Lacy M. Johnson on Dismantling White Privilege

The author of ‘The Reckonings’ on fighting an unjust system

Lacy M. Johnson’s The Reckonings is a powerful essay collection that wrestles large-scale issues that include violence, mercy, revenge, justice and environmental disasters. The topics she explores are societal and polemic, uncomfortable and difficult. Her high-stakes nonfiction writing thrives with skin in the game. After a complete read, the essays demand greater examination. Johnson’s aim often isn’t to find the answers, but rather to advance the questions closer toward a course of action that might remedy both the personal and collective response to injustice, culpability and the importance of making art in the era of tyrannies.

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Johnson survived the unendurable. She was kidnapped and then raped by a man who she once loved. His intention was to kill her. I’m a survivor as well. At seven, my eldest brother, who I loved and feared, sexually assaulted me. Another time, on a hot sweltering July day, he locked me inside a car trunk. Years later he committed suicide. What may seem unendurable also has the power to make one more resilient, stronger even. Every page within The Reckonings beautifully represents the unendurable and its possibilities of strength.

In my phone interview with her, we talked about white privilege, the difference between justice and vengeance, and her process of “triangulation” to craft essays.

Yvonne Conza: The Reckonings opens with an epigraph by Djuna Barnes, Nightwood: “The unendurable is the beginning of the curve of joy.” What does her epigraph represent to your essay collection?

Lacy M. Johnson: The epigraph reminds me of something someone once told me about injustice, which is than an injustice is anything that gets between a person and their joy. That’s a broad definition, to be sure, but being forcefully and perhaps permanently separated from your capacity for joy is an unendurable experience — I know that from my own life — and I think that perhaps justice is the curve over which we bend the world or ourselves in order to make the condition of joy a possibility again.

YC: After your second book, The Other Side, was published, many readers asked you: “What do you want to have happen to him, to the man who raped and kidnapped you?” What was your answer?

LMJ: Yes, this came up a lot at readings of The Other Side. People thought I must really want terrible things to happen to him, and I don’t. I understand now where that question comes from, because it’s the primary way we understand justice in this country — you do something bad, something bad happens to you, and therefore justice — but at the time I found it just so surprising. I didn’t want to harm the man who kidnapped and raped me — a man I used to love — and vengeance didn’t seem at all like justice to me. So, then I started wondering — if that’s not justice, what is? What can be?

Around that time, I had recently completed a year of teaching writing in a pediatric cancer ward. One of the students was deteriorating really quickly and I noticed the ways her doctors and nurses attended to (and did not attend to) her pain. During the year when I watched while she was deteriorating and made to suffer in an attempt by doctors to make her well, the State of Texas executed thirteen men, and I noticed the ways these men are made to suffer by the criminal justice system in an attempt to make society well. Those two observations led me back to that question I kept getting every time I read from The Other Side. The question kept gnawing at me. It bothered me. Why are we so preoccupied with punishment? Why do we draw such pleasure — or tell ourselves we draw pleasure — from causing pain? And if I’m seeing this in my own life, in the ways others relate to my trauma, how does this question play out in other situations of injustice?

I write about that juxtaposition — a girl dying of cancer and men being executed — in “On Mercy.” It was the first essay I wrote for this collection. That essay, and the way it helped to move my question forward made me realize that I couldn’t possibly answer the question with one essay or two essays, that I would need a whole book for it, and the situations I look at in the twelve essays in The Reckonings are ones that all feel very charged to me right now. They’re very much about this current moment of, as you say, “tyrannies” — and tyrannies of various kinds. In “What We Pay,” for instance, I write about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, because while I was going to protests at BP headquarters and living near the Gulf, I kept asking, “How can vengeance be the right answer here?” And of course it’s not — because it’s at least partially our own unquenchable thirst for oil that sent the Deepwater Horizon into the Gulf in the first place — but then what is? And how do I use this situation to move the question a little bit father, to move my thinking a little bit more in the direction of an answer?

REVIEW: The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson

YC: In your book you talk about “the shut place” that you carry. Has that space inside of you changed?

LMJ: The reality is that trauma isn’t as tidy as a narrative can be. That shut space is always changing — alternately cracking open or closed tight like a trap. The last essay in The Reckonings is called “Make Way For Joy,” and it’s about the ways I’ve found to move from pain and rage — “the unendurable” — toward a place of power and strength. I do feel more capable of joy now than I did before writing The Other Side, a book which brought its own measure of healing because writing the story of the worst thing that ever happened to me reintegrated that unspeakable moment into the fabric of who I am in a way that took the negative charge out of that moment, or it took the crushing pressure off, in a way — because I had found a way to end the story I thought I would never be able to tell.

Writing The Reckonings made me realize that the best way that I can create justice for myself — in the context of that personal trauma — is to create opportunities to experience joy, and to give myself permission and space to experience it. And perhaps that is true for some of these other situations as well — even if it is hard to imagine what that looks like from this point in history. That shut place I carry inside me — a place that trauma made — that’s a work in progress, and the truth is I’m not ever going to not-carry it. But it doesn’t necessarily prevent me from feeling happy a lot in my life. I feel capable of great happiness, in fact, and find that I am able to be more present in the right here and now more often. I don’t always feel so compelled toward attending to a different time — the memories of before or the anticipation of after or ahead or behind of wherever I am supposed to be. I feel much more able to be wherever I am, and I think that that’s progress. That’s all I can ask really: for progress. Justice is a project none of us will ever finish. That’s why it’s important we do this work from a place of love — not hatred and spite, which is what vengeance asks from us — because love gives us the power we need to keep going, keep fighting, keep striving together along that curve toward joy.

YC: In the essay “Against Whiteness,” you address racism by examining white privilege. What is your hope for this essay?

LMJ: I hope this essay moves more people to listen to conversations about racial justice. I hope that it helps white folks in particular to understand that race is not something “over there,” but rather a “here” that includes and implicates us; to understand that whiteness is not a monolith and not all people experience whiteness in the same way because it isn’t natural or biological and isn’t distributed equally.

This essay in particular is my way of continuing to think critically about my own experience of white privilege, which I haven’t always experienced in the way I do now. I write about that in my first book, “Trespasses” — a memoir in prose poems about race, class, gender and the rural Midwest. There’s an essay about “class-passing” at the center of that book. I was inclined to write that essay when I realized that all of a sudden, and for the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t recognized or identified as “white trash” — a term that is, to be clear, a racial slur, and because it is a racial slur it reveals some of the ways that whiteness is a racial construction. It reveals the seams. I had learned as a teenager, for instance, that if only I could class-pass as an affluent white person my life would become so much easier: people would be more polite, would treat me with deference and respect. I could quit my job at Wal-Mart and I wouldn’t have to strip to pay my tuition. I could qualify for loans, become upwardly mobile. I had spent my whole life striving for that kind of ease and when I reached the point — and it surprised me to find myself there — where I could walk into restaurants or shops and not feel that sort of sense of you don’t actually belong here — that store security wasn’t following me —

YC: Because you were no longer being profiled as someone who was going to steal the sweater.

LMJ: Right, I’m not going to steal the sweater. I am assumed to be a good person, an upstanding citizen. I can reap the benefits of all the sorts of privileges that I did nothing to earn. I was no longer “white trash” but white. My upgraded whiteness provided opportunities, and on the one hand I enjoyed having those opportunities, but on the other hand I didn’t have a clear conscience about it. I didn’t actually feel very good at all about having access to these new or additional privileges. It didn’t seem just, or fair. And I realized that if I just went along with it and took advantage of the opportunities — which, to be clear, would be so easy — then I was making a moral choice, and it felt like the wrong one.

In “Against Whiteness,” — an essay I wrote for The Reckonings — I wanted to take that line of thinking a bit farther. I wanted to acknowledge the extent to which whiteness has been constructed for the benefit of very few people at the expense of very many people, and white folks choose — often without realizing it — to participate in that construction every day. And if we participate in that construction, I argue, maybe we can also participate in its destruction. And, more than that, we must.

Whiteness has been constructed for the benefit of very few people at the expense of very many people, and white folks choose — often without realizing it — to participate in that construction every day.

YC: How do we advance this conversation?

LMJ: Well first, we have the conversation. I consciously didn’t write a how-to essay: these are the steps for destroying whiteness: 1, 2, 3. I don’t yet know how to write that essay. But I do want to make clear that “whiteness” is a fiction — one that has real world consequences and material effects. I want to make clear that enjoying the benefits of white privilege — benefits that are generated from a system of white supremacy — is unethical and morally wrong. If we can all agree that we have a moral responsibility to, as much as possible, dismantle whiteness, white privilege, and white supremacy, I think that conversation would be the best thing to come from this essay. What does that discussion look like collectively and individually? How do we operate within a system that is unjust in just ways? Success in any unjust system is unjust — so what are the ways that we can change the system and make the system more just, even as we are dismantling our own privileges within that system?

It’s also important to acknowledge that I’m not even really saying anything new, right? People of color have been making this critique of whiteness for a really long time, and I am aware that it’s unjust that certain people will be able to hear the critique only now because it comes from my mouth. I’m hoping that this essay can pivot those folks to our elders in this fight, who have that how-to we’re looking for. The people we need to look to for answers are the folks who’ve been in this fight this all along.

Why are we so preoccupied with punishment? Why do we draw such pleasure — or tell ourselves we draw pleasure — from causing pain?

YC: This summer Mitchell S. Jackson, Eileen Myles and Camille Rankin were on a panel at the Juniper Writing Institute discussing “Literary Arts + Action” and the issue of race and diversity was discussed. The audience became vocal — brown, black and white woman and men — in agreement that white men were a problem. However, I sat there in my whiteness afraid to speak aloud that white woman are also the problem. I didn’t have a clear sense that what I was actually addressing was white privilege. My silence was aligned to the fear of having rage turn on me for acknowledging that white females like myself are participating in racism. In addition, because I lived through trauma and survived it, I understand that anger will, and rightly so, be directed at white privilege. The impact of racism is traumatic and multigenerational. For me, anger was part of my recovery. Trauma had silenced and shut me down. In reading “Against Whiteness,” I was reminded of how for a time I was blind to difficulty others experienced. Gaining a foothold and stability on my welfare and mindfulness came through various phases of needing to express anger to be heard and to be seen. Anger towards white privilege shouldn’t come as a surprise.

LMJ: I think I hear what you’re saying. We can’t stay silent. White folks have been silent too long. In April I went to the opening of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. I still haven’t collected my thoughts enough to be able to write about that, but I will say that one thing I found so very moving and brilliant was how the museum makes a legal and moral argument that shows a single, unbroken line from slavery to the present — going through the Reconstruction era, Jim Crow, lynching, the death penalty, and the mass incarceration of people of color. As Bryan Stevenson says, “slavery didn’t go away. It evolved.” The argument the museum makes relies on all manner of evidence, including photographs of racial terror lynchings — photographs that I’ve seen before and which are extremely hard to look at. They’re displayed in an interactive exhibit on a computer screen, and visitors have to choose to touch the screen to reveal the images. As I was looking at the images, I couldn’t help but look at the faces of the sometimes thousands of white people in the crowd. Many of them are looking straight into the camera. I see no remorse or any feeling at all about what they’ve done — and my only thought is that from this perspective of history they’re all equally to blame.

YC: Yes.

LMJ: Here’s what’s interesting to me about that moment in the museum. Here I am, a white woman looking at the evidence of an ongoing history of racial terror — one that continues today, and the museum makes that fact not only apparent but also irrefutable. If I walk out of the museum and do nothing, then I’m just like all of the white people in that photograph who are looking at a horrifying violence and doing nothing. If I leave and do nothing, I am complying just as they complied. I am guilty of perpetuating this history of racial terror, and of complying with that violence in the forms it takes today. (To be clear, I’m not actually personally going to leave and do nothing, but these are the options the museum seems to give its visitors.)

Or, alternately, I make the choice to join the fight for justice, in which case there are going to be a lot of people who have feelings about what I’m doing and how I’m behaving — some of whom will be angry when I say things like “whiteness is terrorism.” And I do, and they are. But that doesn’t make the statement wrong, and their anger doesn’t shake my conviction. It means we must make a moral choice to fight injustice, and we should prepare ourselves to meet resistance —

YC: And not run away from it or be afraid to have the conversation.

LMJ: Right. Beverly Tatum has offered that really great metaphor of the conveyor belt of history — like the moving sidewalk at the airport — to demonstrate how racism works. We’re all on the conveyor belt, whether we like it or not, and even if we’re doing nothing and being passive, we’re being carried along in the direction of racism. People who are Neo-Nazis — whom our illegitimate President calls “very fine people” — are actively running on the conveyor belt to advance the momentum of racism. But, if we continue with this metaphor, if you’ve ever been on one of those conveyor belts and turned around and started walking the wrong direction, people react in angry ways. They say, Hey, why are you doing that? Why are you behaving that way? Why don’t you just turn around and go with the flow? Why do you have to be a problem? And I think we see that same kind of reaction when anyone takes action against racism in this country — look at how the NFL players are treated when they kneel for the National Anthem. People boo them or boycott the team, saying, Why can’t you just play football? Why do you have to make a big deal? Why do you have to make it so political? Why don’t you just shut up and do your job?

I think white folks can expect that reaction too, and we can’t be fragile just because we’re not used to it. We should expect to meet resistance when we start working against racism, and against the white privilege that we have enjoyed. We should be ready to be met with resistance and anger. But I don’t think that’s a reason not to do it. Dismantling white supremacy should not be the exclusive burden of people of color. I think that, in fact, the anger should spur us on and make us feel more committed to the work of justice and to moving through the world with love. That said, we should never fool ourselves into thinking that we are the arbiters of racial justice, nor are we the authority on what racial justice should look like. We must come to this work with humility.

Enjoying the benefits of white privilege — benefits that are generated from a system of white supremacy — is unethical and morally wrong.

YC: Even within our exchange, I feel too precious, scared even, as though my intentions might be misconstrued as I talk about racism. The invisibleness of white privilege needs acknowledging and shattering.

LMJ: I think that’s right. I think we should feel scared, and cautious, because if we don’t have that scared feeling, then we’re probably not telling the truth, right? And if we don’t feel cautious, we’re probably not heading into precarious terrain. I’m not scared that people won’t like my essays or will say I’m a bad writer. That’s not the thing that concerns me. I worry that I will say something harmful, but that is a worry always. I don’t want to cause harm. I want to find ways to repair it. I’m cautious about what I say, but I feel pretty confident that I can talk with at least some authority about whiteness and how whiteness works, because I have experienced it in different forms over a long period of time — which is not to say that I am the authority or that I don’t have a lot to learn — I’m not suggesting that. But even though I feel confident enough to talk about whiteness, I would never pretend or presume to talk about the experience of another person, especially when that person experiences race in their body differently from how I experience it in mine. I don’t feel scared to talk about whiteness, but I try to use caution around the words that I’m choosing and the examples that I’m using — just trying to think slightly ahead of where my mouth is.

YC: Maybe the word we both are looking for is clarity — having greater clarity on the conversation.

LMJ: Yes, clarity. We should all strive for clarity. In the grand scheme of things, I should clarify that I am quite new to this work. I’ve been thinking about race critically for 15 years. I’m aware that I’m a novice in this conversation, and I try to navigate it with appropriate humility.

YC: How does your writing emerge?

LMJ: My writing always starts with a question.

YC: Really?

LMJ: Yeah, it does. I teach this method of writing essays — to follow a question rather than the force of what you want to say. For me, the idea for an essay begins when something bothers me, when I have a worry. I do research and try to learn more about the thing that is bothering me, and the knowledge works to assuage the worry, to a degree, but the writing begins when the knowledge doesn’t assuage the worry and a question forms in that gap, in that part of the worry that can’t be assuaged.

With a book like The Reckonings the overarching question is, well, if vengeance isn’t justice, what is? Or what can be justice for me? Each essay has a question that is a part of that larger question, or is adjacent to it. What can take the form of justice in an essay like “The Fallout,” for instance, where there is a landfill on fire in St. Louis that’s full of nuclear waste that was left over from the Manhattan Project, when the injustice isn’t even finished happening? How do we reckon with a crime we’re still committing? How do we heal ourselves from an addiction to destruction when we can’t stop destroying what we fear? We are addicted to war and violence, and we see the consequences that our addiction has on this community — which is just one community in a nation that has been ravaged by our obsession with killing better and faster and more destructively — not to mention how this has played out across the world, and continues to play out in the narrative we tell ourselves about our motives for carrying out this destruction, which is revealed to be false when you look even just barely under the surface.

There’s this question about justice that permeates the whole book, and then there’s a question for each essay, but I always work from a place of asking questions. And sometimes I think I arrive at an answer, or close to an answer, and sometimes all I can do is move the question a little farther along and move my understanding of the thing that worries me to a different place from where I began.

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