This weekend (Aug 11 & 12, 2017), so-called white nationalists held rallies in Charlottesville, VA. As is predictable, the rallies turned violent as clashes between white nationalists (at least some of whom brought weapons) and counter-protestors (some of whom were present precisely to escalate any clashes that occurred). On Saturday, one of the participants from the rally intentionally slammed his car into a crowd of multi-racial activists who were leaving a counter-protest. He killed at least one person, and inured at 19 others.
In response, President Trump condemned in strong terms, “the violence on many sides.” While it appears there was indeed, in this situation, violence on many sides, to equate the violences is despicable and shameful. To the President who represents all of the United States, and this president who has made it clear that he particularly represents white men, equating violence perpetrated in the name of hate and white (and male) supremacy with the violence of self-defense is to support white (and male) supremacy.
I have several responses — as a human being, as a racial and gender justice activist, and as a dad. I’m attempting to give voice to these various responses.
As a human being and an activist, I feel a need to look a bit more deeply at the violence that was perpetrated (as a side note, no the violence did not “occur.” It was consciously and strategically perpetrated). The white nationalist movement (and Trump administration via rhetoric and practice) is not equal opportunity white pride. The agenda of the white nationalist movement does not (and is not intended) to benefit all white people equally. While there are women involved in white nationalism, they are not in leadership roles, are not made visible, and do not use white nationalism to justify their violence and abuse. For me, the marriage of white nationalism and male supremacy is a marriage that demands further attention from us as promoters of human rights.
In this context, women who opposed the white nationalist movement are subject to particular forms of hostility, violence and abuse. The one person who was killed was a woman. She may not have been targetted, but I also seriously doubt that it was an accident. It may not have been conscious, but the driver who ploughed into the crowd was making active decisions throughout. It’s not hard to imagine that he saw her at some point and turned towards her.
Part of our analysis and our efforts needs to include detecting and exposing the intersections of oppression and violence that occur when things like this happen. It’s easy to see and respond to this as only about race. But doing so does our work for justice, and the lives of the activist who was killed and those who were hurt a great disservice. Our greatest effectiveness comes from relentlessly exposing how justice, and equality are interwoven and developing actions that speak to this.
As a man who has white skin trying to raise a son who also has white skin in these times and in this context, I have other responses. I am scared, sad, confused, angry… I am deeply troubled that a significant number of male human beings who have white skin seem to believe that their humanity is based on their whiteness and manhood, and the way to assert their humanity is to deny the humanity of others.
As I wrote in January, When I get disturbed, I am to be disturbing.
As a dad, my job has become harder under President Trump (and my Governor in Kentucky who models a similar version of white manhood) and his response this weekend to this unspeakable act has doubled down on the difficulty of raising a child of conscious, good will, and kindness. A child representing the best qualities of what makes us Americans.
We are striving to raise Kiernan (who will be 8 in about a month) to understand himself to be a person with white skin â€“ which doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But also raise him to recognize that that he’s living in a world that is going to treat him as if “being white” does actually mean something. And the “meaning” is added value to him as a human being. As if his being white grants his brand of humanity greater value and potential.
We are similarly striving to raise him to understand himself as a person who has a penis (in some kind of way that doesn’t necessarily reinforce the gender binary) and that this doesn’t mean anything. And further, how to navigate in a world that is going to treat him like his having a penis does means something in terms of his value and potential.
Part of this means that we take him to rallies and marches â€“ including a local rally against the atrocities in Charlottesville this past Sunday. And while it’s important that we have him join us at Black Lives Matter rallies and Take Back the Night Marches, we have so much more to do if we truly want him to recognize his white and male privilege.
So as we’re reading Land of Stories, we have side conversations about why only two characters is in the series (so far) are defined as not-white and what that means. Many of the characters skin color is not described, and white privilege suggests that this means they’re white. But we talk with Kiernan that we can’t assume that and if the author doesn’t tell us, we can decide what skin color each character has. Which often leads into a great conversation about if and why it matters.
We have a “Black Lives Matter” yard sign in our yard and we talk with friends and others who are leery of putting one up in their yards (even tho they support the message) because they worry about possible conflict with their neighbors. We help Kiernan develop a language of how to do what may be uncomfortable.
We talk a lot about compassion, and how compassion means that we don’t necessarily have to understand why someone got their feelings hurt. Compassion (at least in our household) demands that we hear that we hurt someone and take responsibility for what we did. Not having to understand also means we don’t have to necessarily understand why one friend doesn’t get their feelings hurt when we do something, while another friend does.
In this way, we’re laying the foundation to, later, talk about how it is that historic racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-semitism might set people who are black or brown, female, gay, and/or Jewish to experience actions or words differently (and more hurtful) than those who have white skin, and/or male, and/or heterosexual, and/or Christian. People with white skin may not understand the threat posed by other white people with guns talking about “white pride.” We don’t have to understand. We need to hear that a whole lot of black and brown folks are threatened by this. The fact that they feel threatened matters. Our compassion responds to that!
This basis also means the “I didn’t mean anything by it” defense isn’t a defense. People with white skin have a long pattern of saying that because we didn’t mean to be racist we therefore weren’t. We’ve heard a parallel argument from white nationalists: they’re not anti-black, they’re pro-white.
Now I can hear the counter argument already — “saying that ‘Black Lives Matter’ means white lives don’t. Isn’t that hurtful to us? And even tho they aren’t meaning to be hurtful to us doesn’t this rule of compassion apply?!?”
A part of true compassion means recognizing differential impact. There is a difference between hurt feelings and feeling or being threatened. There is a difference between my being excluded and being annihilated.
In my last blog, I wrote about our responsibility, when we have a seat at the table, to notice who may be on the menu. We talk with Kiernan about who is and who isn’t being included and excluded in his activities. He’s too young to begin talking about the politically and human rights meaning as it relates to other folks being excluded, but we lay the foundation by helping him to notice.
The events in Charlottesville and since have provided us as a family made up of people who have white skin to explore the issues of racism, sexism, and white and male privilege a bit further. And to explore how we can move our efforts beyond exploration and discussion to action.
In closing let me just clarify — this is not about white male guilt. This is about human empowerment from a person who happens to be male and have white skin!
© 2017 Rus Ervin Funk