America is Not Built on Freedom

America is not built on freedom, but on cognitive dissonance.

By men who wrote the beautiful words, “We hold these truth to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,” and yet owned other people as property.

The constitution grants all men “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” except some men are three fifths of a man.

I have a theory. I think this election has not created a lot of ugliness. I think this election has uncovered a lot of ugliness. I hear my white friends saying, “everything’s about race now.” Now? Now?! Racism did not begin when Donald Trump first talked about Mexicans being rapists. It didn’t start when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem. It’s been here all along, we just tried to stitch the wound closed in recent years with things like color-blindness and “I have an asian friend.”
Well, white people, the wound is open. We can either try furiously to close it up again, or we can debride the terribly infected tissue that’s been festering since the first time we landed here. I would posit that cognitive dissonance is more at play here than most of us realize.

In a psychologist’s office, if you come upon an area of cognitive dissonance, they may tell you there are a few ways to deal with it. Let’s agree that for most people, internal consistency is the goal.


The quickest way to accomplish that feeling of consistency, in the short term, is to disregard everything that doesn’t fit the narrative that makes you comfortable. To ignore the italics.

“She should’ve listened to the cops.” Except she did.

“He isn’t a racist. Look at this picture of him next to a smiling brown person!” Except for mountain of evidence from his own mouth that he possesses and acts on dehumanizing biases toward large groups of people.

“Well, we don’t have all the facts.” Except we have video of this from several angles and they show quite a clear picture of what happened.

“When the last thing we notice is the color of skin
And the first thing we look for is the beauty within.”

I grew up in the country. I remember this occasionally when I randomly hear a Garth Brooks song somewhere and realize that I still know all the words for some reason. With all due respect to Mr. Brooks, “color blindness” (possibly the most well-intentioned large scale effort at denial to date) is not the way forward. At the time it started being advocated for, it made sense to tell people, “Stop talking! Just stop talking because what you’re saying is awful.” But now? We really shall be free when we notice the color of skin whenever we notice it, and we are able to see that it is connected in inextricable ways to the beauty within.


Justification looks lots of different ways, and is the first line of defense when denial is challenged. It can look like externalizing or like trying to prove you’ve solved the problem.

“What am I supposed to do? I’m just one person, and this has been going on for hundreds of years.” Institutionalized racism is a system-wide problem. But systems are made up of people. “Be the change,” can be more than just a cheesy key chain slogan, if we choose to make it so. It’s a lot of work though, so don’t take it on lightly.

“I live in an integrated city and so I’ve solved racism. That city over there? That’s where racism lives.” Guess what? Living in a city where black or brown people also live doesn’t mean that you automatically ‘get it.’ The city I live in is sometimes described as a ‘liberal hotbed,’ and yet it is painfully obvious how segregated it is. What’s worse? Living in a city where everyone looks like you, or living in a city with lots of people who look all different ways, but only being in close relationship with the ones who look like you?


“I will try to learn about people who don’t look like me.” For goodness sake, google some stuff. There are plenty of really thoughtful essays written by people who don’t look like you. If you are white, please don’t make people give you a free 100-level course when they are already stressed out and grieving because they’re afraid their husband, their cousin, or their daughter is one flat tire or traffic stop away from being the next hashtag. Don’t be that guy.


Continuing to claim that American culture is built on liberty for all people equally is a refusal to confront the cognitive dissonance. I understand wanting to find a way to reduce the dissonance. I suppose I’m just looking to reduce it in a way that actually makes a difference. Maybe that’s the musician in me….I look to the dissonance as a way to move the music forward toward beauty and resolution.

America is not built on freedom, but on cognitive dissonance. And the sooner we admit that to ourselves and each other, the sooner we can begin to truly approach the freedoms we desire.


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