Are protests enough?
Earlier this week, a group of racists sat comfortably, wearing confederate flags as swimsuits. Behind them, a confederate flag towel hung on the fence. On their bodies, the men were inked in swastika tattoos.
Of course, they were there to provoke.
My sister, who has been working in restorative justice work for two decades said, “You have to get them before it happens.”
You may ask yourself, how do you prevent something you don’t know is going to happen?
But you do know, don’t you? That’s how the world has been set up. That is how neighborhoods are segregated and redlined and that’s why people aren’t pulled over for being white, and that’s why black people are seen as less valuable. Like Michael Che, from SNL, said, (In this country) “We can’t even agree that Black Lives Matter.”
Upon hearing there was a confederate flag on the beach, one woman left the comfort of her home, during COVID, to confront these people. One black woman.
When she spoke at the protest, organized to address why she stood alone, she challenged the white people to close our eyes. When they were closed, she said, “Imagine every time you go somewhere, you are seen as a threat. You are seen as less than. You are seen as less valuable, less important. Your life is worth less. Worthless.”
Everyone else walked past the hate speech on the beach. Just went about their day. They didn’t see how these people, at the entry of the beach, defined the beach. They didn’t see how this kind of hate made people’s world smaller and more threatening. They didn’t see that these people were advertising slavery and anti-Semitism. They just walked on by, while this black woman, stood alone, fighting this very old American war.
I grew up in a neighborhood, south of downtown Chicago, where we were taught that white people were all hypocrites. We were taught that we were all racists and we were all part of the problem. That’s what growing up in an academic neighborhood that is also integrated teaches you. Sometimes, people would call our neighborhood, “The most successful integrated neighborhood in America.” Which is kind of like saying, the healthiest meal at McDonald’s.
Now, I live in a neighborhood, north of downtown Chicago. A lot of people call it heaven. After George Floyd was murdered, during the protests, I found out a lot of black people did not call it heaven. They found that nickname hilarious and offensive.
The beach protest that I attended, arranged by the woman who stood up to the confederate flag, had a few speakers. One of the speakers was a woman who had family in our neighborhood for generations. She said, “I always knew I wasn’t welcome at that beach. My mom knew she wasn’t welcome at that beach and my grandma knew she wasn’t welcome at that beach.”
The woman who stood up said, “I’m not from here. I heard this place was liberal and not racist. I was just wanted my kids to be safe. Now I find out it’s not safe for us. I had to find out, for myself, that I am not welcome at that beach.”
A lot of people on social media attacked the woman who stood up. Some attacked her viciously, some passive-aggressively. The gist was that she should get over it, which translated means “Shut up. The world was like this before you and it will be like this after you.”
The woman who stood up said, “I’m not afraid of those racist people with their flag. I know who they are. When you’re as black as I am, you’re taught very early how to deal with those people. I’m more afraid of people who don’t know they’re racist, who put their signs on their lawn and think it’s enough, who come to these protests but don’t lead them. And we’re tired of leading. We’re just tired. This isn’t just our problem.”
Systematic racism and white supremacy are tricky because most white people don’t know we benefit from this system. We see ourselves as above this problem. We think we earned what we have, not that we inherited on the blacks and bodies and blood of black people. We see ourselves as good white people. It does not occur to us that white people say “the house I own” and black people say “the house where I stay.” Our white supremacist culture has deprived black people, who were once owned, of owning.
“Close your eyes,” the woman who stood up said. “Imagine every time you leave your house, you are seen as a threat. Everyone in your family resembles a ‘person of interest.’ Every time one of your children leaves the house, you are frightened for their lives.”
This neighborhood is a little different from the one I grew up in. It’s the same, but different. People here think they are successfully integrated, whereas, where I just grew up, we were taught that white people were messed up-that we carried a white sickness. No matter how we feel about ourselves, though, we’re all operating under the same system that dehumanizes black people. This system allows us to close our eyes so we don’t have to look at who built this world that we call heaven.
Whether you think you’re operating under a white supremacist culture or not, the leader of the protest’s daughter made a point.
She said, “If the world was gray, it would be obvious what was illegal and wrong. But it’s not gray. It’s black and it’s white.”
The woman, who stood up, stood alone. She stood there, by herself, and people just walked by. Apparently, at this beach, it’s not polite to confront someone with swastikas and the confederate flag. Apparently, at this beach, there is no need to get uncomfortable and address racist atrocities.
White silence is violence.
But what makes us quiet?
Is it our shame? Is it our fear? Are we out of practice for doing anything other than self-care? Is our self-care merely a bandage to medicate our denial about the world we live in? Does it help keep us blind so we do not have to dig deeper into why we are so uncomfortable? Why we need so much yoga and meditation and medication and CBD? Does our willful ignorance chain us to our discomfort?
No one is free until we all are free.
“What do you think is going to happen if you confront these people?” The woman who put her body and her words and her camera in front of these racists.
That’s the question, isn’t it?
What do we think is going to happen if we stand up for black people? If we put our bodies in the fire?
I think it’s going to be uncomfortable. And though this sounds like a little thing, it shields us beautifully, from doing the right thing.