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Illustration for article titled It Is What It Is
Screenshot: HBO

Tommy expected applause.

Even though it was just a first draft, Tommy thought it was brilliant. Before reading his new piece of writing aloud to his captive audience, he believed his eloquent breakup letter could possibly change the future of everyone he knew. Of course, he also knew that he was smarter than all of the Black servants he convened to hear him read his new political document, so he understood the confused looks. He was nervous about how his letter would be received but he still couldn’t understand why they weren’t clapping.

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Tommy noticed nearly everyone in the assembled audience stealing furtive, questioning glances at Sally, knowing she was the absolute favorite of the people Tommy called “his Blacks.” Sally raised her hand, asking for permission to speak.

“When you say ‘all men’ does that include women,” Sally asked.

“It is meant to encompass all human beings,” Tommy responded, confident in his brilliance.

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“So, do you consider Black people to be human?”

“Of course,” Tommy explained. “My argument is an extension of the philosophy of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, who believed that it is the natural state of man, as he said, ‘to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say…’

“Yeah, yeah, I get all that,” interrupted Sally as the others shook their heads in affirmation. “So does that mean we are free?”

“Not quite. What I was trying to say is...” Thomas began before Sally interrupted him again.

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“Does it mean I can say no when you drag me out of the basement tonight?” Sally asked.

“Oh, hell no!” Tommy yelled as the others murmured among themselves. “First of all, I am the master; you are the slave. Secondly, what do you mean ‘drag?’ You come to my bed because you love me, right? I know you don’t have a choice in the matter because you can’t say no but I wouldn’t call it ‘dragging. I wish there was a phrase for that.”

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“Nigga please,” erupted Sally, to the shock and delight of her fellow enslaved Africans. “First off, the creator ain’t endowed you with very much at all. Secondly, you just said: ‘All men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with the right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ So how you gon’ tell me I can’t say ‘no?’ Either you’re being a hypocrite or you think white people are superior to Black people. I wish there was a phrase for that.”

The awkward silence wafted through the warm Virginia night and pressed against the walls of the slave quarters as Tommy’s all-Black audience waited for a reply. Frazzled, Tommy glanced around the room where he had gathered a select few of his more than 100 enslaved Africans to test the reaction to his new writing before sharing it with his fellow aristocrats. He placed his declaration on the podium, paused for a second and—bereft of words, a reasonable reply or any legitimate argument to contradict the impeccable logic Sally had obviously absorbed from him—Tommy improvised a response on the spot.

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“Well, Sally,” Tommy began, before condensing the callous haughtiness of a slave master, a rapist and political genius into five words. On July 3, 1776, Thomas Jefferson responded to the critique of Sally Hemings, his human sex slave, by offering the only excuse he could muster:

“It is what it is.”

Donald Trump expected applause.

Privileged men always do.

As the country under his control closes in on 5 million infections and 157,000 deaths, Trump sat down for an interview with Axios’ Jonathan Swan (No relation to T.J. or “Black”) that aired on HBO. Trump appeared to assume Swan would congratulate him for bungling the worst American pandemic since Ashton Kutcher infected the country with the trucker hat outbreak in the early 2000s. But, when confronted about COVID-19’s rising infections and death toll, Trump seemed frazzled that Swan (no relation to the lake) didn’t just swallow the president’s dim-witted explanation like the fair and balanced journalists at Fox News.

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To acquit himself, in this specific case, the president didn’t pull out a bald-faced lie. After declaring that he was handling the pandemic very well, Trump instead pulled out a few charts that were apparently printed on the presidential inkjet printer because he obviously can’t be bothered with actually studying and memorizing the data on what has literally become the most important issue in the world.

CNN reports:

“I’ve gone to your rallies. I’ve talked to your people. They love you. They listen to you. They listen to every word you say. They hang on your every word,” Swan said. “And so when they hear you say, ‘everything’s under control. Don’t worry about wearing masks,’ I mean, these are people — many of them are older people.”

“Well, what’s your definition of control?” Trump replied, adding: “I think it’s under control.”

“How? A thousand Americans are dying a day,” Swan said.

“They are dying. That’s true. And you — it is what it is,” Trump said emphatically. “But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it.”

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“It is what it is.”

Dictionary.com says the phrase first appeared in a 1949 article in the Nebraska State Journal and came into popularity around the early 2000s, which is, coincidentally, smack dab in the middle of the trucker hat craze (I’m not accusing Kutcher of anything. I’m just saying). But, as a professional translator of Blackanese, I contend that “It is what it is” is white people’s version of a phrase created in 1936 by beloved mother and usher board member Viola Rosa Johnson. When asked by her son, Lamont, why he had to take off his school clothes before he went outside, Viola created the precursor to “it is what it is” long before that white man from Nebraska when she answered:

“Because I said so.”

The phrase later evolved into a simpler form—“because ” and, eventually, “cuz”—before white people elongated it to a five-word collection of mouth sounds. However, this is not the first time Trump has shrugged off human death with the hollow phrase “it is what it is” as a reply to questions about the coronavirus.

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This vapid display of dimwittery is not Trump’s response to the problem that has killed more Americans in six months than the entire global conflict that was once referred to as “the Great War.” (More than 156,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 since Feb. 6. 116,516 Americans died in World War I.) “It is what it is” wasn’t just Trump’s riposte to U.S. intelligence reports that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia: “It is what it is” is Trump’s response to everything. 

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Immediately after he became president, he claimed the biggest electoral landslide in American history, the biggest inauguration crowd and that voters had illegally cast ballots for Hilary Clinton, until he had to admit that his electoral math was actually not what “it is.” He denied that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections to help him. When confronted with evidence to the contrary, Trump’s only retort to foreign actors manipulating the American democracy, was, in essence, “It is what it is.”

Trump insisted there was no quid pro quo during a phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, which eventually led to his impeachment. During his impeachment trial, Trump conceded that he made the call. He didn’t even try to argue that he wasn’t caught soliciting foreign interference in a U.S election for the second time. Instead, he insisted that the allegations may have been true, but they didn’t warrant him being removed from office. His entire legal defense was essentially a version of: “It is what it is”

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Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Liana Gabora explained that she assumed the phrase was “an indication that the speaker is letting the thing exist in all its rich uniqueness without having to categorize it or analyze it.”

The increased use of the phrase,” Gabora wrote “seemed to be a sign that people are increasingly comfortable with ‘states of potentiality,’ which are states that could ‘collapse’ to different actual states depending on the context” before she eventually concluded that: “[i]n some contexts, it can indicate acceptance of complexity and ambiguity. In other contexts, it can indicate acceptance of limitations. It’s a phrase that may well have yet other shades or meaning, or be evolving new shades of meaning.”

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I don’t know what the fuck she is talking about. But then again, neither did a certain psychology professor from the University of British Columbia named Liane Gabora.

To be clear, “it is what it is” is not an answer. It’s not an empty response or an insincere deflection. It’s not even a lie.

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The oft-used phrase is just a collection of sounds that come out of a person’s mouth when he or she doesn’t have a logical answer to a valid question. Anyone who says “it is what it is” is not smart enough to refute an assertion or guilty of the thing for which they are being accused. It explains everything and nothing at the same time, which is why “it is what it is” may also be the most American sentence of all time.

How could a man proclaim “all men are created equal” while owning other men? Why is Terry Crews like this? How can racism still exist if every white person claims they aren’t racist? If numbers were invented to count things, why are there imaginary numbers? If America was created to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” then why are police like this? Why is Post Malone? How can people vote for a racist as President of the United States and still say America is not racist?

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“It is what it is” are not just empty words used by our dotard president to whitesplain death. The phrase is America’s version of Shakespeare. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Thomas Jefferson explained this nation’s foundational hypocrisy the same way America has historically whitesplained away the existence of inequality, which is also how Donald Trump believes he should be applauded for the current incompetence-fueled pestilence that continues to ravage this country:

Because white people said so.

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.

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