One of the major themes in my novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus, centers on the power of finding your own voice. Sometimes the obstacles in front of us feel way too overwhelming to tackle. On top of that there is the failure — in public! around people you know! — that can keep us from speaking up. But often if we’re able to push back against that fear, it can be possible to take one tiny step forward. And then another step forward. And another. And before you know it, you’ve grown so big that now the obstacles are looking up at you, and THEY are the ones getting overwhelmed.
Today, I had the good fortune to speak with Chris Lenois of Green Mountain Mornings on WKVT radio and talk about the importance of speaking up in light of the white supremacist gatherings happening in Charlottesville and other places. Even if it’s hard, and even if we’re afraid we’re going to do it wrong, we can’t afford to be silent.
Here is my column that served as the basis for our conversation:
Our collective horror over the events in Charlottesville was deep and palpable. But just as pressing was the question: “What can we do about it?”
One of the videos that made the rounds on social media soon after was a Saturday Night Live clip with Tina Fey eating sheet cake in reaction to the horrors of the news. I’m all for sheet cake, but that cannot be the end of the sentence.
The cake may be the short-term band-aid our soul needs until we can find our way to action, but we must act. Tina Fey urged people to stay home and let the white supremacists march in a vacuum, but our silence will not speak louder than their rallies.
There were no headlines during the Jim Crowe era about the thousands who stayed home and didn’t join the KKK. Instead, the actions of the Klan echoed throughout society, just as the message of the Charlottesville white supremacists could echo throughout our country today if left unchecked. And that is a dangerous prospect.
A call to action issued by the Daily Stormer (a fascist website that has since been taken down by GoDaddy) laid out a clear marketing strategy that draws on the same dynamics in our society that shaped the last election: the swaths of disaffected white men who were taught to bottle up their emotions and assume their superiority, and who, when economic success hasn’t been forthcoming, have ended up angry and eager to blame. The white supremacists are using their voices, trying to recruit. What are we going to do with our voices?
I used to think there were benefits to the way our society’s racism came into clearer focus during President Obama’s tenure because finally whites wouldn’t be able to pretend it didn’t exist, and we’d be able to address it more directly.
But in the week after Charlottesville, it felt instead like opening up this box of ugliness was only going to embolden other racists, anti-Semites, and white supremacists. What happens when people start feeling like it’s okay to say blatantly racist things out loud?
When gripes about “political correctness” really mean that we shouldn’t have basic societal norms that require decency towards our fellow humans? Those social norms are vital for the same reason we have laws that instill consequences for assault and murder. A functional, democratic society can’t exist without them.
But those social norms don’t exist in places where people don’t value them, and they will disappear from other areas if the loudest voices are the ones peddling hate and racism.
And people understand this. When 75 white supremacists rallied in Boston to show their strength, 40,000 counter protesters showed up to march in the name of love and Black Lives Matter.
Last week in Keene, N.H., hundreds lined Main Street in love, lighting each other’s candles and reminding each other to “Be the light.” The day after Charlottesville, 144 folks gathered at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center’s Local Love Brigade event to send love postcards to key organizations in the area.
These voices make a difference. The day the love postcards arrived, we received a note from a woman who works at a Jewish center at UVA expressing her deep gratitude for the postcards and raising the possibility that the student leaders at the center might start a Local Love Brigade of their own. “From kindness, comes kindness,” she said. “From light, to light.”
Together we can drown out those who hate. We need to make it clear to those the white supremacists are trying to intimidate that they are not alone, and that we will never stand by and watch our country become more racist rather than less. We need to talk about it at work, in classrooms, at the grocery store, and at school pick-up. And when a neighbor makes a casual yet racist remark, we need to be ready to respond. Even if we don’t yet feel ready to engage that neighbor in a discussion of racism and white privilege, a simple reply of, “I wouldn’t put it that way” is a decent start. You might be by yourself in that moment, but know that you are connected to a long line a people whispering in your ear, “Be the light.” Because if we care about making our country a more just and compassionate place, silence is not an option.
Ann Braden lives in Brattleboro and serves on the leadership team for GunSenseVT, the Local Love Brigade, and the Windham County Action Network (WeCAN). She writes about the joys and struggles of staying engaged in democracy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.