White protests matter: How to change the culture, one small town at a time

As a woman of color, the significance of seeing white people yelling at their white neighbors to stop being silent on racism was not lost on me when I encountered a small demonstration in front of Exeter town hall in New Hampshire this weekend. The all-white protest was convened a few feet from the spot where Abraham Lincoln spoke against the expansion of slavery on the eve of the Civil War, and the tragic irony that, 160 years later, Black people are still fighting for justice and freedom in America was also not lost on me.

Despite the verbal assaults, Madeline returned to the same spot on Saturday. And this time she was no longer alone.

Like most humans with a heart, following George Floyd’s brutal killing while in the custody of Minnesota police officers last Monday, I have been wanting to "do" something, anything, besides being angry and posting on Twitter, or despondent every time my sons and husband — men of color — step out of our home.

After seeing the horrific modern-day lynching of Floyd and the failure of justice, the questions on my mind have been: What can I do to help justice be served? Where is my voice most effective? How can I serve the cause of equality? It’s a question that all Americans, and especially white Americans who consider themselves anti-racist, need to ask themselves.

When I passed the town square in Exeter, I was intrigued to see some of my white neighbors using their voices to demand justice. A 16-year-old curly-haired high-schooler held up a poster with a list of 140 Black citizens killed by police around the nation in the last decade. There were a lot, a lot, more names he wanted to add, but he said he ran out of space. When another young woman shouted to fellow neighbors, "If you're not angry, it's a privilege," I wanted to hug this daring stranger in a mask.

Before coming across this tiny group of demonstrators on Saturday morning, I confess that I had protest fatigue. I have not gone to one protest this year. Protesting is part of my tradition, beginning in college when I and fellow Rutgers classmates chained ourselves to the student center demanding the university divest from apartheid South Africa — a regime defeated in part because of worldwide student protests.

The last few days, I’ve witnessed the way peaceful protests have been turned into violent ones by outside agitators, including the police, and then seen how the media changes the narrative and blames demonstrators for the violence without fully vetting who is doing what. I’ve watched the sly language and images used when Black and Brown people protest — rioting as opposed to unrest — language that is coded and being weaponized against these demonstrators and social justice activists. In light of this, I’ve been rethinking whether protesting is an effective strategy for social change.

Also, as a Puerto Rican, it feels like I have been protesting peacefully for justice since the day I came out of my momma's womb. Born a colonial subject and a woman, I have a laundry list of injustices to protest about. All this history came to a head when I woke up Saturday morning and saw images of masses of people in the streets. But then light came in, as it usually does in times of chaos.

It started with one 27-year-old woman, Madeline Blais, who was steadfast in her belief that white people must take to the streets on behalf of Black people everywhere. Madeline initially wanted to go to Boston or Manchester, but then decided she should protest locally, in her hometown of Exeter, a quaint town with deep colonial history. On Friday, she brought several homemade posters and bottles of water, expecting others to join her. She stood on the corner for eight hours, alone.

Initially she figured her neighbors were just silent, not racist. But the epithets hurled at her by passing cars surpassed the cheers. Yet despite the verbal assaults, Madeline returned to the same spot on Saturday. And this time she was no longer alone. About a dozen people joined her. Teenagers. Retirees. Millennials. Baby boomers. Gen Z. They held up signs that read: “Black Lives Matter, White Silence Equals Violence.” Five days later, they are still protesting. And in the next town over, in Hampton, others have now started showing up.

My mentor, the legendary Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, described racism brilliantly when she told an interviewer, “If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. My feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem, and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.”

So a few white people in this small town are taking Black and Brown people out of the equation and doing something about it. They are stepping up, publicly challenging their white neighbors to speak up, to use their white privilege to end injustice. They are openly holding each other accountable, they are disinvesting from racism.

This is how a country’s culture begins to shift, one small white American town at a time, one white neighbor at a time, white locals leading the charge to transform America’s deep-seated culture of white supremacy. Madeline shouted at her neighbors, “White people have a problem and we need to talk about it, even if it’s uncomfortable.” This is how you begin to dismantle systematic oppression — owning the problem, and knowing that you have to work to fix it.

White people are as much at risk as we are by the convergence of police brutality and white supremacy; this small group of people knows it. In the end, it will kill white people because racism is just as poisonous to their psyches.

And they understand that even if they didn’t cause the problem, they are benefitting from it and therefore need to be part of the solution. They are constructing the America of the future, today. Admittedly, the group was tiny, but it didn't matter. It feels corny but it’s true — one person is enough to transform the world.

I left the protesters feeling uplifted, thinking the kids (and the nation) are going to be all right — but it will take a country of white people joining Black people and other social justice warriors.

I left the small group of protesters both hopeful and worried. I was worried for their safety. They risked getting infected with the coronavirus even as they took measures to try to limit their exposure. They also risked violence. The slurs hurled at them from racist neighbors today can turn violent tomorrow.

But I was also hopeful. Inspired by all the peaceful demonstrators around the nation and by the smattering of white people in my local town who are no longer silent. My faith in protesting renewed.

I left the protesters feeling uplifted, thinking the kids (and the nation) are going to be all right — but it will take a country of white people joining Black people and other social justice warriors on the streets. White people can’t just sit in their homes and cry into their coffee mugs or tweet against racism. They must go out into public spaces, put their bodies on the front lines of the anti-racist war, and let their voices be heard.

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