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 thrice great-grand uncle who was a goddamned general in the Confederacy.

Ironically, that general was also Cherokee. My racist grandmother was registered on the Dawes rolls as Cherokee and actually 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.

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

27 thoughts on “White Silence (#196)”

  1. Before Trump, members of the KKK wore hoods and gathered at night in someone’s field. Now they show their faces. Under Trump, they believe their ideas have become acceptable. Hate crimes and hate groups have multiplied since his election. These groups aren’t going to disappear, but without Trump, there will be fewer of them and they will be less active. Until he’s gone, the Republicans need to isolate him.

    White supremacist groups, Nazis, and the KKK are beyond the pale. We shouldn’t allow them to be seen as just another interest group. Social pressure is powerful.

    Trump is dangerous enough to our country and the world that we must be not only alert and active but also wise and take stands that are both defensible and productive. I question whether blaming all white people for the white supremacists is defensible. Worse yet, it could be counter-productive.

    I do love your final sentence, though: “But we must make it clear they have no place in the light.”

    1. I believe the white supremacists took off their hoods when Obama was President. They hung him in effigy, they insisted he wasn’t an American, and we ignored it, rolling our eyes as if that were enough. But it’s not. I believe that we white people have to take more responsibility for standing up against white supremacy in our white places — the places where racists think it’s okay to crack their nasty, stereotypical jokes and then say, “I was just kidding!” or “it’s just a joke.”

      Because, ultimately, do we blame Germany for Hitler, WWII, the Holocaust? Yes. Yes, we do. We say, “Why didn’t you stop him when you had the chance!?”

      Black Americans have been screaming bloody murder for years. They aren’t surprised by this, not remotely. It’s white moderates who have been — and still are — wringing their hands and saying, “How can this be happening?”

      It’s happening because we white people have been silent, complacent, and complicit. We need to do more.

      1. We do need to do more. And I definitely believe we need to speak up when we hear racist talk.

        But there’s no denying the connection between the election of Trump and the growth of these groups. In the charts I’ve seen, the graph line takes a dramatic jump up starting at about the time of his campaign. With a president like him, racism grows and becomes more dangerous than ever. The gathering of multiple racist groups in Charlottesville looks too much like Germany under Hitler. Trump dreams of expanding his alt-right base and amassing the power Hitler had. I’m obsessed with the danger he poses and the harm he’s already done.

        I didn’t make it to yesterday’s march in Seattle, but we had a good turnout for the counter march against the pro-Trump group: Patriot Prayer. (What a name!)

        1. Oh, hate crimes are up, and racists think they can do whatever they want because of Trump. I do not argue with that. My point is that our polite silence around white dinner tables last year makes them think they are a) in the majority, and b) we agree with them. And the silence has gone on for centuries, at least in WASP culture.

          Hooray for all the protesters and all the Nazi-hunters and identifiers on Twitter.

  2. It was crazy to see white supremacist matching down the streets of Charlotteville with Nazi flags in this day and age, especially all our forefathers paid their ultimately price to defend our freedom from various form of extreme political ideologies (and that includes Nazism and Communism).

    Unfortunately, we are seeing increasing level of nationalism across the world, not just in US, but also in Europe and China. Freedom and democracy are very fragile, one can use it and turn the country into a dictatorial state. And this is something that everyone should stand up and defend for.

    1. What’s the quote? “The price of democracy is eternal vigilance.”

      And we’ve been pretty lackadaisical in the U.S. Too many calls for unity instead of zero tolerance for racism and white supremacy. At least France and Canada and Germany have managed to weather the storm — so far.

      1. Hmm… not sure about Canada. But there has been undercurrent of racism in France and Germany for many years. Unfortunately, they appear to be getting into the mainstream since the refugee crisis…

        1. Well, that is ultimately Putin’s goal in Syria — to flood Europe with refugees, destabilize NATO, and take advantage of the chaos to return Russia to former Soviet glory. The increasing nationalism plays right into his hands.

  3. Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes. Yes.

    This story brought tears to my eyes because it’s my story too. Almost every word of it — except my grandmother had Jewish blood, not Cherokee blood, and was strangely rather proud of it — right down to the Confederate general ancestor. (Mine was Robert E. Lee.) You and I are probably related.

    1. Thanks, though I am sorry I made you cry. I’m getting a head-ache myself from all the suppressed crying and rage.

      My Confederate general was way more obscure than Robert E. Lee. The Confederacy handed out Generalships like candy, I think. “Own a plantation? How many acres? You’re a general!”

      I think the most fitting thing the north ever did was turn Lee’s house into Arlington Cemetery.He’s not the hero everyone thinks.

      About your grandmother, wow, that must be a story. Did she have relatives in Europe during WWII?

      1. No, her maternal grandfather (I think) was a Safardic Jew (from Spain I think?) but his family came to the US very early – like in the 1700s I think. So that made his Jewishness more socially acceptable in genteel Southern society.

        1. Sephardic, wow, yes, they are the ones kicked out of Spain by Ferdinand & Isabella. I wonder where your ancestors went before the U.S.? That must be an incredible story. Did your grandmother still consider herself Jewish?

          1. Oh yes, that part is definitely right – I’m just not sure if the details within my own family history. My dad’s sister is the genealogy expert in the family – I really need to sit down and pick her brain the next time I’m home.

            1. My father’s mother documented the crap out of his side of the family. She sent me a huge notebook with the genealogy all mapped out. I stuck it in a closet, because I didn’t find it that important or interesting. My mother’s brother sends us bits of information every so often, which bring up a lot of mixed feelings. He wants us all to become card-carrying members of the Cherokee tribe, but that doesn’t seem right to me.

  4. ‘Our white silence enables white supremacy…so we must be loud’. Very well said, and very necessary. It surprises me how low things are getting in the States – as you mentioned to Nicki, hate crimes are up and it seems those in favour of white privilege are speaking up more than ever. I think some of us stay silent about a racist incident right in front of us for fear of getting attacked in some way big or small. We really shouldn’t be shy at all. Speak up at awkward family dinners, and then silently feel triumphant for doing so.

    1. I think — as usual — a small group is getting a great deal of media attention. The vast majority of Americans want no part of these Nazis. The counter-protester crowds are huge, compared to to the Nazi rallies. (Sort of like Trump’s inauguration compared to the Women’s March.) Unfortunately, over half the country does not vote. White entitled males vote in droves, though. The way our electoral system is structured, rural white America has way more electoral power than massive, diverse states like California. Which is what happens when you let white, rural slave owners have a say in creating your Constitution.

      But our history does not excuse the stupidity of white, entitled, and just plain stupid people. Nor the silence of white people like me. As someone said, it’s not enough to not be a racist anymore. We have to be actively anti-racist.

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

    Alleluia, sister! Very touching story in this post; and sadly, I think almost every white person in the US has one relative similar to your grandma–and almost everyone ignores them. Time to make a change.

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