#BlackLivesMatter Rural White Organizing
I live in a small rural town in liberal New England. So liberal that in my town of 8,000 people, less than 125 people voted for Trump in the 2016 US primary election. It is a college town with a small liberal arts school anchoring the intellectual life of the community. My neighborhood is right next to the college and the town elementary school. My neighbors are mostly staff and faculty at the college. We don’t lock our doors. In fact, I have never owned a key to my front door, in 9 years I have not locked it once.
Like most small New England towns, my town is overwhelmingly white. Most white people in town would say that they are not racist and they would say that more-or-less, racism isn’t a problem here.
Last year Showing Up for Racial Justice launched a yard sign campaign. According to SURJ, the idea was for folks in predominantly white communities to post Black Lives Matter signs in their yards or windows providing them with an immediate action step: by putting up a sign, people make their support for Black Lives Matter public and help to create a visible presence of white people in solidarity with the movement for black lives. When I heard about this idea I was discouraged. Was this what we had reduced white activism to? Lawn signs.
The idea seemed so pithy. When black people are being killed across the country the idea of posting a plastic sign in my front lawn seemed like it was minimizing the extreme violence against black, brown and indigenous people.
A few months after the campaign was launched some of my neighbors started to ask me where they could get lawn signs. The requests increased when a local church dedicated a month to discussing racism in the United States. I finally caved after I read a PBS poll about white people’s opinions about Black Lives Matter. I ordered 50 bright yellow signs from a local sign shop and also developed an info sheet to go with them. The sheet talked about other ways you could show that black lives matter to you, beyond just putting a sign in your yard. The signs went like hotcakes.
The reality is that white people boldly stating that Black Lives Matter is important. A September 2015 poll from PBS NewsHour and Marist College’s Institute for Public Opinion showed the opinions of people about Black Lives Matter and structural racism in the US. The poll showed that:
- A majority of white residents, 58%, characterize the confederate flag as a source of southern pride compared with 67% of African Americans who describe it as a symbol of racism.
- Nearly six in ten white people believe that Black Lives Matter distracts attention from the “real issues of discrimination.”
- While a majority of whites, 52%, report a middle-class lifestyle is equally attainable regardless of race, six in ten African Americans, 60%, disagree, saying they have less opportunity.
My neighborhood, a well-preserved 19th-century mill village with tenement-style double housing units closely placed next to the elementary school, picked up a bulk of the signs. Our neighborhood often has signs for politicians, signs against the pipeline, and signs supporting the local hospital union. Signs are not a rare thing, and I have never heard of anyone having any problems with their signs.
I was able to have some productive conversations with my white neighbors. I also noticed how I felt personally when I left my house and saw a field of signs down the street, as an anti-racism activist I felt heard, my friends of color told me that they were feeling the same walking and driving through town. People started doing more than putting up signs, they came to workshops about anti-racism for white people. They told me that they started talking to their kids about racism. The signs were actually doing something!
Within days of the signs going up, I started to find out that the signs were going missing. The missing signs seemed so odd that we actually started looking around our yards to see if the wind had blown them away. Then we realized that the wind was not to blame, people were taking the signs from our front lawns.
This wasn’t just an issue in my neighborhood, signs across town were being taken too. Signs on main street were taken, signs on dead-end roads were taken, signs next to the school were taken, signs in front of businesses were taken. ALL of the signs were eventually taken.
Co-founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Andrea Lee Smith says, “Racial justice organizing is not about confessing race privilege, saying all the right radical things and trying to avoid offending people of color. It’s about building social movements that can dismantle white supremacy. Everyone needs to do that work.”
I know, sign theft isn’t a violent act. You might be thinking that people are dying and I’m complaining about missing yard signs. The thing is, the disappearing signs is a sign. It is a sign that the message that black lives matter is a radical statement that people do not just disagree with but will actively remove. They will actively remove 50 signs.
“White lives matter / all lives matter is like saying ‘The sky is blue’ or ‘The sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening.’ In other words, it is not only obvious and goes without saying that all lives matter, we also know how much white lives matter–particularly when you are not white. White lives are the standards to which people of color are held accountable, and those to which people of color are taught to strive to obtain. And what’s so fascinating about ‘all lives matter’ or ‘white lives matter’ as a response to black people demanding our humanity be respected and our dignity be restored, is that it makes it that much more obvious that white supremacy permeates nearly every aspect of our social, economic and political conditions. In essence, most of the backlash to #BlackLivesMatter is in fact backlash in response to the fear of a black planet–or at least, an increasingly multiracial one where white people will no longer be the majority. Hence, the non-movement to re-establish once again that white lives matter and the hasty substitution of all lives matter for people who really want to say white lives matter.”
The people in my town who didn’t think we had a problem with racism have clearly not spoken to my friends and students of color who often explain to me how they do not feel safe here. They tell me how it is hard to find jobs in town. My friends tell me how people stare at them on the main street. They tell me how people assume that they are waitstaff at events and at restaurants. They tell me about how their kids are called horribly racist things at the little elementary school next to my house. They tell me about how they get pulled over all the time and given tickets in a town where the local white people usually get warnings. In my town, and across the United States, we have a white supremacy issue.
The statement Black Lives Matter is simply a statement demanding that humanity be respected and dignity be restored to black people. This statement is so offensive to people that they will uproot signs, bar people with Black Lives Matter shirts from democratic campaign events, prevent the message in courtrooms, yell at and send home a student from a public high school, and complain when their law professor wears a Black Lives Matter shirt.
Middle School Teacher, Julia Blount said, “If you are not listening, not exposing yourself to unfamiliar perspectives, not watching videos, not engaging in conversation, then you are perpetuating white privilege and white supremacy. It is exactly your ability to not hear, to ignore the situation, that is a mark of your privilege. People of color cannot turn away. Race affects our lives every day. We must consider it all the time, not just when it is convenient.”
We need to learn about the racialized history of our communities and about the racialized history of America. Arthur Chu says, “asking your black friend or Asian friend what books they’d recommend will probably be received a lot better than asking them to explain race to you right then and there.”
So, white people, we need to stand with our cousins of color and say that Black Lives Matter. We need to acknowledge that we live on stolen land and support our indigenous neighbors so that they have full access to their land. We need to post a damn sign. We need to do more than post signs, we need to dismantle whiteness. Professor Brittney Cooper says, “White people should recognize that the best way to be good allies is to go work among their own people (white people) to create more allies.” So, go forth and work to dismantle whiteness.