Changing The Narrative

My wife’s eyes were damp when she came home from our daughter’s dance class yesterday. She quickly told me why.

***

“I was sitting there, and other moms were in a group talking about the Nazi rally and the Confederate statues. One woman said something about how she didn’t understand why people wanted to remove the statues. ‘It’s just history; why do people want to erase history?’ It was loud enough for everyone to hear. I didn’t say anything, because I can’t. I’ll look like the proverbial ‘angry black person’; they won’t listen to me, so I keep looking at my phone. They went on like this for a while.

“Then another woman — a white woman — said quietly to the other mom: ‘But a lot of these statues are making heroes of people who fought for the right to own slaves. We can have history without making heroes of the bad guys. We can learn history in school and from books and museums. Imagine someone descended from slaves having to walk past those statues and see the glorification.’

“Those aren’t exact words, but it was like that. I just started crying. Later, after the discussion was over and that group had split up, I pulled that second woman aside and thanked her; I told her how much it meant to me for her to say it. She said ‘I’ll stand up for what’s right, and I’ll confront people when they’re wrong.’ It was the best thing that could have happened to me this week.”

***

Something to think about next time you’re in a group and someone goes unopposed with the confederate-sympathizing narrative of “removing statues is erasing history”.

9 Comments
  1. Dana says:

    I’m so sorry, Marline. That’s terrible. I’m glad one person was kind enough and brave enough to speak up.

    Removing a statue does not erase or change history. Celebrating these slave owners and traitors to their country as heroes – that’s altering history.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Yes, I think it drives home the point that being silent doesn’t help anything, and in fact often takes the wrong side. I know I have remained silent in the past when I should have said something.

  2. Dana says:

    Inline with speaking up and changing the narrative, this piece I came across on Vox, talk about having to have “difficult” conversations, if we what to counter white supremacist radicalization (and racism): https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/8/18/16151924/radicalization-white-supremacists-nazis

    I thought you might find it interesting.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      That is indeed an interesting read. I balked at a few parts, however… Like: “it’s difficult for a white man to bring up concerns about changing racial demographics without getting labeled as racist.” Well, yes. Because there’s literally NO reason to be concerned over changing racial demographics unless you’re racist, or quickly on your way to becoming racist.

      “So he might search for answers outside the mainstream, and that might lead him to an extremist group…” Um, yes, that’s what happens when one searches for answers outside the mainstream. The mainstream is telling him “don’t be racist”, and he’s thinking “but maybe I can find a non-mainstream site that is a little more racist”. And it works!

      ***

      I’m speaking from a position of experience here. I was that lone white male for many years. Frustrated with the corporatocracy and unimaginative news coverage, I began seeking out more shadowy sites. Even before I was online, it was often exhilarating to find information outside the usual sources. I didn’t have black friends (though I probably would have told you that I did, because I knew a black guy), so 100% these alternate sources of information were white people. I was in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, so a bunch of these white people were the kind that celebrated “southern heritage” and wore “rebel flag” ball caps or belt buckles. If anyone ever suggested it was “racist”, they’d immediately shut it down with “no, it’s just my heritage” and “the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery” — they were READY with these answers, because they’d studied the literature (the literature put out by white supremacist groups, I eventually learned). So, week by week, with no one to counter the narrative, I kept having these thoughts put into my head. I began to believe that it (the war) probably wasn’t *really* about slavery after all. “Did you know most Confederate soldiers didn’t own slaves?” was a popular line. “Did you know the first American to own slaves was a black man?” was another. There were dozens, if not hundreds of these. In between these experiences, I’m walking to my minimum wage jobs and getting passed by fancy-rimmed, fancy paintjob cars with deafening stereo systems, and the guys driving them are black. So I’m a bit jealous. Someone tells me: “Doesn’t it piss you off that they get welfare and still afford cars like that?” It’s asked as a question, but it’s really a *teaching* that they’re passing on to me. They don’t know any more than I do whether that guy has a job or gets welfare; they’ve just *assumed* it because he’s black. And now that thought’s in my head too.

      I’m a pretty smart guy, but I’m on my own here, remember? No college degree, shitty job, lots of circumstantial evidence floating around me. So I start to notice that all the McDonald’s commercials have only black people in them (it wasn’t true, but that’s the perception). And I start to notice that at a mostly white high school all the sports stars are black (again, not true, but it felt that way). And I continue to notice that I’m working my tail off for barely enough to afford rent and food. And I’m still surrounded by these other white people who seem to know more about “real history” than I do. “Did you know Robert E. Lee didn’t own slaves? He was actually against it”, they say. I don’t have a history book in front of me, so I can’t check. “The South would have ended slavery in a few more years if only the North hadn’t attacked”, they say. “There was economic pressure.” And so on.

      It doesn’t help that the news calls black protesters “thugs” and white protestors “college students”. It doesn’t help that black suspects (or victims) are pictured on TV with their mugshots, while white suspects (or victims) are pictured on TV using photos of serene family events, complete with cute sweaters and props.

      So I do know this position they’re coming from. But it’s an intrinsically racist position, which I had to have someone point out to me (many someones, over a few years), until it finally sunk in. And the onus was on ME to go to the library and see whether any of these made-up “facts” were true. (They weren’t true. Lee did own slaves, and beat them brutally when two of them escaped temporarily, for example.) The onus was on ME to not assume the source of some guy’s income or how he chose to spend his money. The onus was on ME to notice that almost all shows, almost all movies, almost all commercials, almost all books (etc.) in our nation were almost entirely filled with white people, and that including people of color in a few of them was barely scratching the surface of fair and equitable.

      And I finally did. By the time I met Marline, I had sorted myself (thank goodness!) But any of my doubts or suspicions before that were entirely on me, and I should have never let it get as far as it did.

      ***

      Sorry, didn’t mean to go off on a mini-autobiography there, LOL. And yes, I realize those two lines weren’t the crux of the article (most of which was great, by the way). Thank you for the link.

  3. Dana says:

    But surely your younger self realized that it was safe and acceptable to express those views in certain company and not in front of others? What if you had said something one day (maybe at church; maybe to a girlfriend) and instead of them looking at you in disgust or labeling you a racist (thereby reinforcing that you should continue to isolate yourself from the mainstream because you weren’t mainstream) they said, “I’m sorry you feel that way. But it’s not true; here are some facts that show why…” That’s a lot different from “you’re a bigot, now go away.”

    • Dana, it may be the part of the country that I’m in, but my slant on the psychology you’d employ on Wil’s younger racist self is 180 from you’re desired results. For those people I’ve experienced, as soon as you mention “sorry” you’ve vindicated them in their self-pity. Telling them something is not true that they hold as true, just closes them off in denial. And giving them facts. Well, they have their facts and you have yours. But paint a label on him, especially a label he doesn’t like, and maybe he’ll start questioning why. Maybe he’ll want to know whether or not it’s true; that he is a bigot. Maybe there’ll be some introspection. I do agree with you on the last implied part though. Our big problem with racists is telling them to ‘go away’. It’s too convenient for us to just ignore their problem. The only way to deal with racism that may work from my perspective is “You’re a bigot, now come over here and let’s talk.”

      • Wil C. Fry says:

        Admittedly, I don’t recall specifically the exact words that pulled me out of such weird lines of thinking. I wish I’d written down every conversation so that I could examine them now, with the benefit of hindsight.

        It’s also true that I held multiple — and contradictory — ideas simultaneously. (I think we all do, to some extent). So I didn’t mean to imply that *all* my opinions on race at a given time in my life pointed toward white supremacy or racism. In those same time periods, I would argue the opposite — and it sometimes depended on context.

        Dana, and Michael, I thank both of you for commenting on this topic. I honestly don’t know what the right answer is. Maybe the answer is different for every person or circumstance. I also don’t know if I’m getting any closer to telling the difference between a person who might change his mind with the right argument and a person who is too far gone to be worth the effort.

        That’s the struggle I have within my own family. Which of them might soften their stance with a bit of redirection through questioning? Who among them merely needs a few more facts from history to change his mind about the rebel flag?

        Some people bluster loudly when they seriously doubt their own ideas and are merely trying to beef up their own belief. But others preach loudly when they’re absolutely certain. Some people keep silent when they’re unsure, but others are very sure yet stay silent for other reasons.

      • Wil C. Fry says:

        Michael: I appreciate your entire comment.

        I think we’re all on the same page here: that it’s more important to have a dialog than an insult session.

        (And, in the overall big picture, I think it’s helpful to remember that huge strides have been made on so many fronts. So much so that a random person from the 1800s meeting with a random person from 2017 would be shocked at how much has changed in our attitudes toward other people.)

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      * “But surely your younger self realized that it was safe and acceptable to express those views in certain company and not in front of others?”

      Yep. Sometimes instinctively; other times with conscious thought. That was one thing that helped. Because it felt like hypocrisy to discuss it with Coworker A but not with Coworker B.

      And I DID sometimes discuss it with Coworker B, which is part of how I got set back on the right track. For example, I applied at the local post office. The person who gave me the application asked if I was a veteran. When I said no and asked why, she said because they gave preference to veterans, and then added without prompting that aside from veterans they were looking for women and minorities. Later, at my lower-paying job, I complained of this. A black coworker said (something like): “You know that doesn’t mean they only employ black people and women, right? It just means they have way too many white men working there and they’re trying to hire proportional to the population.”

      That was one of many conversations I had when someone was brave enough to contradict an obviously false assumption on my part. But a lot of white men will make the same complaint I did, and every single person around them will nod and agree, which only reinforces their wrong opinion.

      * “I’m sorry you feel that way. But it’s not true; here are some facts that show why…”

      That’s the gist of what they said — the good ones. A couple of girlfriends, a couple of coworkers, a couple of strangers in bars. Without those people speaking up, I don’t know where I would have ended up. This is why I think it’s important to speak up.

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