And Another Thing: White Supremacist Propaganda in American Media

Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about. 

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the Capitol coup attempt, wherein a few thousand white supremacists — some with apparent dreams of murder, others acting out their perpetual juvenile resentment fantasies — acted on the orders of President Donald Trump to try and prevent the United States Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s election. Perhaps you were unfortunate enough to witness this event live, on television. If you watched CNN, you might have heard a sickened and distraught Anderson Cooper complain that these people were, after the insurrection wrapped up, headed back to lower-middle-class destinations like Olive Garden and Holiday Inn. Called out on his reflexively elitist assertion that his (mine, our) Fellow American Whites who would dare besmirch Our Sacred Traditions belong to a tackier sub-strata than Cooper or people who watch CNN, the Vanderbilt descendent (annual salary, $12 million) backtracked and claimed, “I was dissing criminality.”

First off, someone other than me is going to have to write the essay on Anderson’s use of the word “dissing." Secondly, this kind of smirking, bald lie is the exact reason why the word “gaslighting” has reached its current level of proliferation — that excuse is clearly full of shit. Since there’s no love lost on my end for the po-faced “Gravitas!” Great Men in Loafers, I really, really liked this recent article from Vulture: “Print, Frame, Hang this Imagine in the National Portrait Gallery.” Where Cooper was sickened and distraught, Black writer Jim St. Germain found one particularly entertaining aspect of the attack on Congress, namely this photo of Adam Christian Johnson stealing a podium. St. Germain’s reaction was informed by a keen critic’s eye, as well as a mental Rolodex of images to pull from for cultural context — he very neatly draws a line between Johnson’s display and the literal character Jim Crow. He also said this of the photo:

In the background, you can see an enormous painting of George Washington displayed in a pompous gold frame. That’s the America white people think we live in — a beacon of democracy, a paragon of dignity. But the photograph itself is the America Black people know. An America where ignorant white people walk off with your shit and smile about it, secure in the knowledge that nothing bad will happen to them. An America built on the theft of labor, land, and life. On Wednesday, Joe Biden insisted that the ridiculous and violent scene playing out at the Capitol was “not who we are.” Maybe that’s his truth, but it isn’t mine. 

Biden’s statement that this is “not who we are” is the same thing as Cooper “dissing” criminality — obvious untruths, told for our own white comfort. Is it any wonder that the average citizen, of any color, has trouble parsing reality from mendacity? Pompous-Gold-Frame America sells you this story: That all men are created equal, except the three-fifths humans whose labor we compel by force. Ah, but don’t worry, we are a nation of laws! That’s why we pass laws like the Indian Removal Act of 1830, legal legalities voted on by our reverent White Lawmakers who really, really wanted more White People to have land. 

Unlike Gloria Vanderbilt’s son Anderson Cooper or President-elect Joseph Biden, I’ve never had a problem reflecting on how I, a little white girl raised in America, was propagandized into white supremacy, the knowledge and certainty that this land is my land. To my mind, one of the worst things a white American can do is be a Cooper or a Biden, clutching your pearls and lying to yourself about the way your family and country raised you. Obviously it starts very, very young, and one of my earliest memories of explicitly white supremacist propaganda was reading the Little House book series.

Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie were my favorites, and the parts that stuck with me are the physical, tactile descriptions of food and clothing. Pouring maple syrup on the snow, ripping off the little pocket on your dress because you filled it with too many pebbles. That’s how a child reads. As an adult, if I’m being uncharitable, I might rename the books The Charles Ingalls "Get a Job" Challenge, but hey — why move to the East Coast and easily get work in a factory (dangerous, filled with immigrants) when you can wait for your duly elected representatives to genocide the Natives? 

Not that the Ingalls family waited: American Masters — Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page, is available to stream on PBS until Jan. 27, and it delves into the truer stories behind the Manifest Destiny 4 Kidz tales, like how the first “Little House” they built was 100 percent illegal, so maybe don’t be so scared of the Native Americans whose home you’ve decided to squat upon. (If you want a perfect example of White Womanhood weaponizing weakness to benefit her race, look no further than Caroline Ingalls. Even as a child, Ma sucked.) 

Peacock has the Little House television series available, itself a strange little entry in TV history — remember the Very Special Episode episode in which the little girl gets raped by a stranger in a clown mask? But I think the best way to approach white American history is honestly, not trying to dress it up in pompous gold frames. I was left to my own devices as a childhood reader, but a blog series posted by the Nashville Public Library a few years ago called "Tackling Racism in Children’s Books" looked at Little House on the Prairie. This calls on active participation from parents, reading with kids and stopping to explain context, or asking questions about why certain characters feel they have more rights than other characters. Yeah, it’s work. But it’s worth it. The truth always is. 

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