The unsettling normalcy of White empathy.

I don’t know Steve Bannon. Word is he’s an abomination, or at least a completely unacceptable person to have deeply embedded in the White House. Where did I get this “word” though? Whose vision was I trusting as Truth to help me settle into a judgment of this distant figure? Why did I need to judge him? Why was I compelled to have an opinion of some dude who apparently was a poisonous carrier of alt-right ideology?

Steve Bannon is not “some dude.” He’s a vile anti-Semitic, sexist, racist…the list goes on. Point is: we should loathe him.

Just like that?

Just like that. Trust me. He’s a bad hombre. The nastiest of nasties.

How do you know this?

Let’s not get into epistemological deconstruction, Socrates. This is just fact. He’s an abhorrent person.

Based on what?

Have you followed Breitbart?

No. Have you?

No. I don’t need to. We both saw the headlines of shit he let get published, shit that he manipulated to be published.

Yeah. Unacceptable content.

Right. So: monster. Wait…are you trying to defend him?

No. I’m trying to understand him.

Which led you here.

Yep. Interesting piece, right?

Totally. Doesn’t change who he is though.

Of course not. People don’t read news articles to change their minds. They seek to confirm their biases.

Okay, Mr. High and Mighty. But not you, right? You read the article with deep love in your heart, with some righteous desire to UNDERSTAND. Good for you.

No, it’s not like that. But I didn’t have a real perspective on the guy, so I went in with relative openness. He’s a compelling figure.

Don’t mythologize him as some intriguing fictional character. He’s a real human being with terrifying access to real power. He can affect people’s lives, not just serve as a dramatic figure in a political drama. He’s a veritable threat to America’s already tenuous social fabric.

He’s opportunistic. Nietzschean even if you see him as simply thirsting for power.

Simply thirsting for power? How can you say that so casually? You know that power comes to one through disempowering the many, right?

That’s one way to conceive power. A very cynical way at that.

Don’t force optimism on a guy just because he’s white.

I’m not doing that, though it is interesting that he got such a fair portrait. He’s a nuanced human being in the piece. That’s a healthy dose of empathetic imagination that you really only see reserved for white people, who invariably get the great fortune of context in how they’re represented and received. Their lives are situated within generously complex narratives, not reduced to a single characteristic that is often prototypical of a particular social marker, e.g. race. We’re willing to actively scour a white person’s past to identify with whatever he, as an individual, is, whereas with “Others,” we isolate and label them with ruthless disregard for the details of upbringing, genetics, paradox. We are quick to find solace in racial congruity, i.e. that the individual is yet another paradigmatic example of historically noted group behavior. That’s power.

So you felt for this lunatic?

We get nowhere by writing him off as a lunatic. For one thing, it’s hypocritical. How can we justify yelling at people we disagree with for not seeing us as full human beings when we’re unwilling to extend the compassion we’re calling for to them?

They won’t hear us. You get to pretend like they will because you’re white. You’re used to being heard. 

American naivety is an acutely White disease.

And knowing that, you still embody it. Why?

I don’t know. I want to believe that trying to understand – seeking dialogue, being open, suspending bias – will work.

Work? To what end? In what way?

I don’t know. Do I have to know?

You have to stop worrying about knowing and start doing!

What does that mean?

I don’t know either! It sounded like the right shit to yell at you. Where were you going with this Steve Bannon thing?

Just that I don’t know what to make of him. And that because I’m White, I can afford to take a “wait and see” approach. That probably makes me a coward. In fact, it does make me a coward. I’m hiding behind reality, expecting it to be different if only I wait look enough so that when I do finally see it, it will be as I always imagined it, i.e. better than it actually is.

So you liked the piece because it served your bias of naivety?

Maybe. It allowed me to take an almost scientific interest in the guy, wherein I get to simply observe his behavior without interference. And then later intellectualize it in some clever way.

He’s just an intellectual exercise for you then? Not an actual dangerous person?

Yes. Which is a selfish, foolish way of viewing him and his ilk. It’s me basically conceding, “look, I don’t want anyone to suffer under this Trump administration, but since I have the luxury of being personally unaffected by it right now, I’m not moved to be politically proactive.”

And you assume that being reactive will be enough?

Because I’m White, I’m assuming that I won’t ever need to react. Surely things won’t get bad enough for that to be necessary.

You believe that?

Of course I don’t believe that. I’m just admitting the gross rationalization that I’m letting happen in my mind. But gross rationalization isn’t new for me. It’s not like Trump suddenly made America racist or sexist or all the terrible shit it’s always been; he just amplified it. What was I doing before to address all the injustice in our country? Effectively nothing. Talking it away; sitting on my high horse condemning it with my “educated” perspective; proclaiming that things have to change and then binge watching a new show; teaching students that social inequality and inequity are urgent problems and then surrendering responsibility for doing something about it to them; letting others take care of it while I take care of myself.

I still don’t know Steve Bannon. I still don’t know most anything, except that I’m too content with my ignorance.


  1. Ed Burnham

    Unexpected and very interesting. Nice work.

    1. Luigus (Post author)



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