Kaitlyn Greenidge and Russell Banks: On the Past and Present of Protest and White Backlash
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
In this episode, Fiction/Non/Fiction co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan are joined by acclaimed fiction writer and essayist Kaitlyn Greenidge and poet and novelist Russell Banks. Greenidge challenges traditional framings of “white backlash” and argues that white privilege in the U.S. has shifted to a false narrative of victimhood. Then, Banks discusses his experiences of protest in the 1960s and 70s, highlighting similarities in the tactics of—and governmental responses to—today’s #BLM activists.
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This podcast is produced by Andrea Tudhope.
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Whitney Terrell: So, in this episode, we’re aiming to unpack the idea of white backlash against the protests following George Floyd’s murder. Polls have indicated widespread support for Black Lives Matter and those protests, including among white Americans, which has been a good thing in my view, but it seems like a lot of the so-called “backlash” we’re seeing now is something the Trump administration is definitely trying to gin up—white backlash—by sending federal troops to Portland, talking about protecting monuments at Mount Rushmore, and all of his rhetoric around that issue. I wondered if you could talk to us about whether you think that strategy is going to work? And is this’ silent majority that Trump is talking about, when he harkens back to that Nixon phrase, still a real thing?
Kaitlyn Greenidge: I think that the question of whether or not it will work is sort of a complicated one, because I think it is already working for a good segment of the white population of our country. Like the latest poll says that 50 percent of white people still back President Trump. And we are in the middle of a pandemic. We are seeing unemployment levels that supercede what we had [during] the Depression. We literally are stuck in our houses, and yet 50 percent of people are still willing to vote for this person again, and I think that really speaks to the fact that those things are working and are part of a very old current and strategy in American culture and American life, and has been a continual call in American culture and American life since Nat Turner’s rebellion, essentially. And it’s super old, and it is something that we have to be able to recognize the contours of and study the contours of, so that we know when it’s entered into the conversation, and then also study the contours of how people resisted and counter-argued against that extremely old argument in the past.
The question of the silent majority, I think that the demographic that that phrase is invoking exists, but I don’t think they’ve ever been silent. I think they’ve probably been pretty loud in the chorus of what people think America can or should be. But a key part, at least in there, that demographics’ identity of the last 50 years ago, since the 70s, is this idea that they are somehow on the defensive, that they’re somehow oppressed, which is super interesting. I think if there’s anything that is different about white supremacy in this moment than it has been in the past in American culture is that it’s very much invested in the idea of whiteness as victimhood and less sort of whiteness under attack, which are two slightly different things. The older version of white supremacy is whiteness under attack, but always triumphant. And this version is very much whiteness as a marginalized identity, somehow, in this country.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: That’s so interesting. I write mostly about Sri Lanka, where you also have a majority that thinks of itself as victims, and that analogy really had not occurred to me that we are moving more in that direction. And you recently Tweeted about framings of white backlash, and you Tweeted about it in a way that forced me to question how I had been thinking about it. I wondered if we could also begin our conversation with you reading those Tweets for us and elaborating a little bit about the paradigms that we’ve been using and maybe how we can challenge them.
KG: Sure. So I said, “The term white backlash frames those actions as inevitable and natural, as if order is being restored after Black liberation goes ‘too far.’ And while I agree that white backlash inevitably follows Black freedoms, I do not think there’s anything natural or blameless about it. What if the conversation instead was framed as ‘There’s something in the construction of whiteness that demands violent supremacy, when even the glimmer of another way of being comes through, and why is that?’“ So, I thought a lot about how I was taught about white backlash in history class growing up. I don’t even think we were allowed to attach the word “white” to it. I think it was just sort of like backlash in general. It’s often framed as sort of, “Well, what do you expect people to do? Like, this is sort of like a bridge too far.” And even for myself, I think I’ve internalized that. And I think oftentimes when we talk about the history of freedom struggles in the US for Black people, the narrative is often sort of like, “And then they did X, and that was a little bit too much for white people.” And the framing of it is sort of, “And isn’t that awful, but also sort of understandable.”
And so I think we could get a little bit farther if we rethought that impulse. I notice a lot in the summer and spring of seeing so many incidents of police brutality and white people really cruelly exercising their social supremacy over Black people. Oftentimes into those conversations comes, “Well, what was the Black person doing? Like, did they go a little bit too far and that was understood? Clearly the white person was acting in a reasonable way, even though the violence may be a little bit too far too or gone too unreasonable, but what was the Black person doing to cause it?” And I think that’s really embedded. Not only white people ask that question; some Black people ask that question. Many Black people still frame it in that way. That’s the whole place where respectability politics comes from. But if we just acted and did in the very precise confines of what will not threaten the white imagination, which was threatened by anything Blackness does, we wouldn’t be treated like this.
And we’re going on like year 250 of this argument that doesn’t seem to be true. A statistic that really struck me that I read a few years back was that the Obama administration is the only administration in like the last 40 years, I think, that didn’t have any felony convictions come out of anybody working in that administration. Unfortunately, that is a remarkable fact of American political life. So, even with a presidency, and Obama I’m not suggesting was like a wonderful, blameless president and did everything correct, but within the letter of the law, he sure did apparently. So, even in that instance of the Obamas so carefully curating their public persona and public approach for a white audience, for a white middle-class swing voter audience, and really catering to that audience in their policy, and general stance—even in that case of like the best “Good Negro” we could ever produce resulted in Trump. I just really want to push back on this idea that white backlash is somehow something that can be satiated or stopped in any sort of way, and that it’s more a function of the social construct of whiteness and what’s within that.
Whitney Terrell: I want to connect that back to that period of time in North Carolina for you. So your first collection of poetry came out in 1969. I think your first novel came out in ‘75. So, you retired in New Hampshire, but you’ve had this experience politically, and you would go on in your career to write about John Brown, to write about Haitian immigration, to write about many Black and white working class characters. And you were rare in your generation, I think, for a white writer to have as many interracial characters as you do. How did this experience of protest at North Carolina affect the writer that you were becoming? Were you aware of it affecting you as a writer at the time, or did it just happen?
Russell Banks: Not deeply. What you live ends up affecting your writing of course, and then what you write starts affecting what you live, and before you know it, there’s a circular kind of relationship between the two. And one is constantly feeding the other, and I think I was still evolving as a writer, so I wasn’t all that conscious of what was affecting my writing out of my own personal experience, but it clearly was. I was being educated in a way that I had never been educated before, and naturally within a few years that profoundly changed me and profoundly affected my work in a conscious and deliberate way from there. And then the work itself started to change me and take it further and realize both the political and the aesthetic complications that it created for me and try to devise fictional means for dealing with those complications, because they weren’t, as you noted, all that available amongst other writers of my ilk—let’s say white male writers—coming from the middle class. So I had to make it a kind of conscious operation. I think more than many writers of my generation at least, I was set on saying, “How can I deal with these crucial issues? These startling and inescapable realities that I now see around me—how can I bring this into fiction that’s still a work of art and not a piece of propaganda, or something driven solely by ideology?” So it was a very complicated and lengthy and partially unconscious process.
And only looking back I can see, “Oh yeah, I see I made that jump there and that jump there.” I thought it was writing about something else, but, in fact, that’s what I was writing about. Then there were other kinds of strands that come into it for me—accidental, some of it. In 1975, I got a Guggenheim Fellowship. I had traveled in Jamaica, and I had become really fascinated by West Indian history, the history of slavery, Afro-Caribbean history, and I took that occasion to move my family—I now had three children—to Jamaica, where I lived then for almost two years. And that too had a big impact in the middle 70s on my life and on my thinking, and then therefore on my work. Then books like the Book of Jamaica and certain short stories, and then later Continental Drift really rose out of my experience in my life there. So, this is like any human life. You’re out in the world. These forces end up at play in your imagination and before you know it, they’re on the page.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So, we’ve been talking to Kaitlyn Greenidge about the Trump administration’s attempt to manufacture a backlash against protest today. And in ‘68, Richard Nixon was promising to restore law and order after protests broke out over MLK’s assassination. In 1969, he coined the term “silent majority,” that Trump is now trying to adopt and use for his own purposes. So, I’m curious to hear you talk a little bit about what it felt like at the time to watch Nixon run that kind of campaign and win the presidency in ‘68 and ‘72 as he did?
RB: The similarities sometimes are really striking, at least how I experienced it then and how I’m experiencing it now. I remember vividly, especially in the early 70s up to the middle 70s, that my greatest concern in many ways in response to the political realities, was how to avoid descending into rage and a sense of hopelessness, both of which are kind of useless when you are trying to…
WT: I’m hoping you’re going to tell us how to do that, because that is a problem that I’ve been having.
RB: Yeah! I was having it in ‘68, ‘69, ‘70, ‘71, and so forth. You can get religion I guess, or you can go live on a commune or something like that in order to deal with it and screw down everything to a small package where you can control it and feel somewhat comforted by that. But that isn’t realistic, either. That’s just another form of escape from the realities that surround us. And so, there’s a stark similarity, which I’ve noticed a lot since 2016. This is what I’m struggling with. I’m struggling with how do I keep alive that flame of hope, which is what we had in ‘64, ‘65, ‘66, leading up to ‘68, there was still a flame of hope that you could fan and keep going. It tempered your rage and tempered your frustration and your despair in a way that I find extremely difficult to do now.
WT: But one of the things we’re kind of talking about is like that moment of hope that happened perhaps with Obama’s presidency is in some ways related to this other repressive moment that comes afterward. Did it feel the same way in in ‘68, with the successful marches and then the assassination of this person who had been so important of a leader, and then the breaking down into rioting and Nixon’s rise and all that sort of stuff? Is that a similar kind of thing?
RB: Yeah. But for me, it seems even more difficult a time now in many respects. One is the concentration of wealth and power into the hands of a very small number of families, and people, and institutions, and companies, which was not the case then. The economic differences between then and now are enormous. And the technological differences are enormous, too. They’re both simultaneously empowering and disempowering. So, I don’t know. It’s harder for me today to have the kind of hope I could generate still back in the day. I find myself bleaker today than I was then. Less hopeful and more despairing.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope and Dylan Miettinen.