Op-Ed

Staying quiet in face of racism is no longer enough

Protesters listen during a “Peace and Sanity” rally Sunday in the Brooklyn, New York, during a rally about white-supremacy violence in Charlottesville, Va.
Protesters listen during a “Peace and Sanity” rally Sunday in the Brooklyn, New York, during a rally about white-supremacy violence in Charlottesville, Va. Associated Press

Within minutes of seeing it, I send a message to his mother, my cousin. “Have you seen your son’s new tattoo?”

I’d spotted the tattoo on her son’s Facebook page, big on his shoulder, still shiny and fresh. There is a Confederate flag. There is a noose. There are the words Southern Justice scrolled across.

“Oh, I’ve seen it,” she says, brushing me off. “He just turned 18. He’s a grownup. What am I supposed to do?”

You are supposed to act like his mother, I want to scream. You are supposed to teach him this symbol is hateful and that you do not approve.

But I don’t. I am a polite, white, southern woman, so I gather myself up in silence the way I’ve been taught, in ladylike politesse. And I let it drop.

Writer Jamilah Lemieux writes: In times like this, white people are quick to throw their hands up and dissociate themselves from racism and the person accused of the racist act. But how many of them can say they have actively worked to challenge the racism in the people around them?

I let it drop.

I have not actively worked.

I have sat quietly.

My dad tells his favorite joke: Little Black Sambo is sitting on the toilet, sick with diarrhea, screaming,” Mom! I’m melting!” Dad laughs. All the kids hoot and giggle. I give my dad a look, but he simply shrugs and says, “Oh, lighten up.” I go silent.

I once heard poet Maya Angelou speak at my school. “Used to be,” she said, in her low-timbered voice, “when someone told a joke about blacks or Mexicans or Catholics at some dinner party, I would show my disapproval with my silence. Didn’t want to rock the boat. Didn’t want to make a scene. Didn’t want to call attention. But now! “ her voice thundered , “now I turn on my heel and take up my pocketbook and my wrap and out the door I go. Even if I’m the guest of honor!”

Giving a look is not enough.

I have not actively worked.

I have sat quietly.

After Sunday mass, with FOX News on the TV, my mother makes a big breakfast while my stepfather rages for a good hour about how much he hates all the neighbors he has just seen in church, how all politicians and n****** and spics should be lined up and shot down with machine guns, and how those fags with AIDS got what they deserved. “Put them on an island somewhere,” he says, “and set it on fire.”

My mother pours him another cup of coffee. We exchange glances.

Glances are not enough.

I have not actively worked.

I have sat quietly.

Aunt Mary has several grandchildren, their photos prominently displayed on her living room shelves. “Where are the pictures of Rae’s kids?” I ask.

She leads me into her bedroom, tugs at the top drawer of her dresser, and hands me a stack of baby photos and grade-school photos and high school photos. Rae’s mixed-race children.

When I raise a brow she says, “Don’t you give me that. These are my grandkids, and I love them just as much as the rest.”

When I don’t answer, Aunt Mary sighs, “You don’t live here no more. You don’t know my neighbors. They’ll call me a n***** lover behind my back. I live alone and I need my neighbors to help take care of me. I can’t afford your political correctness.”

I hand the stack of pictures back to her. She returns them to the drawer, shoves it closed.

Raising my brow is not enough.

I have not actively worked.

I have sat quietly.

I recall Lemieux’s words — how quick I am to throw up my hands, to not rock the boat — and I know I am both in the wrong, and not alone.

It is not hard to say the KKK is a domestic-terrorist organization; the Confederate flag is a symbol of supremacy and intimidation; alt-right hate groups like Vanguard America and The Daily Stormer must be publicly repudiated and shunned; and President Donald Trump’s vague response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va., is both shockingly unacceptable and a stain on our country.

We can do more than give up, let it drop, give a glance, leave the room and raise a brow. We can do more than go to church, say a prayer, hide our photos in drawer, and whisper “knock it off.”

We can stop sitting quietly. We can actively work. We can stand up and scream: Enough.

Teri Carter, a writer living in Lawrenceburg, can be reached at www.tericarter.net/contact.html.

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