A personal essay about the ways in which a terrified mother tried — and failed — to be a walking-talking public service announcement.
Anonymous | Longreads | September 2018 | 19 minutes (4,750 words)
An editor asked me for an essay about porches with an upbeat takeaway, and I thought about how porches let us navigate the zone between public and private life and connect. But I’d just sat on my porch in Texas and had conversations that sent me back inside, feeling scalded. My small talk had taken a dark turn, my fault. Most people can’t hear about trouble without suggesting a quick fix because they want you to feel better. I tried to write about porches and ended up writing about social life. I tried to write about social life and ended up writing about social media, where we also navigate the zone between public and private life and connect. Or don’t. On social media, our virtual porch, we converse with friends, friends of friends, the occasional somebody no one knows, and decide who to wave over and who to dodge. People to avoid weren’t easily detectable. I couldn’t tell except in meandering conversation. They seemed like people who might be companions, consolation. And they looked like me, white. My daughter is black.
An early inkling of trouble occurred on November 11, 2016, the first Friday night after the presidential election. She was two hours away, a college freshman in east Texas. While she was sleeping, her car was jumped on or slammed with a blunt instrument, painted with a slur (your first guess is correct), festooned with posters on which the slogan “Make America Great Again” had been altered to read “Make America White Again.”
The door to her college-owned student apartment was vandalized too. Other black students in the building woke to find their cars and doors vandalized. It seemed obvious that some white students, neighbors, had made note of black students coming and going, who lived where and drove what. Otherwise how could vandals (is that the word?) have known which cars and apartments to target? This inference might seem like overthinking it, a sin in the annals of self-help. But it was my first thought, and the first thought mothers of my daughter’s black college friends had too. Our children had been under surveillance, however inexpert, added to a list.
A friend: “But your insurance will cover it, right?”
Another: “Yes, we all feel bad the country is so misogynist it wouldn’t elect a woman.”
For months I’d watched as one candidate first descended into his campaign via an escalator, then deeper and deeper into auditoriums in small cities across America where black people were shoved and punched, sometimes at the candidate’s urging. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on February 1, 2016: “Knock the crap out of him. I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.” About a rally in Birmingham, Alabama, on November 21, 2015: “He should have been roughed up.” Sometimes blacks were ejected for being black. In Valdosta, Georgia, on March 1, 2016, black college students with no plans to protest were removed as whites yelled, “Go home, nigger.”
Pundits called this “dog-whistle racism,” as in only dogs hear it and come running and so, it follows, only racists hear it and come running. But it wasn’t muted. My daughter was born in 1997, a time after name-calling and reserving spaces as white-only had diminished to the point that, as sociologist Lawrence Bobo found, a majority of white Americans believed racism was rare. By the time my daughter was 10, the term “post-racial” had gained currency. Social scientists began to study implicit, systemic inequality and those barely articulated prejudices by which, in Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s research, subjects describe themselves as not racist but explain lack of contact with people of color as “natural” and use terms like “unqualified” to describe them.
Eighteen years later, I worried my daughter wasn’t safe. Her property had been damaged. I hoped her corporeal self wouldn’t be. I hoped her incorporeal self wouldn’t be either, but concern for that shifted to the backburner. I was like the Ancient Mariner, who must have been good enough company once but can’t act normal now. As more bad events befell my daughter and people I knew, and people I ended up knowing, I ran into friends and neighbors whose lives proceeded as usual except for political outrage I shared, but theoretically not viscerally, and when they said “How are you?” en route to somewhere pleasant — like wedding guests on their way into a wedding — I detained them and recounted bad news.
My brain was overfilled with it and leaking.Continue reading “Having the Wrong Conversations about Hate Activity”