Any time capsule attempting to capture 2017 would definitely include an acoustic cover of “Bodak Yellow,” an American flag with a Colin Kaepernick figurine kneeling on it, a clip of the sunken-place scene from Get Out and an Apple watch, just in case someone in the future discovers a reason for it existing. But the first and most important thing that this capsule should hold is the text of Mark Lilla’s “The End of Identity Liberalism.”
Although published in November 2016, several days after Donald Trump was elected president, it managed to be both predictive of 2017 and indicative of it. It’s also perhaps still the most prominent example of a new subgenre of disclosure that was born after the election and spread into 2017, where white people attempt to explain and sympathize with other white people’s problematic political leanings without using the words “race” or “racism.”
And like Citizen Kane and other form-subverting standard-bearers before him, Lilla invented his own rules for this genre by not only ignoring the role that race plays in our cultural and political landscape but also blaming the “rhetoric of diversity”—people merely wishing that their racial and cultural differences be respected and acknowledged because, for many of us, it’s literally a lifesaving proposition—for Trump’s rise. As I said in an essay I wrote about this piece last year, he’s the “Frank Lloyd Wright of whitesplaining.”
And then what followed in 2017 was example after example of progressive and liberal white people stretching like Elastigirl to explain themselves and their cousins without indicting themselves and failing miserably, showing us their whole entire asses in the process. It was as if all of the cluelessness and obliviousness were gathered together and ground up, mixed into a stew with a generous batch of performative sobriety and then served to us on a slice of avocado toast.
Of course, we—well, most of us—didn’t need liberal white people to remind us that they’re white. This is not something we have the privilege to forget because niggas with selective amnesia get dead. But us not needing to be reminded hasn’t stopped them from trying to. It’s as if they all went to the same convention this year where they were forced to wear name tags that read, “Yeah, but I’m white, though,” and they all forgot to take them off.
Mind you, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Acknowledgment of the possession of whiteness—and all that it means—is a vital initial step in attempting to rectify America’s race-based wrongs. But what happened instead for many of these liberal whites was that this knowledge wasn’t self-determined.
It wasn’t them realizing that they’re white. It was everyone else watching them act and react and then acknowledging just how aggressively white these actions were. And then the acknowledgment of whiteness reminded these liberals and progressives that they could always slip back into the safe confines of it when convenient.
Perhaps, when Lilla’s piece is placed in the capsule, we can put it on a slice of avocado toast, too. I’m sure whoever discovers it will be hungry, and what better way to give them an accurate taste of 2017?