Community Four’s resident blogger Rebecca Mackinnon writes:
At the Writers’ Festival in August this year, Melbourne played host to one of the most famous American writers of the moment: Ta-Nehisi Coates, in conversation with Santilla Chingaipe. Over the course of the evening, Coates touched on his newfound fame, his unexpected white readership (‘I’ve been surprised – I am not writing for them, but I’m glad they’re listening’), writing for Black Panther and Captain America, and, of course, Donald Trump.
Coates is suddenly, almost accidentally, famous. He wrote for The Atlantic throughout the Obama Administration, and between 2008 and 2015, published two books: The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me.
It wasn’t until 2017, however, that he burst into the mainstream with We Were Eight Years In Power, a retrospective series of essays placing his work during the Obama years in the context of the impending disaster of a Trump presidency. The book takes stock of what Coates sees as a misplaced optimism: the assumption that, with the election of a black man to the highest office in the land, racism was now dead, and the country could move on.
For Coates, it is painfully, tragically apparent that Trump – or someone like him – was inevitable. Racism is too entwined with the American story to have been shed so simply. However, in what was for me one of the most striking moments of the evening, Coates made a crucial semantic distinction between the way in which this idea is usually conceptualised – as it was by Chingaipe – and how it ought to be imagined.
Chingaipe: “Do you think Donald Trump happened because of Obama?’
Coates: “No. Donald Trump happened because of the response of a significant proportion of the population to Obama having been elected.”
Chingaipe: “You mean because of his race?”
Coates: “No! People didn’t vote for Trump because of Obama’s race: it happened because of their racism.”
Coates went on to make the point that attributing blame – of any kind, to any degree – to Obama’s race is not only false but damaging. It is not that black people exist that enables the rise of a Trump (or a Wilders, or Hanson, or Anning), but the persistence of a pernicious othering of communities of colour. To allow causality to be laid at the feet of the targets of bigotry for their own victimisation, for the very fact of their existence, is unacceptable. While the narrative that ‘Obama caused Trump’ is neither new nor inherently racist, it is perhaps lazy rhetoric; we should be seeking out a more nuanced story, and one which places systemic racism at the heart of our critique.
This is a lesson we as Australians should absorb and action – racism only occurs due to narratives allowing people to place themselves above those who do not look like them. As allies, we must erode these narratives wherever we find them, particularly within our own thinking. This is a good place to start.