This was not the first time local hate groups and the KKK attempted to protest the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee in downtown Charlottesville, VA. Teenage activist Zyahna Bryant came up with the idea of taking down this confederate statue, which many locals view as a symbol of Jim Crow era oppression. This proposal gained widespread community support, and Charlottesville’s vice mayor called on City Council to take the statue down. But it was the first time in recent memory that Charlottesville had been targeted by coordinated collection of out-of-state hate groups, who bussed in violent agitators intending to do harm, leading to violence that gained national attention.
I was out of town when the riots happened, on vacation at a national park out west. I had just finished a 12-mile hike and and when I returned to cell range and switched on my phone, I discovered nearly a dozen messages from friends and family asking if I was OK. Before Heather Heyer was identified, the only details released following the intentional attack when a white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of peaceful protestors was that the victim was a white woman in her mid-thirties, like me. After reassuring everyone that I was OK, I checked on my friends who had attended the protests, started obsessively reading the news, and began to mourn.
Local activist groups organized a candlelight vigil attended by thousands, and national activist groups mobilized to create vigils in cities around the nation in solidarity.
Quickly, the questions started to pour in: Why were these hate groups so emboldened? Why had they targeted Charlottesville? Why were the police told to stand down when the heavily armed agitators started attacking the crowd? I think the biggest question white communities must ask ourselves is: Why are we so surprised that this happened?
There is a long and open history of racist violence in most rural Virginia towns. Almost every small town has a story about the city seizing property and and violently displacing African American citizens from majority-African American neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s. Many rural Virginia towns were known as segregation-era “sundown towns,” which banned African Americans after sunset. The boutique hotel The Blackburn Inn in Staunton, VA was once Western State Hospital, a site of active practice of eugenics, led by noted eugenicist Joseph DeJarnett.
There are hundreds of statues of Confederate leaders in rural Virginia towns, most of them erected during the Great Migration, when Jim Crow era laws were put in place to limit the rights and safety of African Americans. Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue was erected in 1924. White communities live in and among these sites, and we become desensitized to the history and meaning of the monuments of violent white supremacy culture.
My Facebook feed the following week was equal parts shock and outrage (mostly by white friends), and stoic but acerbic comments (mostly by friends of color) asking the rest of us why we were just noticing the threat of white supremacy now, when institutional racism, violence, and segregation have been a part of our community as long as this community has been a community.
I’ve struggled with this question all week. When Tina Fey’s sheet-caking clip from “Saturday Night Live” landed all over my Facebook feed — cheered by many white progressives and criticized by many progressives of color — I was finally able to articulate the problem. What exactly was the difference between narratives about white supremacist violence coming from white people versus from communities of color?
The urgency that comes from understanding that the threat posed by hate and violence is immediate and personal. For many communities of color, this threat — of discrimination at best, fatal violence at worst — is and has been a part of daily life in America. Many white people only started paying attention when the threat was made emotionally real from the violence of August 12.
In many white communities, threats of hate, prejudice, and violence are not real on a personal level — in large part thanks to the overall level of privilege and safety that is an inherent part of the default experience in many white communities. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, many white communities are not even used to thinking of themselves as “white communities.” We accept, without thinking critically, that our communities are just “communities,” even if the majority of our neighbors and the people we interact with on a daily basis are white.
Who gets the qualifying adjective is a subtle but extremely important point in matters of personal and community identity: those who don’t need an adjective to describe themselves are members of the dominant culture, the culture considered to be the default. Everyone else must qualify themselves with descriptive adjectives — and are considered by the dominant culture as outsiders to the dominant culture’s community. This often means that by default, the voices, needs, hardships, and celebrations of so many communities aren’t known or even recognized by the dominant culture. The dominant culture — which in the case of Charlottesville, like in much of America, remains white culture — gets to live in relative but contented isolation and ignorance. Until major tragedies happen that command our attention.
White people — what can we do in this moment to fight white supremacy?
Here are a few ideas I’ve focused on in recent weeks:
- Understand and internalize that white supremacy threatens all of us. You are never insulated and safe from hate and prejudice and violence; the threat of white supremacy is a threat to everyone, not just the Jewish community, the Black community, communities of color, Muslim communities, the LGBTQI community, or immigrant communities. Emboldened and violent domestic terrorists are not ideologues — they are bullies looking for victims. Anyone could be the next victim. White supremacy is an “us” problem, not a “them” problem.
- Understand the limits of your own cultural filter bubble, and start listening to voices and opinions and experiences of people outside your bubble. Social media creates feedback loops where you get shown more content similar to content that you’ve previously engaged with. If you get your news and cultural context from social media, understand that you are by design being shown content you are likely to agree with. For most white folks, this means by default we are mostly shown content created by white people. Understand how much of your identity, community, and culture is actually self-reenforcing “white” culture, and challenge yourself to look beyond it.
- Read and listen to the many strong Black voices talking about what happened in Charlottesville.
- Acknowledge how you benefit from white supremacy in the form of privilege and safety. White supremacy creates a zero-sum game out of the right to safety and autonomy: the more you are given, the less others receive. This is a false dichotomy, but it’s enforced in structural ways across all aspects of American society. Learning the history of racism can feel scary for white folks, because it forces us to acknowledge that our safety is at the expense of the safety of others. But when white communities avoid learning the history of racist violence, our ignorance creates conditions that can lead to more and more emboldened white supremacists actions, like the United The Right rally.
- Bring hard discussions about racism to white communities. Do you already consider yourself “a good progressive?” Instead of just reposting the words of others condemning the violence in Charlottesville on social media and then calling it a day, or showing up to Black communities asking how you can help — both of which are important, first steps — next, do the harder thing and bring real discussions of racism into your white community, and actually look at the symbols and stories you have conditioned yourself to avoid or ignore.
- Bring hard discussions about racism to your workplace. At work, make a point to talk to your coworkers about equitable hiring and leadership development practices. Actually notice when you’re in a room that is 100% white — and ask yourself what kind of white culture you’re in right now, where it came from, and whether it’s possible that you’re excluding important voices and experiences. Advocate for anti-oppression training at your place of work.
- Know the history of your community. Do you live in a neighborhood impacted by real estate red-lining in the 60s? How did your community respond to The Great Migration? What was the Jim Crow era like in your town? What statues are in your town square, where did they come from, and what do they mean?
The threat of hate groups and white supremacist violence is real, and the threat is personal. White supremacists and other bigots are bullies looking for victims. We must stand up to these bullies, condemn their words and actions, take away their resources, and hold them accountable. To be able to do this effectively, we must break out of the confines of white fragility, know our history, and be prepared to take action.
What happened last week wasn’t an aberration, it was a continuation. If we want to truly change things, we need to really listen to communities of color, acknowledge how white supremacy culture manifests itself in our lives and in our communities, and act to disrupt and dismantle it.