Showing Up for Racial Justice: One White Person's Wading into the Waters… (Part II)

Part II: C’mon In, the Water’s … You Tell Me

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

With inspiration for following through on this project (as described in my last post), I called up courage and confidence to go beyond the posting of a yard sign and move to knocking on my neighbors’ doors. Last Saturday morning, I spent an hour walking two streets – my own and one adjacent to my house — with a new friend from the local SURJ group.

I have lived here for nearly five years. I expect to live here for one year more – two at the outside. I know some of my neighbors – we have helped or been helped out when it comes to shoveling snow. Our dog is a rascal and gets out of our fenced yard regularly, which has brought us into contact with neighbors further away than I would like for my dog’s safety. Though some people clearly know each other well, we are latecomers and don’t have friends nearby. My kids were mostly grown by the time we moved in, so that chance to get to know neighbors through kids playing together was long gone.

Painting by Phoebe Cape.

Painting by Phoebe Cape.

The layout of the neighborhood leaves much to be desired – once you find your way in, it can be hard to find your way out. Here is a painting my talented step-daughter made of the experience of getting lost in our neighborhood.

GPS is, more or less, a necessity.

Built in the mid 1960s, the neighborhood originally consisted only of single-family ranch-style houses. In the past decade-and-a-half, some houses have had second floors built upon them. I live in one of those. There are people who have lived here since the very beginning and there are many families who have different relations who live down the road or two streets over. There is more racial, ethnic, and class diversity in this neighborhood than the last neighborhood where I lived in the same town. It is not close to the village center, which makes the housing more affordable.

There are 19 homes on my street.  Not everyone was home. I’d say that we got to interact with fewer than half of my neighbors. Here is a sampling of some of our interactions.

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

One guy, white, was busy in his yard but took the time to talk with us. He wore a t-shirt with the American flag, cut off sleeves, and had a crew-cut. Father of two kids under the age of seven. He said he was “one hundred per cent supportive” of our efforts and that what is going on is “not right.” He seemed more willing to talk, than wanting to talk. His social cues were for us to stay talking, even though he seemed ambivalent. He mentioned how things were supposed to be better, but then the shootings in South Carolina happened. He agreed to sign up for more information about local organizing. He chose not to take a yard sign we were giving out for free.

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

The next family – an older couple, both white – didn’t want to talk about it but agreed to the sign. We planted it proudly in their front lawn.

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

One guy – white, middle-aged, bald head, lip-piercing – didn’t even allow us past the knock. “Not interested.”

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

One guy – about my age, which is to say, middle-aged – who I think was white, but maybe not, it can be hard to know just by looking and I didn’t ask – he said he had grown up in here. He felt though there are problems in the nation, things are pretty good here.

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

One white woman, when she heard what we wanted to talk about, said directly that she did not support Black Lives Matters. “All lives matter” she said, no matter the color.   We listened. She pointed to the sign in my yard – “I don’t agree with that” she said.   “No thank you” she said in so many words. I responded, “Well, since it’s my sign in my yard, if you would let me just tell you why I put it there – not to argue with you, but to share my perspective – I’d appreciate it.” That it was my sign and that I was a neighbor slowed her down and opened her up. She agreed to listen. I said

  • Yes, all lives matter.
  • Since in our nation’s history and current events, Black and Brown lives are treated differently, with more violence, it’s important to say out loud that their lives matter.
  • To me, to say “all lives matter” in the face of all these killings is like going to a fundraise for breast cancer and shouting to all the people there – the people giving money and the survivors who have battled the cancer – and saying “all diseases matter!”

She listened. She shifted. To how wrong all the police brutality is, no matter who is the target of that brutality. And I got to agree again. And I said, “You know, our nation wasn’t paying attention to police brutality before #BlackLivesMatters so I’m feeling thankful for them to raise our awareness.” With that, she could agree.

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

One guy (yes, white) said he didn’t support it because he doesn’t support anything outside his own yard. He said it matter-of-factly, with no intended animus.

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

One guy (again, white) just straight out said he didn’t support it (and gave the indication that we were not welcome to stay).

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

One young – mid-twenties – white guy came out of his garage to talk with us. He seemed the most informed of any of the white people we met. At least, the most able and willing to talk about different issues. He expressed interest in talking about the topic. He had a different perspective on it. He mentioned his support for a local guy who is newly displaying a Confederate flag as his response to the national controversy. My neighbor said, “It’s Southern heritage, you know?”

This is such a volatile issue in our nation given the Charleston shooting of nine African American Christians in their own church by a white man with white supremacist intentions. It seems like a no-brainer to me, as a Northerner, that the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism. However, I was recently told by a friend, a white person who grew up in the South, who gets intersectional politics of justice and oppression better than most, that it’s much more complicated than how the media is portraying it.

So, I wanted to be not just careful, but thoughtful, as I considered this conversation with someone who has such a different perspective than I do.

Me: “It’s a pride thing? Is that guy, is he Southern?”

My neighbor: “Nah. But I think he employs someone from the South.”

Me: “Oh.”

My neighbor: “Yeah. He wants to show his support. But it’s not racist.”

Me: “I hear you. But I just read this thing. Can I tell you about it?”

Awkward silence.

My neighbor: “Sure.”

Me: “Yeah, it turns out the guy who actually designed that flag. He published an editorial in the newspaper at that time stating that his intentions were that it be a symbol of white supremacy.”

My neighbor: “Well, I don’t know about that…”

Me: “Yeah, neither did I ‘til just last night.”

Awkward silence.

Me: Hey, [to friend knocking on doors with me] didn’t you say you grew up in the North Carolina?”

My friend: “Yeah, I did.”

Me: “What was your experience of the Confederate flag there?”

My friend: “Well, I grew up in a place with a lot of Black and Native American people and none of them flew that flag.”

I don’t know that the exchange of information changed his mind. Of course, it didn’t change my mind. I do want to believe that he might integrate two new pieces of information, but I don’t think this is an issue that is rooted in ignorance of lack of information.

What I have more hope about is that he sees me, and people like me (liberal bleeding-heart door-knockers who live in two story houses and drive Priuses), as more dimensional than before our conversation. Certainly, I see him as more multi-dimensional than before our conversation – I see him as more than his opinion. Part of my spiritual practice is to continue to see individuals as whole, affirming their inherent worth and dignity, even in the face of disagreement, even in the face of odious, hurtful points of view.

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

Our last knock ended up being on the door to a home of a family of color. The guy we talked to – middle-aged, Black – spoke of his support for the #BLM movement, but could not display a sign for reasons I cannot go into here. We engaged in a long conversation about race and class in this country (he is originally from elsewhere). He is of the steadfast opinion that the divisions between us not really about race, but is about class. Race is a wedge to divide working people so they will not join together against the “two percent” who run everything and gain from how our society is set up.[1] I couldn’t agree more. I was glad to shake his hand.

I was glad to shake the hands of all my neighbors – those who would let me – regardless of whether our perspectives matched or not. My engaging eight neighbors is not going to change the world. But that is why I am not doing this in isolation. Taking part in a national campaign (organized by the fine folks at Showing Up for Racial Justice’s — SURJ), with others here in my community, with others across the country – allying ourselves with the #BlackLivesMatters movement, seeing ourselves as a part of the wider global movements of democracy, of environmental justice – now that just might change the world.

NTS-073012

[1] History bears this out. European indentured servants worked the fields alongside African slaves and Native Americans. Not only did they work together, they sometimes socialized and rallied together. Laws were written by land-holding European men who, by doing so, began to socially (and legally and culturally) create Whiteness and divide the workers so that they would not pose a threat to their wealth. The three-part documentary, “Race: The Power of Illusion,” is a great resource on this.

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9 Responses to Showing Up for Racial Justice: One White Person's Wading into the Waters… (Part II)

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  3. Pingback: Black Lives Matter: When You Remove One Sign, Three Takes Its Place | Awake and Witness

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