Witnessing White Supremacy on the West Coast
INTRODUCTION & CONTEXT
I retired from my job in Ohio and uprooted my family to start a new phase of life in California almost four years ago. Only two of the five sons in our family were still living at home when we moved. Although now living in a state with more progressive politics than Ohio’s, the experiences of my Black sons while living on the West Coast reveal a dissonance between assumed widespread “liberal” ideologies and actual daily practices. In fact, in my experience, it seems as though perceptions of progressivism obstruct and prevent opportunities for honest and realistic introspection, self-reflection, and actual progress toward justice (i.e., We live in the Bay Area and our profile pics have #BlackLivesMatter across them so we don’t need to discuss racism or think about how our implicit biases perpetuate systemic injustices.).
Using the term white supremacy to refer to a “socio-political-economic system of domination based on racial categories that benefit those defined and perceived as white” (Diangelo, 2017, para 6), I argue that many West Coasters need to honestly examine their everyday actions and ask if what they are doing in their daily lives is actually protecting and caring for the Black lives that they proclaim to matter on their bumper stickers and social media posts.
There is no shortage of #BlackLivesMatter signs throughout the city we live in, along with other “progressive” sentiments like “no human is illegal.” I have noticed more signs supporting Black lives than actual Black people living here. It wasn’t until my sons moved to the West Coast that they were repeatedly confronted by angry adults and forced into entanglements with the police or other authority figures because white people, and sometimes people of color who invoke white supremacist practices, feel entitled to surveil and police them. Psychologists refer to the everyday slights or indignities experienced by Black people, Indigenous people, people of color (BIPOC), and people with identities in other categories who are discriminated against as “death by a thousand cuts” because of how discrimination and prejudice contribute to poorer mental and physical health along with other detrimental effects (Wing Sue, 2021).
Although I am white, I am a single mother of Black sons. I witness cuts that arise from white supremacy and patriarchy and sometimes there are also slashes, gashes, incisions, and lacerations. Yet, I also have privileges that people of color and others similarly situated are not granted. I do not, as Derald Wing Sue (2021) describes, have to experience microaggressions like people of color “every day from the moment they awaken in the morning until they go to sleep at night and from the time they are born until they die” (para 8). Yet, because my sons are Black, I am given insights into how the cuts, slashes, and gashes that emerge from patriarchy and white supremacy are perpetrated by people in a “progressive” region where an abundance of window posters, flags, and yard signs proclaim that Black lives matter and that everyone is welcome here.
In this essay, I illuminate experiences of living in a so-called “progressive” place with people who use trendy “liberal” hashtags, where public displays of trendy “progressive” words are abundant, and where daily perpetuations of patriarchy and white supremacy interlude beneath a veil of assumed “progressivism” and thus, reinforce status quos. I do this through anecdotal evidence in narratives from our family’s experiences during the past four years (2018-2022) while living on the West Coast.
These narratives recall incidents endowed by white supremacy and patriarchy that transpired or are transpiring while living with my Black sons and our dog in a presumed and self-proclaimed “progressive” U.S. city.
- A son was at a business lunch in San Francisco shortly after we moved to the West Coast. We still had Ohio license plates on our car. Son left the lunch when it was over and discovered that our car was intentionally tightly blocked into the parking space. A white guy with his young children and a rainbow flag beside him on a balcony saw my son looking perplexed at our car tightly blocked. He shouted down to my son that he was sick of people blocking his driveway so he blocked my son into the parking spot with a motor scooter and another car. He told my son that he couldn’t leave until the parking enforcement authorities, whom balcony-guy had summoned, arrived to give my son a ticket. Balcony-guy may not have known the race or gender of my son when he blocked our car, but his behavior and actions after he learned are steeped in patriarchal and white supremacist ideologies.
Son apologized to balcony-guy for the error and explained that he did not recognize that a driveway existed where he was parked because there was no curb on the city block to distinguish between driveways and sidewalks, nor were there noticeable car garage doors since many buildings use similar metal doors to cover their building façades when closed for business. Son pointed out the Ohio license plate on our car to balcony-guy and explained that we had just moved to the West Coast and were still figuring things out. Balcony-guy continued to berate my son. Son pleaded that he had to pick up his little brother from his soccer game. No one watching and listening at the outdoor cafe next door intervened. Balcony-guy’s final offer to my son was that if my son gave him $50 that balcony-guy could use to buy and donate children’s books, then balcony-guy would come down and move his scooter so that my son could pull our car out of the parking spot and leave. Being young-male-Black means you are punished and meant to pay for the offenses of others plus your own if you dare to err. This clever son used the lack of curb on the city block to tediously maneuver our car out of the parking spot. Son looked in the rearview mirror and saw the rainbow flag fluttering beside balcony-guy and the young children as they watched him drive away.
- A son was at a dog park with our dog. A guy who could pass as white started screaming at my son and charged at him with his dog because his dog and our dog were involved in a minor injury-free skirmish. Our dog reacted to screaming-charging-guy by proactively protecting my son from the dog who was charging at him with screaming-charging-guy. Screaming-charging-guy called the police on my son and our dog. Authorities confirmed to us (my son beckoned me to the scene with hopes that my privilege would be a beneficial intervention) that neither my son nor dog were liable for any wrongdoing legally or morally. Laws and morals do not release my sons from white supremacy which always determines young-male-Black as liable and guilty and deserving of policing just for existing. Swollen with entitlement and anger, screaming-charging-guy instigated a violent incident with my son and our dog and then did not hesitate to call the police and potentially place the lives of my son and our dog in further peril. What might have happened to a son in a similar situation who does not have an educated white mother?
- A son moves into a wing of an apartment building with four units in a neighborhood that is recognizable for its spirited Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. An elderly white man lives in one unit. An elderly Asian woman lives in another. Two young white women live in a third unit and my son lives in the fourth. Mass emails are sent to residents by the building manager to warn unknown perpetrators that the smell of marijuana is permeating the hallway in the wing of the apartment building where my son lives. The lease indicates that smoking is only allowed outside. My son smells the marijuana coming from the unit where the two young white women live. He would never report the truth but meanwhile, my son is getting extra glances from the building manager and he receives notices that access to his apartment is required for maintenance. Swathed in inconsiderate and carefree privilege, the two young white women continue their indoor marijuana smoking while my son, always assumed guilty by reason of existing as young-male-Black, struggles to fend off subtle accusations and investigations.
- Some college students were partying in the woods near where we live on a weekend night just after dark. The muffled music and laughter heard indicate happiness—together again after quarantines and closures. Someone living in our “welcoming” community does not approve of the sounds of happiness and calls the police on the students. Meanwhile, one of my sons is returning home from a friend’s house and rushes inside our place. He tells me the police are outside “chasing a bunch of college students.” My tall Black teenage son might easily be mistaken as a college student by police. He could have been one of those chased if he had arrived home just seconds later. Some college students were chased. Whoever called the police because college students were enjoying themselves on a weekend night prior to 23:00 (11 pm) did not care that people of color, undocumented, diversely abled, or non-binary folx live in our community and are more likely to experience police violence and are also college students. Perhaps swaddled in cis living with documents and the entitlements of white supremacy, ableism, and patriarchy underpinning them, whoever called the police in this “liberal” and supposedly welcoming community chose their personal preferences for comfort that particular night over Black lives and others’ lives.
- I emailed a teacher about a son’s final semester grade in a high school course. The teacher had never met me in person because of COVID-19 restrictions. In the email, I wondered why 40% of my son’s grades (which amounted to an A and B+) had been left out of the teacher’s overall grade calculations for the semester. What I thought was a miscalculation of my son’s final grade resulted in a lowering of that final grade in the course by two letters. The teacher replied in an email to me that he believed my son received the final grade he deserved and that “It’s disappointing that the only time any concern for his grade was displayed [is] well after the course has ended” (personal email, 11 January 2022). The school district’s website includes in its core values “treating people with dignity and respect” and “schools must provide access and equity.” After A LOT of time and effort on my part to not eviscerate this person who DOES NOT KNOW ME and who thinks he can lower my son’s grade by two letters because of his beliefs, I filed a grade-change petition with the high school’s guidance counselor. Eventually, my son’s grade was officially changed to the one he earned and deserves. Again, I recognize and acknowledge the privileges that accompany someone who knows how schooling operates and is aware of avenues for filing a grade-change petition. However, being young-male-Black means their families must DISPLAY concern for academic progress to be measured or assessed by those with authority in the system. In contrast to reality and evidence, a belief in the importance of education is not associated with all students and their families nor accepted as an inevitable fact. It must be audaciously displayed.
- A son works in the tech industry. Part of his role is to connect with others in various businesses through an online platform. A task made more difficult by the systemic racism of professional networking which has “historical roots in overtly racist and sexist hiring practices” (Austin, 2022, para 2). Connections among professionals in online networks have a direct impact on professional opportunities. Social media algorithms along with individual choices to connect or not connect with other members reify the domination of lucrative employment positions and business-to-business sales being awarded to well-off white men with established elite networks (Austin, 2022). Being young-male-Black means working four times as hard and receiving many more rejections and dismissals when requesting to connect with those in a majority well-off white male industry. Despite pledges from tech companies to Black lives in 2020, there is little tangible evidence of progress (Somers, 2021). There are still many more Black Lives Matter posters and hashtags within tech companies than there are actual Black employees.
- There are people who recently chose to reside in our community because (as they stated) of its “commitment to social justice and sustainability” (on a public website I’m choosing not to reveal). These new residents do not include my sons, our dog, or myself in their social justice persuasions despite #blacklivesmatter on one of the individual’s social media profile pictures. They’ve also made it clear that we don’t belong in this community, even though we started living here three years before they arrived. If my sons happen to be walking by their unit when they open their door, they slam it shut or look at my sons with paralyzed voiceless terror and then close the door. My dog howled once and within thirty minutes I received a call from police dispatch services because they called the police to complain. My son left his bike against the building during some days of rain and they complained. I then received an official inquiry about “hazardous items” being left outside. Meanwhile, every building around us has bikes, wagons, scooters, and skateboards leaned up against them. If I happen to be outside sweeping the balcony or tending to my plants and the wild turkeys come by, they blame me for the turkeys’ appearance and complain. Then, someone with a radio on his hip knocks on our door to investigate. One afternoon I was told by a lieutenant that dispatch services were called to request that an officer be sent to our parking lot to issue a ticket because my son’s car was in an empty unit’s assigned parking spot while I was in our unit’s assigned parking spot unloading groceries from my car. They called the police on our dog while I was not home because he was howling. They neglected to tell the police during the call that they were banging on the ceiling with an object and agitating and distressing our dog which caused our dog to continue howling. The entitlement they float upon on their white supremacist and patriarchal watershed compels them to harass, surveil, and police the single mother with young Black sons and their lab-pitbull mixed dog because we dare to live in what they seemingly perceive to be their “committed-to-social-justice” community.
That’s all I’m choosing to share. It isn’t everything but it’s enough. Two-thousand-five-hundred words cannot fully portray all of the cuts and slashes. It is also not possible for me to offer an all-encompassing narrative because I am and will always be on a privileged periphery of the relentless assaults inspired by white supremacy. These are limitations. I write as a witness to white supremacist logic and its effects. Intellectually, mentally, emotionally, viscerally, and materially this witnessing is anguish.
THERE IS NO CONCLUSION TO THE DEMANDS
My overall demand to so-called “progressives” and self-proclaimed “social justice” subscribers is to chickity-check yourselves and the wreckage you often wreak (Ice Cube, 1992). We should all engage in honest and thorough self-inquiry. Perhaps you consider yourselves to be decent humans who don’t consciously approve of discrimination and prejudice. We all make mistakes. We are all in a perpetual process of becoming (Freire, 1970).
Meanwhile, stop publicly affirming the most basic ideologies any conscious person should hold with your bumper stickers and memes—like do not harm other living beings or the planet we live on and Black Lives Matter—while simultaneously neglecting the notion of the word as bond.
Interrogate and analyze your actions in the daylight. Are you protecting and caring for Black lives every day? Or are your daily actions continuing the cutting, slashing, gashing, and lacerating?
Don’t tell with trendy hashtags while invoking disparately dispensed violence and reifying current injustices.
Be about it. Show with intentional protection and care. Cease and prevent the cuts, slashes, gashes, and lacerations.
Be about it for the people I love and because it’s the right thing to do.
I continue to be amazed by the resilience of my sons and others. I am also galvanized by those of all backgrounds and with multiple intersecting identities who continue to survive, thrive, and individually or collectively conspire to resist white supremacy. A friend’s email signature that reminds everyone with the question “How have you protected Black life today?” is also an influence on this essay.
*My choice to not reveal specific details of people and places does not emanate from fear or lack of credibility but rather from strategic caution. I do not want readers to submit to habitual thinking patterns that disconnect white supremacy from their own lives and actions and then displace its logic on other people in other places instead of on themselves. Discrimination and prejudice inform everyday interactions everywhere.
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