On Safety Pins and Safety Nets

As of two weeks since the presidential election, hate crimes have soared across the country, as expected, particularly in red states, although incidents have also been reported in many racially diverse, traditionally Democratic communities. Children have been criminally bullied in the sanctity of their classrooms. Doctors have been assaulted by patients demanding to be treated by whites only. But the pain hasn’t come only from words hurled at innocent people and signs spray painted across garage doors, school walls, and cars. Hundreds of people of color have suffered actual violation of and injuries to their bodies, and many are afraid for their own and their loved ones’ lives.

In The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the tragedy of the black body, how dispensable and vulnerable it has always been in America. Black and brown bodies have carried America on their backs since her inception, while never ceasing to be perceived as threats and treated as targets. I remind my students about the role of social media in the public’s awareness of crimes against people of color, including police brutality. No, it isn’t just starting to happen. No, it isn’t getting worse. We are simply seeing it now because we have phones that are smart, and a worldwide forum in which we can show our outrage by posting videos and memes, and clicking buttons to express solidarity, and now, even displeasure.

Click enough and you’ll find groups of people who have come together to further a cause against an injustice with which you are also incensed. Some groups take on a plethora of causes and injustices because they recognize that all oppression is connected, and therefore, no injustice can be fundamentally remedied in isolation. There is solace in these online communities. People like to feel that they are not alone, to know that even though their immediate family members, colleagues, friends, and community might shun their views and ways of being, there is a place, albeit existing only in the virtual realm, where they are not alone.

I only stay with groups that build action. The rest are litter for the already overloaded brain. Many online communities, no matter their original nature and intent, quickly and invariably become a platform for various tellings of the white narrative of the great American Guilt. Here, people post stories of injustices they witness, expressing genuine dismay about how wrong it felt to see a person blatantly degraded, and how helpless they were in the face of this or the other violation of a fellow American’s humanity. This isn’t right, one woman writes. How can this kind of thing happen in America? another asks, truly shocked at her first encounter with actionable racism. A man describes how volatile students have become at the neighborhood school, and shares that he plans to keep his sons at home until things settle.

A woman recounts in excruciating detail how a family of color was assaulted at a neighborhood restaurant, ordered to go back to the jungle or start picking cotton, how the father sat there, silently, I assume because speaking or moving would entail unleashing a volcano whose lava might be the only chance we have of wiping away the blood at the roots of the American tree. Destroy back or stay silent, I imagine the man speaking to himself, a mantra passed down by generations of survivors who came before, and who knew that to speak, or to move, might make orphans of their children. She had wanted to say something, do something, she writes, but was “literally afraid of what that person might do.” Because no matter the safety pin on her blouse and the fist in the air, her utmost responsibility is to her own body, whose safety is paramount to all moral tenets, and to conscience. I understand; for, what are we without our bodies?

I am white. I was told so, when I first came to this country. Until then, I was Armenian. I am not the kind of white that’s now being called to fulfill a patriotic duty to supposedly return America to its European roots. Most white people reading my blog aren’t. My hair and eyes are dark. My curves, too, speak of the Middle East. I have never known a fear for the integrity of my body, and am safe, for now, because I am white. My husband and children are not, and while I have always feared for their safety, today, more than ever, I am aware of the vulnerability of their bodies. Because the black body has always been perceived as a threat, it has become an acceptable target.

Of course, people speak up in social media and go out into the streets to demand justice for slain bodies of color. But even to us, assaults on the black body are acceptable, albeit maddeningly unjust and infuriating. Because if murders and violations of black and brown people were truly unacceptable, meaning not allowed to exist, we would never leave the streets until perpetrators were behind bars for life, and there were enduring guarantees that such injustice would never again be committed in our country. But we fold our signs, unfold our fists, lament the state of affairs and our own helplessness, and we retreat into the safety of our whiteness.

We can’t do this anymore.

Let us remind ourselves that it is not Trump who won this election. Every presidential election marks a shift in the collective purpose and philosophy of a country’s majority. Every election, no matter the winner, is, in effect, a temperature check of its citizens’ political fervor, a record of their collective moral pulse. Let us acknowledge that this victory belongs to white supremacists. They have risen and will continue to grow in numbers, their proudly unmasked salutes and rifles pointing in the direction of Americans of non-European descent. And it will be people of color they target first. Because, first, they will come for those whose bodies are easily identified as other. It’s Trump who will be in the White House, surrounded mostly by white men, who will steer the country in the direction where the arrow is pointing. Richard Spencer and other Klansmen without white hoods and burning crosses are the true winners of this election. Their goal is to create an ethnostate for people they claim to be the real Americans, those of European descent who ignore the part of their arrival and settlement that had entailed the genocide and mass displacement of people of color, the original Americans.

Parenting consciously at a time like this is quite the challenge. As if it weren’t already unbearably difficult to craft a human being, we now face the challenge of parenting responsibly in the face of blatant bigotry and injustice. For some, this has always been so. And for some of us, the veil is just now being lifted to reveal the brutality of the world in which we live. Our tasks and challenges are many, and we will grapple with them as they arise, as parents always do. But let’s make diversity a conscious priority. Let’s do so in meaningful ways. It is not enough that our children are friends with the black mailman, and share their crayons with the two brown children in their class. It is not enough that they have a Muslim teacher they adore, or a white teacher they can actually trust. In order for us not to be in a state of shock each time we come face to face with hatred, let us talk to our brothers and sisters of color who have lived with this hatred and fear all their lives. Let us not assume that we know because we nodded our way through Things Fall Apart and By Any Means Necessary, and because our soul screams “Preach!” every time we hear Nina Simone shout, “Too slow!” Let us understand that if we are white, we are not to be trusted by people of color until we have earned their trust. It doesn’t matter where our hearts are unless what they speak translates into tangible actions born from conscious efforts to build bridges.

Let’s ask ourselves how many people of color our white children love, and how many white people our children of color love. Not how many they can name, but with how many they have shared enough secrets, enough laughter, enough moments of truth to grow to love them. Because bodies we love cannot be dispensable. And because when those we love are vulnerable, we can never turn away or speak of turning the other cheek.

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