Having the Wrong Conversations about Hate Activity

How 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.

***

The first bad news wasn’t even vandalism to my daughter’s car and apartment. That was three days after the election. Just hours after, buildings at the university where I teach — not the college my daughter attended — were plastered with flyers we called “the racist flyers” because we thought they were a one-off. As more appeared, we called them, generically, “hate flyers.” When big posters sampled elements from Nazi propaganda on high-quality paper stock, with anti-Semitic slogans changed to anti-black and anti-immigrant, we called them “white supremacy posters” because they weren’t anonymous now, but sponsored by an organization whose members photoshop their faces to a blur — high-tech version of the hooded robe — in otherwise convivial-seeming group photos you’d find if you’re masochistic or vigilant enough to search the internet for information about the organization hanging expensive posters where you work.

My daughter was born in 1997, a time after name-calling and reserving spaces as white-only had diminished to the point that a majority of white Americans believed racism was rare. By the time she was 10, the term ‘post-racial’ had gained currency.

These flyers and posters appeared again and again, always at dawn, hung during the wee hours. I’d never seen or heard of any remotely like them in the previous decades I’d taught. One night a huge banner was hung across the multi-story library. Patrols increased, but it’s a big campus, and not until 13 months later did campus police — in conjunction with the FBI — catch, red-handed, a group of non-students who admitted their affiliation with national white supremacy groups. The charge was criminal trespass because hanging posters isn’t a hate crime. It’s hate activity, which, until another law is broken, is free speech.

On the day the first of these appeared, “the racist flyers” we regarded as an aberration, students arrived to class, stunned, wary. A diminutive Mexican-American male — so disciplined and idealistic that, though professors aren’t supposed to have favorite students, he was, I confess, easy to teach, easy to like — arrived to my class late and out of breath. He’d been followed as he’d crossed campus, pushed, called names, by a guy with a bare torso painted to say “Daddy Won.”

I still believed in agency. I thought I could solve a problem or two.

My daughter’s car and apartment were vandalized the following night, and the next morning I filed a police report. The young, cheerful, white officer told me not to worry. His father had informed him that college kids went crazy for politics in the 1960s too. I wanted to explain that college kids in the 1960s went crazy agitating for civil rights. But I didn’t. I needed him to find us simpatico, a family not unlike his, and to perhaps increase patrols through the isolated part of campus where my daughter’s apartment was.

Monday morning, two days later, I called the office of the college president at my daughter’s school too, hoping to persuade her to issue a statement affirming the high-minded values found on the college’s website. Respect; Diversity; Collaboration; Innovation. People take their behavioral cues top-down.

An administrative aide answered the phone, sounding a bit like Ann Richards, former Texas governor renowned for feminism and for her husky voice and countrified one-liners. The administrative aide said the college president was in a meeting, but she’d be happy to help me. What did my call concern? I described the incident and why I hoped to speak with the president. The administrative aide paused. Then laughed. Softly or amusedly, with satisfaction. That’s the dictionary definition of “chuckle.” It was now six days after the election. She was perhaps off-guard, still contentedly processing the fact that her candidate had won, which maybe surprised her as much as it had pollsters. She said, “Well, that won’t happen. This office doesn’t involve itself in politics.”


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


I clarified that my call wasn’t political, that the college was publicly funded to educate every student in good academic standing, white, brown, and black, and vandalism organized to intimidate a single demographic contradicted the taxpayer mandate and the college’s mission statement. Once my rhetoric changed from worried mother to legally informed, she switched to a mawkish semblance of concern, transferring me to another administrator, who did care. He rushed off the phone to see what he could do.

Soon I started hearing from, or about, people with similar news.

A dozen or so former students now teaching at colleges and high schools across the state emailed me about events at their schools, wondering how to respond. One now teaching at a high school in a San Antonio exurb told me students had entered the classroom of another teacher in the middle of a class she was teaching, shouting for her to go back to Mexico. Never mind that the family of the teacher had lived in the region for generations, no doubt longer than families of some of the students writing slurs and vague threats on the teacher’s chalkboard (“Watch out, it’s a new day” recurred and recurred in those months). The targeted teacher had cried in front of her students, and the principal sent her home.

I contacted the Texas Observer, known for investigative journalism, and a reporter started an online “Hate Watch” list, using contact information from my former students to fact-check the incidents that became the list’s first entries. I kept reading as the list grew longer, hate incidents proliferating, and I got too informed. I emailed newspapers, not describing the vandalism directed at black students at my daughter’s college because the date, time, location, details, and cell phone pictures of her car and apartment might make her a future target. I described the posters and incidents at the university where I teach, with dates, times, locations, details, and cell phone pictures. I also described the posters and incidents I’d heard about from colleagues at universities across the country, who provided dates, times, locations, and cell phone pictures. One national newspaper ran a story. Others followed suit, reporting incidents I’d heard about, and more. I kept reading as the new accounts appeared, hate incidents proliferating, and I got too informed.

I’ll paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut: knowing you’re paranoid doesn’t make you (or anyone) safe.

Reader, I read the comments. Not under news stories but in threads under links to news stories I posted on social media that got shared and reshared. I’m not talking about goading, gloating bigots. I don’t run across these on social media, which organizes your feed according to your predilections. I encountered people who concur in theory but disagree in nuance. First, I worried some were finding the hate activity shocking in a not entirely unpleasant, adrenaline-rush, horror-flick way: revulsion mixed with thrill. Others read the accounts and wished they hadn’t. I get it. If I could have unlearned it and felt responsible, a mother alert to threats, I would have.

One woman, a friend of a friend, called the hate activity “unfortunate” — I appreciate this word’s emphasis on fortune, or chance, which can create or destroy your happiness — and though hate activity is unfortunate, this woman commented, newspapers should stop reporting it. This was under an article I’d posted that a real, not virtual friend had shared, tagging me. I read on as this friend of a friend added: “It’s not like these people are in actual danger. Sticks and stones, people!” I replied that dark-of-night imperatives telling minorities to go away (go where?) sound like warnings, and as the mother of a young black woman who’d been targeted I felt she was less safe now than she’d been a year earlier, and she couldn’t stop going outside, not without stopping her life, her ambitious life, and sunset happens early in winter, I added. My aside about sunset is odd, mealy-mouthed. But as the sun sank I was far from my daughter. My heart went with it. Instead of responding to my comment directly, the woman responded to a man who’d told her to summon empathy, telling him, not me, that people like me should know my child could die anytime, slipping in a bathtub.

My stepson once said, precociously when he was young: “The internet is mean. Everyone knows that.” Years earlier, a friend, a psychologist, said that social media had made the net of human connection wide but perilously thin. My husband, who has a deeply ingrained sense of privacy, always wonders why a plate of paella or a pair of new shoes is worth broadcasting. Before Facebook — which I initially joined to understand it, so that I could make rules about it for my daughter, then in middle school — he’d wondered at the logic behind Christmas letters: private recitations to diffuse audiences about recitals, soccer, job promotions. After the “people like me should realize her child could die anytime” exchange, I tried to avoid the subject. But weeks would pass and I’d scroll for news about who got engaged, had a new book, or a new job. I’d stumble across a post that hit close to home and find myself venturing out again, offering up that I was in an interracial family and not just vaguely uneasy; that a specific this and this had happened in my real, not virtual, vicinity, in my child’s real, not virtual, vicinity. Then I’d delete my comments, but often not before someone read them. I did this again and again.

The internet is mean, the connections we make perilously attenuated, and a diffuse audience is off-target for private truth. Yet I didn’t step away. Was it decades spent teaching, during which, from time to time, a student makes a strange comment, and it’s my duty to address it and move the discussion on? But I wasn’t in the classroom. I was alone in a room with my computer as I read a Facebook post from a white woman in California — someone I don’t know in real life, whose friend request I’d probably accepted because we had mutual friends — calling for blue-voting states to secede. It was pointless to comment, to note that red states had diverse regions where vulnerable people would get stranded. But I did. With rational, frantic certitude — like Susan Sarandon on Twitter — she replied that civil war was next, and a generation, mostly minorities, would suffer and die.

That was the last time. I finally did stop.

It took me so long because I’d wanted people at whom hate activity is never directed to understand it’s more than a political talking point. It makes hate crime possible. We all accept that demonizing, desensitizing speech directed at a single demographic incites violence. For instance, we accept that investigators explore whether radical Islamic terrorists have spent time with groups that use demonizing, desensitizing speech. Free speech. But we don’t call it free speech when radical Islamic terrorists use it. Investigators studied Dylann Roof’s exposure to demonizing, densisitizing speech after he’d opened fire on the Emanuel African Episcopal church in South Carolina. Jack McDevitt and Jack Levin, social scientists who’ve studied hate crime, note that it’s mostly committed by thrill-seekers; by people with vague fears of minorities with whom they have little contact; and, more rarely, by members of hate groups. Yet these categories overlap. Hate group members were once thrill seekers or people with vague fears of populations with whom they’d had little contact. As Amos Oz wrote about genocide in The Slopes of Lebanon, demonizing, desensitizing speech always precedes violence. Dehumanizing, desensitizing speech makes violence possible and palatable.

***

In November 2017, while my daughter was walking into her job at a grocery store in the mid-sized college city to which she’d moved for her sophomore year — a city with a bigger university and an international student body, all of which we’d hoped would make her life safer — she heard white college students yelling at black students: “Niggers. Niggers hanging around. Just stealing cars?” The white students rushed at the black students. A bloody fight followed. My daughter didn’t know the black students. Security camera coverage was video without audio. Police took her name as the witness who could testify about the words before the fight, words that might mitigate legal consequences for the black students who’d fought back.

Less than a month later, in an unrelated incident, my daughter was brutally assaulted. Her assailant, who’d harassed her for months, whom I’d briefly met while visiting, whom I’d heard about again and again in phone calls, whom I’d advised my daughter to avoid contact with when possible, was arrested, bond set high. How race played a role — my daughter’s race, my race, and the assailant’s mental health — is so tangled maybe only a novel could untangle it. Even I, with my waylaid sense of privacy, am too superstitious to put into indelible words what happened that night. And it’s my daughter’s story to tell, or not. Mine is how — exposed to new fears and growing habituated — I told people, the wrong people, then stopped.

But not soon enough.

***

After the vandalism to my daughter’s car and apartment but before she was assaulted, a mundane problem derailed me.

My daughter’s car developed an electrical short and would lose power as unpredictably as it would restart ten minutes or two hours later. I hated the restarting, because no mechanic could fix the car until it stopped for good. When she drove home one weekend, it stalled in a tumbling-down town I’d noticed as we passed through on that optimistic day we first drove her to college. After seeing all the confederate flags, I looked it up and learned about its former status as a sundown town, one of those officially all-white municipalities that, as late as 1966, used signs at the city limits, and laws, and violence, to get “coloreds” to leave by nightfall.

She’d called Triple A, but a tow truck wouldn’t arrive for two hours. Later, my husband admitted he’d downplayed his fears that night, hoping not to heighten mine. I called his cousin, a retired schoolteacher with a gentle voice who lives 20 miles from where my daughter was stalled. She said, “Absolutely no.” She meant my daughter wasn’t safe waiting alone, though I hadn’t asked if she was, worried I’d sound alarmist. “We live out here,” she said. “We hear what some people say. We’re heading over to sit with her until the tow truck arrives.” Then my daughter called. Her car had restarted. My husband and I waited, watching TV, the clock — our verisimilitude of composure — until she was home.

At the car dealership I told the service manager that waiting for my daughter’s car to break all the way down so they could repair it would be fine if she lived in town and we could pick her up, but she was away at college, getting stranded. As I said this she was in the hallway outside the service manager’s office, visible through glass, a pretty girl pacing and texting. The service manager told me to buy another car. I said, “Right now? Already?” This is a dealership that includes in its advertising its practice of hiring women and minorities whenever possible. The service manager was a white woman. I lowered my voice: “See that dent, those traces of red and white paint? Someone vandalized her car and painted it with vile, racist warnings. When she breaks down, we’re concerned about her safety.”

“That doesn’t bother me,” the service manager said, matter-of-factly. “I grew up hearing that talk.”

“But she’s my daughter. I have to keep her safe.”

Her desk chair squeaked and rolled. “I’d pull her out of college then.”

A friend recommended a mechanic who told me he could fix the car. He said, “I always find these shorts, but it takes more time than people can usually go without having a car.” I explained about the vandalism, her car stalling on the highway. He sighed, assent and sympathy. He had daughters. He examined every connection, called to say he was sure he’d found the short, put the car back together, and charged me not too much. But it broke down again while she was still in town to pick it up. I called him, hoping it wouldn’t restart before he could tow it in and put it on the diagnostic computer. Unfortunately, it restarted. He wanted to try again, but I gave up and bought another car.

***

It was spring now. Conversations took place on my real porch.

We’d lived in our big house for ten years but were getting ready to move to a smaller one because our kids were grown. Through the years, neighbors had casually walked over as one of our kids might play a ukulele on the front steps, or perfect cheerleading handsprings on the lawn, or pose for photos for prom, for graduation and, finally, in front of a car packed to the hilt as each kid left for college. My daughter had keys to neighbors’ houses for when they traveled and she’d tend their pets.

A well-traveled neighbor with many pets who self-describes as “an old liberal” ambled over and asked how my daughter liked college. My daughter was still a freshman at the little college then. She’d made good friends, though, in addition to the racist vandalism, she’d had unnerving interactions with one or two white students. Students seemed to socially self-segregate, which might be usual: the region’s demographics, entrenched customs. At home, she’d had black, white, and Latino friends, maybe necessarily because the black population is smaller.

I told the neighbor how my daughter’s car and apartment had been vandalized.

She shook her head. “That surprises me. I love that town, the shops. Everyone’s always been friendly to me.” I said I’d felt that way, too, or I’d never have moved my daughter there, but as white women she and I experienced the place differently. I added that the racial climate on many campuses was volatile. Not only had the university where I teach been in the news, so had the university a mile from our porches, a university people call the Berkeley of the South. What she said next revealed differences between us: “Some people are racist, but some blacks are oversensitive. People in our city aren’t racist.” I volunteered examples to. . .accomplish what? I still thought I was some kind of PSA.

Another neighbor had a porch near mine and a daughter in high school. When she first moved in, I’d hoped we’d become friends. When I told her my daughter’s car and apartment had been vandalized, her eyes widened. “We all get mother-bear when our child is bullied for having curly hair or being a science nerd. But that’s much worse. I’d worry it could turn violent.”

It hadn’t yet, not yet. But yes, worry. We talked about political concerns I theoretically share. I cared viscerally that her daughter had been shunned by high school friends whose parents had voted differently in the election than my neighbor had. Then, when the next round of posters appeared on my campus, the neo-Nazi ones, I worried aloud that poster-hangers seemed so well-funded, well-organized, so national, and she said: “Hey. I want to mother your mothering here. You think about race too much. If you do, your daughter will. That’s a big burden to put on her.”

The internet is mean, the connections we make perilously attenuated, and a diffuse audience is off-target for private truth. Yet I didn’t step away.

I stalled out. My brain and even mouth seemed not to work as I tried to say I was sorry I’d overshared, to explain that my daughter and I mostly talk about friends, professors, homework, boys, and only about race when she tells me something disturbing has happened. I’d spoken candidly and expansively to my neighbor, though not to my daughter, because I wasn’t worried about scaring my neighbor. I spoke to my husband but — as any couple passing through a hard time does — we abbreviated our exchanges to essential developments, orbiting in for those, then back out to easier subjects. I’d put the burden not on my daughter, but on neighbors, mechanics, near-strangers, with my overflow and lack of self-control. I’d crowd-sourced my trouble, hoping someone in the unlucky horde I’d detained might know not just that the news was bad but how I might get back into my life; I wanted to get my daughter back into hers, yet she’d just left home, so back into what we’d thought it could be.

A real-life friend, keeping it light: “Don’t worry. No one’s going to lynch her.”

***

In early summer, as planned, we moved out of our old house to a newer neighborhood. And I came to understand the cul-de-sac: six contiguous neighbors, and those nearest, as the crow flies, all have backyard decks with privacy fences. One day I heard what I thought was a domestic disturbance. I opened the back door and heard, above a murmuring group, a man shouting: “Fuck minorities! Fuck minorities!” Giving all benefit of the doubt to neighbors I hear but never see, he might have been a guest — though even their yard light at night looks sinister to me now — because I heard a woman trying to modulate him. I’d retreated so far into my private dread, my impatience with dread, that I instantly felt that, while the man is my adversary I can’t help but malign, he might be like me in just one way: exhausted by the rekindled racial animosity that won’t be contained soon, though his rationale for containing it is cruelly antithetical to mine.

Hoping he’s not terrifying is just hope, famously eternal.

***

In the early months of 2018, the Texas Observer broke a story revealing that most hate activity on campuses nationwide — and the majority, for some unexplained reason, targeted the state university where I teach — was masterminded by a 19-year-old in a Dallas suburb and his few dozen affiliates, one of whom on August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, drove his car into a crowd at a white supremacy rally. On October 19, 2017, three more were arrested for attempted murder at another white supremacy rally at the University of Florida. It took me days to understand that this news, the anonymity ripped away, was good, that the ability of a bigot the same age as my daughter to marshal a few dozen hellbent-on-bloodshed bigots might be curtailed. Yet perhaps because it happened near my kitchen, my bedroom, my family room, my safe haven, home, after I heard a neighbor screaming free speech over my privacy fence, it took me longer, months, to realize he probably won’t climb over and hurt someone.

One morning I was dreaming I was with another reporter, still talking about hate activity, but we paused and smiled because somewhere an orchestra was tuning up, clusters of musicians playing riffs, phrases, and lush music seemed about to start. Then I woke. Despite the milk-colored sky, which usually seems sad to me because I like my skies sunny and blue, for the first time in months a branch draped against it seemed draped as if for my pleasure — pleasure that has nothing to do with politics or history or comments or conversation. Pleasure arrived in one of those quiet moments I used to fill with trivial worry, trivial trouble. None of this was. And I’d compounded it, trying to confide. The trouble with serious trouble is that it’s so specific it’s almost impossible to describe.

Sometimes in public I accidentally still let some slip. The person I’ve detained looks bamboozled — as in wait, what? — maybe thinking the trouble I’ve mentioned is so unusual I surely caused or exaggerated it. But once in a while someone asks for details and says back: Man, that’s a lot. Or: You’ve handled this better than many people could. Or: I’ve actually appreciated watching you freak out because then you settle in again and deal, which helps me understand one day I’ll do the same for different reasons. Or: I worry you’re isolated. But in isolation I sense the violins tuning up, flutes and woodwinds testing possibility, the sun pressing against clouds, and I think that joy — which even in good times lasts just hours or days — is dormant, stirring. I insist on believing that comity in the neighborhood and everywhere is dormant, stirring. Until it’s back, I’ve stopped living my life on porches, real or virtual. I came inside.

* * *

Editor: Sari Botton