Racism and structural inequality are still there, even if you scribble over them with rainbows and Elsa.
Not long before the 2016 election, I had a discussion with my ophthalmologist’s assistant about then candidate Trump and his white supremacist dog whistles. She was a woman of color, and she said that she was glad that it was finally out in the open.
I’ve since realized how right she was, having seen how many of my “nice” neighbors here in Greenwich, CT, are willing to look away from racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and misogyny — as long as they get their tax cuts.
Last week when I went for a walk in a local park, a long list of people who’d died in police use of force incidents was chalked on the pavement. Some I knew, because their deaths had been widely publicized. Others were new to me — I searched their names as I walked in order to learn their stories.
Even though there were names missing, the list — each representing a human life, a father, a mother, a child, a sister, a brother, an aunt, an uncle — the names stretched along the path, from one bridge to another, just across the street from the church where white flags were planted to represent each of the CT lives lost to Covid 19.
Seeing all the names reminded me of the time my husband got lost in Belle Haven, the exclusive private association in Greenwich with its own security, home to billionaire hedge fund titans like Paul Tudor Jones and Ray Dalio. When he got home, he told me how he’d been driving around in circles noticing all the enormous houses, yet hadn’t been stopped by security.
“That’s because you were a white guy in a nice car,” I said. “I bet you anything that if you were a person of color you’d have been stopped.”
He agreed. It was one of those moments when we were both extremely conscious of the privilege our skin color gives us — even though as Jews, there are plenty of racists who don’t consider us white. That’s a topic for another day.
Yesterday, when we were walking the dogs, we found that someone had taken the time to scribble over every single name of the Black Lives Matter memorial in the park. I was furious then, and every time I passed the crossed out names while walking this morning became furious all over again.
Whoever took the time to deface the Black Lives Matter memorial apparently had their kids watching them as they whitewashed the pain of black families with cutesy pink and green chalk. Did they think that having their kids write ELSA and “I love you Momy” (sic), or drawing hearts and rainbows next to the damage they’d done make it any less awful or offensive ?
I can’t help wondering what they told their kids as they were doing it — “Now Mommy and Daddy are going to cross out the names of all these black people who died in various incidents with law enforcement because….” Because what? What possible reason could they have for justifying it? Because if we don’t have to read them during our walk in the park we can pretend that systemic injustice doesn’t exist? Because it pricks our conscience to be confronted by these names when all we want to do is enjoy the sunshine in our perfectly landscaped bubble?
People of color don’t have that luxury and privilege. They can’t look away. Neither should we.
I’ve often spoken and written about how we as adults must model the behavior we want to see. Ever since I saw those names scribbled over yesterday, I’ve thought about the experiment that Jane Elliott did with her third grade students in Riceville, Iowa after the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April 1968.
Elliott struggled with how to explain the concept of racism to her all-white class. She asked her students if they understood what it was like to be something other than white in the United States.
They didn’t, but seemed open to learning, so Elliott came up with the following experiment using eye color as the basis for discrimination.
“Blue-eyed children must use a cup to drink from the fountain. Blue-eyed children must leave late to lunch and to recess. Blue-eyed children were not to speak to brown-eyed children. Blue-eyed children were troublemakers and slow learners.
Within 15 minutes, Elliott says, she observed her brown-eyed students morph into youthful supremacists and blue-eyed children become uncertain and intimidated…When they were saying and doing those things to one another, they were being their preachers, their parents, people on television — they were practicing what they had learned. I learned you don’t have to have people of color in a community to have racism. My third-graders knew every negative stereotype they’d ever heard about blacks, and there were no blacks in Riceville, Iowa.”
That’s why I can’t stop thinking about the people who crossed out those names — because safe in their privilege, they are modeling behavior that their young children will learn, and those children will grow up to perpetuate racial inequality in this country.
Deborah Eisenberg wrote this in her introduction to Gregor Von Rezzori’s Memoir of an Anti-Semite:
It’s easy enough for most of us to distance ourselves from attitudes of virulent racism, but what about from carelessness, casual snobbery — either social or intellectual — inattentiveness? Rezzori reminds us painfully that the great and malignant hazard of privilege is obtuseness.”
“What does it take to be a “decent person”? Maybe the most significant component is luck — the good luck to be born into a place and moment that inflicts minimal cruelty and thus does not require from us the courage to discern and resist its tides.”
Just because we can’t see the names now, it doesn’t mean all the people on that long list are alive. They’re still dead, leaving their families and communities grieving. Just because you tried to whitewash (or pink and green wash) their names out of existence, it doesn’t mean that we should continue to be obtuse.
Say their names. Don’t block them out. Read. Do better. Otherwise your malignant privilege will make Greenwich an ugly place, despite its perfectly manicured parks.