Thursday, June 4, 2020

More Than a Protest Sign

Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) suggested a way for white people to support protestors after the murder of George Floyd was to stand in front of local police precincts with a sign that says: End White Silence.

We probably should do that here where I live, but the silence around white supremacy and systemic racism is thick in our community. I don’t even think people would understand the message.

I can imagine someone yelling something, anything so they could declare, “I did it. I’m white and I make noise all the time.”

White posterboard with 'end white silence' painted in large black letters. One of the protestor's hands is visible as well as a tie dyed shirt.

The SURJ advice didn’t seem quite right for me or my immediate neighborhood, but I made the sign anyway and took it on a 30 minute journey to the city where there was a peaceful vigil for victims of police brutality. I hadn’t even figured out where to stand when a black man approached me and asked:

“What does that mean? White silence? What would it mean to end it?”

I’ve thought through this question extensively and was immediately able to offer an explanation with about four examples. This, you should know, is unusual for me. I’m a writer. My brain to mouth connection is really weak. Ask me “what do you do for fun?” and I’m likely to sputter until you give up and walk away.

But on this day, I explained that sign easily because white silence has been my life.

White silence prevented the little community church where I used to give so much of my time from issuing a statement condemning 45s racist “go back” tweet last summer. Other churches made statements, but we don’t talk about those things here. The pastors are sure to give extra time for silent prayers. Those are our favorite kind.

White silence made me too uncomfortable to push back when a fellow volunteer announced she didn’t want to hang a flyer in the Tarentum Family Dollar store even if they do have a bulletin board because “we don’t want those people coming to our event.”

“I think we want everyone to come, Heather,” I said. But I knew by ‘those people’ she meant black people. We can’t make each other feel uncomfortable though and I used to tell myself that if I pushed too hard, I wouldn’t like what was said next about ‘those people.’ Better to let them keep it in. Better if they’re silent.

White silence allows the MAGA hats and flags and signs to pepper our suburbs and rural areas along with “support the police” and thin blue line flags. No one pushes back, even when it’s a confederate flag flying. We don’t ask what it means to the person displaying it or what it is they like about the current occupant of the White House.

White silence is advertised on our township web site in a series of high definition videos touting our police force (we have a lot of 'em) and our safety (did we mention we have so many police?).

Our white silence ensures the kids in our community will grow up just the way we did. We can't change what we don't acknowledge, and that is obviously the point.

What would it mean to end white silence? Lots of uncomfortable social interaction. Deep conversations. Self-examination. But at the end of it, we'd emerge from our fear. We could fight against injustice. We could make America great for the first time.

I brought the sign home and kept it. Perhaps someday I will have the courage to take it to the township building. That would definitely start a conversation.