In the classic sci-fi movie, The Matrix (1999), Morpheus offered his naïve apprentice—Neo—a tremendous choice. In one hand he held out to Neo a red pill that would afford him the truth. In the other was the blue pill that would grant him ongoing access to the mythical narrative he had known and believed all of his life.
As Neo wrestled with his choice, Morpheus leaned forward in his chair and warned him, “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
Neo was torn with this offer. Until that moment he was very comfortable with his life. His reality and understanding of the world around him made sense to him. Morpheus’s offer of the red pill and the truth it contained was disruptive and disarming. To accept it, he would have to admit that his understanding of reality was incomplete at best and downright delusional at worst. It would not only mean that his life up to that point was largely a lie, but it also meant that most of the knowledge he would learn going forward would be brand new. What if the truth he learned was ugly or incriminating? Should he expose himself to a truth that might not be as pleasant or uplifting as his false narrative?
The blue pill would allow him to wake up in his bed and believe whatever he wanted. And up until his conversation with Morpheus, believing whatever he wanted was just fine.
Popping the blue pill
For most of my life, I have had the privilege of choosing my own pill.
For many whites, a detailed history of minorities in this country is something to simply ignore. It was never featured at my predominantly white schools growing up. Black History Month wasn’t mentioned at all. Maybe you or your students have had a similar formation.
Majority culture has been afforded the luxury of commandeering their own historians and then subscribing to the words that they write. Those in places of power monopolize history – what is recorded and how it is recorded. Their victories are frequently embellished, while their failures are truncated or footnoted. The voices of the marginalized and oppressed are typically muted or given peripheral relevance unless they complement and enlarge the larger narrative of majority culture. The historical contributions of people of color are typically relegated to supplemental studies or extracurriculars.
Most whites can pop this pill every day if they want.
They can choose to get out of bed and publish or embrace the American narrative of their choosing. I grew up like this, with an overly sanitized and glorified view of my white culture and my country. My American history books were filled with heroic men and women who looked a lot like me. For the most part I was told that these individuals championed freedom, courageously pioneered a rugged land, and wrestled against tremendous adversity and prevailed. There were a few villains in the mix, but most of them were thwarted or captured. Even the American theological stalwarts were all white men. The overall narrative was glamorous.
Conversely, most of the indigenous Native Americans were caricatured as quaint but prehistoric – or savage. Hundreds of years of chattel slavery comprised only a few paragraphs of my books before the narrative quickly leapfrogged to Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. This expedited journey through one of the most heinous times in history made slavery feel like an unfortunate hiccup in the American narrative as opposed to a barbaric era that scandalized millions. Even the Reconstruction, which was a grandiose failure, was abridged and scarcely connected to any of our current racialized woes.
American history was explained to me as if I was a passenger on a Train of Progress that was racing forward with unfettered speed. Because of this historical expediency, I was able to rapidly distance myself from the sins of my ancestors until I felt almost completely indemnified. I think most whites feel this way and that’s why they act shocked when you tell them there’s a red pill.
Now I try to take the red pill every day.
For one, I believe that most of my brothers and sisters of color have rarely if ever been afforded the privilege of an alternative pill – an opportunity to believe whatever they want about their history, the American narrative, or their place in it. Secondly, the more I take the red pill, the more I actually feel liberated – despite the fact that the truth I’m learning is far heavier than the buoyancy of the embellished and myopic history I once believed.
Broadening the Narrative
Donald Miller said in his classic book, Blue Like Jazz, “The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: life is a story about me.” Narcissism and an infatuation with our own personal narrative are common to everyone. All of us have an overly keen fascination with ourselves. This flies in contrast to the instructions of Scripture to “love our neighbors as ourselves” (Mark 12:31), “to outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10), and to “in humility count others as more significant than ourselves,” (Philippians 2:3b).
One of the dangers of the American Dream, if we aren’t careful, is the collective focus on the myth that “life is really a story all about us as Americans.” Secondly, one of the uglier sides of this narrative is that the primary “us” in American history is the white narrative.
Part of helping our children learn to love their neighbors as themselves is to introduce them to the lives, histories, and contributions of the diverse people in this nation that helped – as much as anyone else – to make it what it is today. In order to do this, we will need to start taking the red pill ourselves and then joyfully give it to our posterity.
Stay tuned for The Historical Matrix of Racial Inequality: Part 2