There is no element as scary to me as fire. Unbeknownst to anyone, even my family, I had nightmares for years about being trapped in, escaping from, and sometimes succumbing to burning buildings. I can’t be sure but have always suspected it’s because we had “ICI” stickers on our windows from the fire department and they were the last thing I saw every night before falling asleep. Fire, more than any other natural being, devastates. For a body, it burns–it leaves us raw, oozing, scarred. It can overwhelm. It is painful and sometimes lethal. I was and still am haunted by the imagery of the wildlife succumbing to or trying to escape the wildfires in Australia. Images of fires and burns, like none other, create phantom pain; just looking at them conjures up the sympathy of the pain they must have felt.
In nature, it also represents a cycle, usually a natural and necessary cycle of life. So many wildfire stories are punctuated with the reminder that a forest often either needs or responds to a burning by releasing new seeds. There are natural mechanisms built in to immediately begin restoration.
Fire in a social context can hold many meanings but when weaponized as we’ve seen it over the past week, can only be an expression of rage. In this case, it’s a necessary rage. It’s a bloodletting, a statement of the need to devastate. As so, so many have already discussed, it has to be interpreted and comprehended by those who cannot feel it to be an understandable rage. It is a fire long-burning and continuously stoked in the bellies of people who have been asked to just wait for far too long. When I think about all of the times I become “enraged” having to wait for the silliest things–an annoying phone tree at customer service, traffic on the way home from work, internet that’s too slow–the rage of feeling and knowing that the society of which you’re a part repeatedly reminds you, sometimes brazenly, that you’re not valuable can only be understood as exponentially burning exponentially hotter and brighter, with drier kindling just waiting right next to it. This is a fire that needs to burn.
I’ve often questioned most–fine, all–of my life choices. I went into unimaginable debt to get a PhD in sociology for no very solid reason except a feeling in my gut, deep down in there, that I wanted to understand. I find myself over the past week feeling steadier about that choice than ever before because, without that study when I did it, I would never be able to see this moment in history for what it is nor participate in it appropriately. What does that mean? It means I see now that the burning is not a tragedy but the first step of a necessary dismantling. It’s a physical manifestation of a plea that we will now all hear, whether we like it or not. It now must happen this way because we haven’t listened carefully enough to past, more subtler expressions of this same rage. Who’s we? Anyone who is flummoxed by the need for this rage.
Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learning and continue to learn is that, in the place I find myself in this society–white, educated, cis-gender–my role is to witness and that’s it. I can do this in many ways: stand with literally, leverage the power I control to work in solidarity to realize the change we need, use my money, influence, and platforms to educate and support. Most importantly, I can help support the narrative and call out everypoint at which white fragility, white hate, or clueless whiteness may try to subvert or shift the narrative.
This is not a moment that should be defined by whiteness. What might that look like? Pining for a return to “normal” life. Being “shocked” this is happening. Worrying about all the property destroyed. Wanting to talk about all the “good cops.” Looking for a “bright side.” Interpreting the narrative and thereby co-opting it. Suggesting “all lives matter.” The list goes on and on. This is all on the spectrum of white fragility. It’s time for us
There is room for sadness all around. We should be sad at the degree to which black people and POC feel marginalized, a depth we now should all recognize based on what we’ve seen over the past week. But now more than ever, despite any inclinations otherwise, it’s our turn to truly witness America burn. It’s the only way restoration can even remotely begin.