by Holly Fetter, ’13
My answer? It didn’t.
Twenty years ago today, cleanup efforts began throughout the ravaged cityscape of Los Angeles. For four days, masses of outraged people – primarily people of color – reacted to the unjust acquittal of the four LAPD police officers that beat Rodney King.
I was only two years old when the Riots broke out, a small girl with no memory of this tragedy. All I have is the complicated knowledge that it was the military and police officers that protected my White neighborhood from encountering the flames and violence that were engulfing other parts of the city. The L.A. Riots are a site at which I can begin to excavate my own history of privilege, begin to understand the ways that institutional privilege saved me from being one of the 53 people killed or the thousands injured. By re-visiting the living archive of this uprising, I can understand the world of racism that I inherited, a world hasn’t changed much in 20 years.
When reading about the Riots, one encounters tales of inter-ethnic struggle, of a city destroyed by its own low-income residents of color. But the assigned texts for this week’s Occupy Art lecture allowed me to reflect on the role of White folks during and after the Riots. I now understand how literally and figuratively removed we were from the chaos, viewing it from a perspective defined by superiority and distance. But we were more than eager onlookers to an entertaining – White people created it, like sadistic puppet masters. It was our collective internalized racism against Black bodies that ignited the four days of flames.
One author from LA Weekly’s “Riot Chronology” describes a particularly chilling scene of yuppie families gathering on a hillside, treating the Riots as if they were at a tennis match:
Soon carload of families discover our lot. They come in Jeep Cherokees, Range Rovers. They wear khaki shorts and Izod shirts and in their hands are mixed drinks. Someone suggests a barbecue, to laughter. One father videotapes his toddler son […] Men with bionculars point and speak authoritatively; their wives tell jokes about lost shopping opportunities.
Similarly, in Rubén Martínez’ “Riot Scenes,” the author reiterates the visual of White people as distant, removed, superior, and controlling: “White suburban LA watches from above (the aerial shots) — the black and brown are down below.”
Professor Elaine Kim shares similar experiences — she writes of the Riots, “I overheard European Americans discussing the conflict as if they were watching a dogfight or a boxing match.” She references Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern, in which the patriarchal character is never visible, though his voice is often heard gently mediating conflict between his wives. Kim writes: “He can afford to be kind and pleasant because the structure that pits his wives against each other is so firmly in place that he need never sully his hands or even raise his voice.” Later in the article, she revisits this metaphor for the White population’s role in the L.A. Riots, specifically in the relevant media coverage: “Fascination with inter-ethnic conflicts is rooted in the desire to excuse or minimize white racism by buttressing the mistaken notion that all human beings are ‘naturally racist.’” Her analysis is on point, and gives the reader insight into the structural and interpersonal ways in which White people assert their innocence while remaining entirely implicated in the crime.
Reading these performative, creative reflections on the Riots made me finally realize how constructed and artificial they were, how all this supposedly raw rage was actually a play directed and watched by White America. Instead of understanding the Riots as a war between L.A.’s disempowered ethnic communities, we have to understand the role that White people played as creators and consumers of this drama. We must revisit this history, and others like it, to acknowledge our complicity and collusion in the destruction of the city’s poorest, darkest residents.
In preparation for Angela Davis’ recent lecture, our class watched The Black Power Mixtape. I watched with profound sadness as heroin was introduced into the streets of Harlem, neutralizing the rage that had been fueling the Black Power Movement. I then wondered why many young people (and Stanford students in particular) are not visibly outraged by the racial injustice that plagues this country. What is the drug that is sedating us, making us so damn apathetic?
This pervasive belief that we are a free, liberal, and colorblind society is entirely destructive, especially for White folks who want to care about racism. The myth of multiculturalism leads us to believe that if we have one person of color in our co-op, it’s an anti-racist space. That if we have Latin@ friends, we’re immune from racism. That if we can pronounce the names of obscure Indian dishes, we’re down with the struggle. We tokenize and commodify, reducing ethnicity and culture to symbols of progressive change and equality, ignoring the deep, underlying forces of racism and xenophobia.
These are the lies of neoliberal multiculturalism that tell us all is well. White folks and people of color alike are taught to believe in these illusions, all of which keep us farther apart from each other and from the truth. We have a Black president and people of color can dress like hipsters but other than that, nothing has changed since ‘92. We’re just standing on a hill watching the city below us burn.
What is the future of Whiteness? And where will we be when the revolution comes?
Holly is a junior majoring in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity with a focus on intersectionality. Talk to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.