Once upon a time, a quarterback and a mermaid danced together at a ball. They were surrounded by kings and elves whose gowns and robes covered their ‘Make America Great Again’ shirts and hats. Outside the castle, the adoring citizens kept warm, feeding an ever-blazing fire with books about their fellow citizens; stories that threatened the magic of the ball.
And when black, brown, or LGBTQ+ citizens got too close to the walls of the castle, the gatekeepers would kidnap them and load them in airplanes to be taken far, far away.
As the clock neared midnight, the elves, kings, mermaids, and quarterbacks slumped their bodies onto each other. But everyone knew that mermaids and quarterbacks could not have children, so there was no worry among those in the castle about the consequences of sex; that was for the citizens not allowed in this fantastical world.
But of course, this is not a bedtime story, nor is it fictional. The white, patriarchal, world that the ball represents is both fantastical and based on our current reality.
While we continue to isolate the stories that barrage our political and cultural landscape from one another, they are really just a single story. In a sort of twisted logical serendipity, the fantasy world of mermaids and elves has reflected the real world of immigration, reproduction, and civil rights policy to hold a mirror up to all of us. The reflection that has been revealed is one where the lines between white fantasy and reality are being blurred while the imagined and physical borders for our own citizens are being drawn more rigidly to oppress non-whites, women, and LGBTQ+ people.
To be clear, however, there is a common origin for the barrage of stories regarding immigration, race, sexuality, and gender these past two weeks in America. That origin is the white fantasy of what the world should be and look like. The extent that the white fantasy wields power over the real world cannot be over-emphasized. The mythological narratives of Brett Favre’s career come from the same origin as the human trafficking that Governor DeSantis just engaged in while manipulating over fifty migrants onto airplanes to Martha’s Vineyard.
Understanding whiteness as a social construct is necessary, not only to welcome all races, genders, sexualities, and more into challenging it, but also to understand that it is a construct of power that acts on parts of identity that extend beyond skin color. I argue the same in The New White Nationalism in Politics and Higher Education, defining whiteness not to be about skin color, but historical oppression that continues into the present, and that benefits the very people who attempt to deny its existence. Specifically, I define it as a flexible system of control that changes over time, always ensuring that institutions, policies, and practices benefit, at minimum, white heterosexual, patriarchal elites.
Understanding whiteness as such assists us in framing the narratives we are telling about Brett Favre as directly connected to The Little Mermaid and Rings of Power controversies of blackness. They all have origin stories in the fantastical world that whites are most comfortable with: The gun-slinging southern quarterback from Mississippi provides the same comfort as a fantastical world where people of color do not exist. And while whites may accept people of color on the field of play, their politics—from John Carlos and Tommie Smith, to Muhammed Ali, to Colin Kaepernick—are certainly not welcome. Further, through a trick of memory, Carlos, Smith, Ali, and to a certain extent Kaepernick, are widely accepted as mythological heroes today—even by those who vilified them in the past. This trick of memory is one that never requires whites who marginalized civil rights activists to confront their own contribution to racism and racist narratives at the moment they are created. This same trick of memory is the sort that is attempting to erase our history of the reality of oppression and deny its existence of it in the present.
At the very origin of these and many more egregious and racist moments in our current moment is a desire of many to enact what I have called a nostalgic and fantastical version of America’s past in the current moment and so future. The New White Nationalism’s version of America is devoid of people of color and LGBTQ+ human beings, and his work is to manage the borders of his and other states accordingly.
DeSantis’ agenda, for instance, has extended to book banning in the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill. Over twenty-six states in America are engaging in some form of similar book banning. These initiatives are attempts to limit the imagination and fantasy world of future adults of what America is and could be.
Whether it is Favre having been constructed as a ‘Good-Ol’-Boy-made-good’ or America as a place where migrants do not belong, these stories are not isolated or different. No, they are the same story told through a different lens—they are the story of The New White Nationalism attempting to assert its agenda in different ways but with the same goal.
There is hope, however. If we understand the origin of all these disparate stories can be gathered up into a singular narrative, there is a singular and powerful way to fight those same narratives. Rather than attempting, as is often the case, to point out the logical flaw in criticizing a black mermaid, or the depravity in a quarterback taking money from welfare subsidies for a volleyball court, we should confront the common origin underpinning these same stories: The New White Nationalism continues to work to marginalize for its own agenda. That is the point and that is the argument.
The focus on whether or not an individual is racist or if an elf can be black is not helpful. The articulation that folks are engaging in The New White Nationalism, and those who are complacent are just as culpable as the criminals themselves—that is the point. By framing responses in this way, we can ensure that those sitting on the sidelines are confronted in ways that will prohibit their complacency if they are against racism; and also potentially a misremembering of the moment in the future.
Further, without a common response to the common white fantasy that appears each day, we continue to react to each infraction as if it is not part of the same crime. And without calling out the consumers quite happy to sit on the sidelines, we allow the complacency to wield the same power as those throwing the books in the fire.
Dr. Michael H. Gavin
Dr. Michael H. Gavin is the President of Delta College. He is the author of two books; the most recent, The New White Nationalism in Politics and Higher Education was released this summer. Known nationally for his administrative leadership that focuses on academic excellence and equity, Dr. Gavin has over twenty years of experience at large community colleges with enrollments of over 35,000 students. Prior to becoming an administrator, Dr. Gavin was a tenured professor of English at PGCC. He earned his doctorate in American Studies at the University of Maryland the same year he was promoted to full professor. Whether serving on national or local boards, working on a committee, or through his scholarship, Dr. Gavin is committed to the notion that community colleges have the capacity to reshape the inequities in society through open access to education and teaching excellence.