White Silence (#196)

White Supremacists rallying in Charlottesville, courtesy of Molly Ruth

The first time I ever heard the n-word, I was in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was nine, walking with my mother and stepfather. Two kids ran past. One called the other a word I’d never heard growing up in Washington, D.C., despite having classmates and friends of multiple races.

My mother pressed her lips into a thin line, then said, “I hate that word.”

My stepfather agreed.

I asked, “What word?”

My mother told me the word. I asked, “What does it mean?”

My mom stopped cold. “You don’t know what it means?” Then she turned to my stepfather, and delightedly echoed, “She doesn’t know that word! She doesn’t know what it means!”

They reveled in happy astonishment while I repeatedly asked, “But what does it mean?! WHAT DOES IT MEAN?”

Mom finally explained. The word was evil, she said. It was a racial slur, weaponized, used against Black Americans, and it carried with it the whole ugly history of slavery. The n-word is charged with the white assumption of racial superiority, backed by decades violence and Jim Crow laws. The n-word, when it passes white lips, carries the memories of past lynchings and promises future violence if the assumption of white supremacy is challenged.

Well, maybe that last part isn’t exactly what Mom said. Maybe that’s just what I wish she’d said, or what I would tell any white kid who asked today.

Mom told me it was evil and demeaning and I was never to use it ever. She left out the part about her family’s culpability – our family’s culpability – in the n-word, in slavery, in Jim Crow, and the whole tragic history of Black America.

My mother, who loved to tell stories, stayed silent.

It wasn’t until I was in Junior High, back in Washington, D.C., that I learned more. My mother’s mother was on her way for a rare visit. Before her arrival, Mom sat my younger sister and me down for a chat.

“It’s probably best if you don’t bring any of your friends – or boyfriends – home while Grammie is here,” she told us.

“Why?” we asked.

Mom was usually pretty direct. That day, though, she hedged. “Because, well, she’s old, and she’s from a different time, and Grammie’s just not very nice to certain people.”

My sister and I gave my mother matching we-don’t-know-what-the-hell-you’re-talking-about stares.

Mom floundered on. “They grew up in the south. With old-fashioned ideas. About white people. And black people. And how they shouldn’t mix.”

I said, “What? But – half my friends are black. My boyfriend is black!”

Mom winced. “I know. But just don’t say anything about it while she’s here.”

Future Lawyer Sister said, “That’s wrong.”

Mom said, “I know, but she’s old, and you aren’t going to change her mind.” She left my sister and I staring at each other.

Future Lawyer Sister said, “I can’t believe this.”

Neither could I. Our mother, a loud, proud “liberated woman” was usually a fighter, whether with a grocery clerk who overcharged her or witnesses trying to leave the scene of a hit-and-run accident.

Yet Mom said nothing when her mother told us how awful it was that our cousin was dating a black man and went on about how said cousin would of course be cut out of her will.

We said nothing, either. We were good hostesses, fetching, carrying, and whitewashing our school stories while our grandmother visited.

When she left, I noticed my mother wearing a particularly huge and hideous ring. I asked about the weird combination of tiny pearls and sapphires on a giant silver leaf.

Mom said, “It’s a family ring. Those little pearls were brought up out of the river by slaves on the plantation.”

“We had SLAVES? Never tell my friends!” I shrieked, and fled the room.

My mother died a year later. Her mother followed six months after that.

Future Lawyer Sister inherited the hideous family ring. She melted it down and locked the pearls away.

I inherited an antique desk from my grandmother– the one that was supposed to go to my cousin. I only got it because my cousin was braver and louder than I was. Brave Cousin told my racist grandmother where she could shove her desk and married her black boyfriend.

Despite achieving it through dishonesty, I found the desk beautiful when it first arrived. Supposedly it had a secret compartment, dating back to the French Revolution. (My siblings and I failed to find it.) But as I learned more about American history and my family’s own history, I realized they were able to afford antiques and sapphires because of slavery. My maternal ancestors were big proponents of slavery. Huge.

I have great-grand-something who was a goddamned general in the Confederacy.

Ironically, that confederate general was also predominantly Cherokee. My racist grandmother had so much American Indian blood that she received checks from the Bureau of Indian affairs. She cashed them at lunch, though, when none of her friends would see them and learn her secret.

I guess her friends were also racists. Or maybe, like me, they just stayed silent during Grammie’s racist rants.

Which, in the end, yields the same results as racism.

Our white silence enables white supremacy.

You know what the United States gave Black America instead of an apology and reparations after the Civil War?

Silence. We never admitted guilt. We never said we were sorry. We never tried to make it right.

Do you know what we did when the south revived their confederate flags and instituted their Jim Crow laws?

Nothing. States rights, you know. Not our business.

And what were we white people doing last year, when Trump was spouting his racist rhetoric and bringing white supremacists into his campaign?

Probably the same thing my sister and I did the last time we saw our racist great-Aunt. She drawled bullshit like, “Now a white woman with a black man? That is something I just can’t tolerate!” We shared an eye roll with our cousins and stayed silent.

Because the racist are old, right? And an unpleasant confrontation serves no purpose, right? As my mother said, we can’t change them, and anyway, they’re all going to die out soon, right?

Wrong. Did you not see all the fresh young faces, lit by torches in Charlottesville?

Maybe you’re thinking. “These white supremacists are Trump’s fault, not mine. I voted for Hillary, or Jill, or the fucking idiot who doesn’t even know where Aleppo is.”

Wrong again, my fellow white people. They are OUR fault. Every time we stayed silent, or laughed politely, ignoring ignorance and racism because we tried to be good hostesses, or good employees, we encouraged them. We gave them tacit permission to continue.

Our silence emboldens white supremacists like darkness emboldens roaches.

So we must be loud. We must call out racism and ignorance wherever we see it, no matter how awkward it makes family dinners. Consider it a point of pride to get cut out of racist uncle Ralph’s will. Protest those bastards wherever you see them and their swastikas. If they hit you, hit back. Report them to their employers, their coworkers, and their parents. Insist your elected representatives denounce them. Shame anyone and everyone who refuses to call those white supremacists exactly what they are: Nazis.

Scream loudly, and spotlight every single one of those little fuckers.

We might not change their minds.

But we must make it clear they have no place in the light.

From the University of Virginia’s School of Law Instagram Account

If you are as upset about Charlottesville as I am and want to donate or support, Sara Benincasa has a great post with suggestions and links.

Connect the Dots (#195)

You’d think that the most annoying thing about living by a middle school would have been kids sitting on your steps, or littering, or trampling your flowers.

It wasn’t.

It was their parents.

There were BMW/ Mercedes parents who dropped off their own children and immediately blasted through pedestrian crosswalks. Other school kids, crossing guards, and dog-walkers scramble for their lives.

There were parents who ate fast food while waiting for school to end. They picked up their kids, but left their trash behind.

Then were parents who blasted Def Leopard while idling, or had their car’s Bluetooth system so loud I could hear their conversations in my kitchen.

There’s the mother who moved my trashcans up onto the curb before parking right in front of them, blocking all access for the trash trucks. When I told her a) parking within 6 feet of trashcans is illegal, b) the trash hadn’t been picked up yet, and c) she’d have to move, she angrily complained, “But where am I supposed to park?”

My biggest battles with the parents, though, involved my driveway. Unlike many Americans, Andy and I actually parked our cars in our garage.

There was plenty of street parking around the school. Yes, parents and/ or their progeny might have been forced to walk a whole half block to get to the school’s gate, but our Los Angles county neighborhood wasn’t pressed for parking like New York or Boston.

The view from my driveway on a regular basis.

And yet, parents regularly parked their cars across part or even all of our driveway. Sometimes, the drivers were still in their cars. Instead of giving me an apologetic wave and moving their cars when I opened the garage, they often ignored me.

If I was in a hurry, I’d mutter and glare and squeeze my little car past them.

If I was in a bad mood, I’d yell at them to move.

One afternoon, I opened my garage and found a car parked my driveway. Some dad backed straight up to the garage door, taking up the entire driveway. Engrossed in his radio, his burger, and his phone, the guy didn’t hear the garage door open. I rapped on his window, hard. The startled dad shrieked, dropping his burger in his lap. I glared, gesturing at him to move. He immediately complied.

I hoped he got grease stains on his pants.

Having parents in my driveway was bad enough. But some parents would park across my driveway before disappearing into the school.  My car and I would be stuck.

If I called the city’s parking enforcement, I might have to wait an hour before they sent out tow trucks. By the time they arrived, the cars were gone.

More than once I stormed into the school with a license plate number, demanding to know which jerk was blocking my driveway. None of the parents in the office ever confessed, but as soon as I was back in my house, calling parking enforcement, the car would disappear.

I did not understand these parents. Barring a life and death emergency, I would never block someone’s driveway, nor would I park on private property without permission. Because:

1) It’s just wrong.

2) I don’t like being yelled at, especially when I’m in the wrong.

3) I might get a ticket.

But there’s a 4th reason. It’s the most important reason of all, and it applies almost exclusively to parents. It’s also the one they never seem to think about.

Witness the Entitled White Mom. This woman parked her car halfway across my driveway at 2:55 PM. I figured she’d be gone by 3:15 PM. I didn’t have to leave until 3:30, and so I ignored the car.

At 3:30, the car was still there, along with two tween girls, chatting and playing on their phones. I approached, trying to control my temper, because obviously the girls weren’t responsible for the dickish parking job.

I asked where their mom was. They pointed across the street, where Entitled White Mom was gabbing with another mom in front of the school. I waved at her. She either ignored me or didn’t see me.

Down the block and across the yellow cross walk I went, seeing red.

“You!” I yelled, pointing at Entitled White Mom. Various other mothers scattered, hoping to avoid a scene (or at least watch from a safe distance). “You’re parked halfway across my driveway, get over there and move your car now!”

Entitled White Mom turned to me slowly. “Can’t it wait a minute?”

“It’s been waiting thirty minutes and I have to leave. My God, woman, what is WRONG WITH YOU?! Get over there and move it!”

She sniffed as she followed me across the street. “You need to calm down.”

I whirled around. “Are you fucking kidding me? You parked illegally, you’ve made me late, and instead of even saying you’re sorry, you’re trying to blame me for being legitimately angry!”

She took a step back and mumbled a half-assed “Sorry.”

I snorted. “No, you’re not, you’re only sorry someone called you out! Which is bad enough, but you know what’s worse? You’ve set a terrible, entitled example for your children. You’re teaching them that rules don’t apply to them. You’re showing them that other people’s rights don’t matter. You’re teaching them that it’s okay to break the law if it inconveniences you so much you might have to walk a whole half-block.”

(In case you haven’t figured it out, the above is Reason #4 why parents, especially, shouldn’t do illegal and entitled shit.)

“That’s a stretch,” she scoffed, pulling out her keys.

“You just keep thinking that, then. But some day, you’re gonna be old. And incontinent, and as inconvenient as fuck. And your girls here will be the ones deciding on your care. And if you’ve taught them to be entitled, rather than inconvenienced, what makes you think they won’t pull the plug as soon as possible and collect their inheritance?”

Entitled White Woman didn’t answer. She ordered her girls into the car and drove away. I never saw her again.

Probably she didn’t change her ways. Probably her girls now sport Trump’s red “Make America Great Again” hats.

But no moms blocked my driveway for a whole month.