Most cultures have trickster figures who appear when everyone is confused, when life is in chaos, and everyone is in trouble. The West African trickster God Eshu is famous for the tricks he loves to play on people and the chaos he likes to cause. One popular story involves him wearing a hat that is black on one side and white on the other side. He finds two friends who have adjacent farms and he walks down the dividing line between their fields. Afterwards, when the two friends get to talking about the man with the hat, they begin to quarrel over what color the hat was. One insists that it was white and the other swears that it was black. Each swears he knows what he saw and they wind up calling each other blind, untruthful, even crazy.
Once they took up the opposing positions, they could do nothing but see what was wrong with the other person's point of view. Eventually Eshu appears again and chastises both former friends for being hard-headed and narrow-minded. He puts on the hat that is clearly divided into black and white and shows how it is able to instigate such intense opposition and hurtful division.
Interpretations of the story include the sense that we each see the world from our own side of the road and fail to see what others know or witness in life. Another idea points to how easily a difference of experience can lead to opposing parties and blind polarization. How easy it is to turn another person into the "other." How hard it is to keep an open mind and be willing to walk in the shoes of another person and experience life as they see it. How hard it is to have an open heart towards others if we are busy defending what we think we know, and what we blindly believe, when we literally only have one part of the story.
Of course, political parties often display exactly this type of one-sided view of the world and a willingness to polarize over almost anything that passes between them. But when someone really wishes to exploit the tendency of people to blame others for their own problems, all they have to do is come up with some version of the two-colored hat and keep turning people against each other. Donald Trump is likely not a good businessman and he's certainly not a meaningful leader. But he has learned the trick of taking the two-colored hat and tossing it into situations that are troubled in order to benefit from the chaos that ensues.
There are many versions of this old trickster story just as there are many ways in which people become tricked into turning against each other, and even into voting against their own interests. The two sides of the hat can be any two colors, they can be red and blue, as in the way people perceive the current division between red states and blue states. However, something deeper and more elemental appears when the contrasting colors are as basic and as stark as black and white.
This kind of splitting leads to overall instability and even to “borderline behavior” where people cannot integrate good and bad characteristics of themselves or others. For one side to be good, the other side of the border or the party line has to be bad. In a sense, all borders are arbitrary to some degree. And eventually, most borders generate borderline behavior.
The current troubles at the southern border of America are being intensified and exaggerated by the exploitive nature and borderline tendencies of the current president who called himself the “chaos candidate.” The problem with using chaos and division as a tactic is that real people, actual families and defenseless children, suffer the pain of being vilified, being falsely blamed and rejected. Not only that, but no one can control the results once chaos has been loosed upon the land, especially not those who think they are in charge. Typically, those who use chaos as a strategy trick themselves in the end and wind up being consumed by their own inner chaos.
When Donald Trump tells people to “go back where you came from,” he is pulling out the black and white hat to divide people against each other. The hope is that enough people will claim the mantle of whiteness, and fall into the fallacy of “white thinking” which can cast anyone deemed non-white as shadowy, unclean, and ultimately less than human. An assumption within white thinking is that people of color, and in Trump's case, especially women of color, do not really belong to this country. Under the irrational spell of white thinking, if they don't like it here, they should go back to the land they came from, even if they were born here.
A great irony occurs in the fact that so-called white people have no land of their own to return to. People who identify as white might have connections to Poland or Ireland, to Scotland or Iceland. But there is no “white land.” There is Greenland and there are the Netherlands, but there never was any white land. And there were never any actual white people. If the idea of going back to where you came from is applied to white people, they have nowhere to go back to.
Thus, the problem isn't that there are actual white people, but rather that there are people caught in the spell of white thinking. The idea of whiteness is a single-minded point of view, as in the tale of the two colored hat. The notion of people being white is only a few hundred years old. What began as a false idea has become a dangerous ideology that can spread more readily because of online platforms and the increasing uncertainty of the modern world.
Ideas like white nationalism and white supremacy derive from historical colonialism, but the roots of whiteness also arise from what can be called a fallacy of color. A tragic aberration of meaning occurs when the idea of whiteness is taken literally. This fallacy of color happens when people identified by a color become people identified with that color. When taken symbolically, white can represent all that is light and bright as well as above and beyond, making white the highest and most superior color. In a kind of cosmological trick, aspects of the color white, such as brightness, purity, and innocence become the basis of false claims of superiority for one group of people, causing other people to be cast into the shadows and be declared less than pure and therefore inferior.
Typically, we use colors as metaphors to describe feelings and attitudes that are common to all of humanity. Metaphorically, a person, regardless of their skin pigmentation can become red with anger, green with envy or blue with sorrow. Someone can be deemed the black sheep of the family, and no one expects them to appear with black skin. We know that they are not literally turning into those colors. Yet, whiteness has become systematically literalized into self-defining terms of white people, white culture, and white supremacy. The result of this fallacy of whiteness is systemic white privilege that continues to do great harm to people of all colors and hues, including those who over-identify with white thinking themselves and thereby lose their connection to the one meaningful group of people, humanity.
Psychologically, the claim of whiteness creates a kind of self-absorption and even self-absolution as it fails to acknowledge the shadow side of claiming purity and brightness for one group and casting others into the shadows, socially, economically, and even spiritually. But there is another problem with the literalizing of whiteness. As a color, white seems to absorb all other colors; as an identity it diminishes the richness of other colors and can obliterate the essential values of human diversity. And whiteness as an ideology can wipe out everything, as in a storm of self-involvement, as in a sense of self-absorption that claims to need no one else, as in tweets of self-indulgence and self-importance, intended to deny the deep internal emptiness of all who claim to be superior to others on the basis of appearance, or supposed purity of origin.
So-called “White America” holds to its claims of purity and innocence through the practice of massive denial. This includes denial of its own inner alienation and pain, for the human soul knows when it is disconnected from the souls of other people and from the Soul of the World. The rise of Donald Trump has brought to the surface the collective shadows of racism and hate that are created by, and sustained through, the false superiority of whiteness. Superiority itself is a narcissistic defense against a hidden sense of inferiority that manifests plainly in the hate and violence of white supremacists.
When Donald Trump equivocates white supremacists with those protesting racial injustice, he is whiting out the important distinctions between the ideals of protesting for greater freedom and justice for people of all shapes and shades, and the false idealization of certain people because of supposed superior traits. Unfortunately, our associations to whiteness have become fixed, and literalized in seemingly indelible ways that literally lead to oppression, violence and death, including the death of social vitality, and the loss of imagination needed to change life at a collective level.
If we go back to the tale of the trickster and the two-colored hat, we can see that the splits and divisions that arise between people inevitably come from seeing things from different positions in life. But the old wisdom tale also can reveal how the seeming supremacy of white depends upon the automatic use of oppositional thinking. The idea of us vs. them is the hat that can be pulled over each difficult issue and each troubling dilemma that arises in this world that is increasingly troubled by radical storms in nature, and poisoned atmospheres in culture.
The role of trickster figures and trickster deities and myths is ultimately to bring healing and greater consciousness to people. In a sense, they intend to trick people into waking up and reflecting upon ways in which we fall into fallacies and become willing to blame others for problems and suffering that we have contributed to. The biggest fallacy of all may be found when people forget that we all walk the Earth's surface, that we all breathe the same air, and that like it or not, that we are all in this together.
If it is exceptionalism that people want to claim for America, let it come, not from false forms of exclusion; let it come from deep places of unity and meaning. And if a slogan is needed, let it come from the poets and from the people who know what suffering means, and how exclusion works. Let it come from Langston Hughes* who wrote,
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be… Let it be the dream the dreamers dreamed – Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrant scheme That any man (or woman) be crushed by one above.
O Let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath. But opportunity is real and life is free Equality (and dignity and mutual respect) is in the air we breathe… O Let America be America again. The land that never has been yet…”
*Excerpt from “Let America Be America Again” with minor additions by Michael Meade
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