it, why would white people give it up?
What would they gain?
“Solidarity dividends,” argues Heather McGhee: a way out of the zero-sum game while offering widespread gains. A way to stop hurting everyone by preventing the draining of the pool of public resources.
Would that be possible?
If not, whether swinging the fists or struck by them, everyone stands guard. Fear makes people want to protect their own small box of goods and gains, so concerned at preserving what they have that they don’t ask who made the box or why.
They also don’t ask why the box contains and is contained by enclosures such as Man and Woman, Queer and Straight.
Or why intimacy is difficult in and across the boxes.
White supremacy distracts, distorts.
It makes people think others need to be knocked down or kept out, foreclosing a future that could be expansive and shared.
I’ve tried to talk to my brother about what happened and he doesn’t respond.
More and more people are listening to what’s been hard to speak and hear.
I’ve been listening to what people say about trauma. Studies reveal that it’s embodied; even if the mind forgets, the body does not. Trauma affects one’s worldview and informs our narratives. It makes people hypervigilant, defensive, and fearful of what’s coming next.
Catalysts of traumatic effects.
A 2022 Vox article notes that trauma is the keyword of the decade. More people than ever are searching for ways to understand it, in all its various forms. Collective trauma, historical trauma, intergenerational trauma. The article cites researchers who worry the term has become a catch-all, applied to events that aren’t necessarily traumatic, leaving people to believe they have no agency.
Yet, if trauma represents a framework for understanding, the rise in people searching for the language to describe it signals agency to me.
It suggests a route to the oppositional, an impulse to historicize. To learn and unlearn, to storytell, to make sense of what happened then, now.
To ask: why are we so stuck, afraid, and is there another way to be?