Rural White Folks Need to Speak Out against Racism in our Communities

December 13, 2014

If you are a white person living in a rural and predominantly white mountain community today, on this National Day of Resistance, you may be confused about how best to participate in the Black Lives Matter movement.  I have no answers, I have a lot of questions, and I know that it is inappropriate for white folks to take up public space processing our place in this movement.  However, what is also inappropriate and outright dangerous is for white folks in rural places to disengage completely from this movement and from conversations about racism and white supremacy in our communities, or to only engage in these conversations when it is a “hot topic” in the news.  I am not writing this as any kind of expert.  I am not writing this as someone who has been doing a good job of being engaged and active.  I am writing this as a white person who has felt confused, paralyzed and unsure of what to do, and has therefore fallen into the dangerous and violent position of silence.

As protests and other actions in response to the courts’ failure to indict white cops responsible for murdering Black people have swept across the world in the past few months, popping up in nearly every state in the U.S.A., there has been relative silence from my home of West Virginia.  I grew up in a county that is 97.4% white.  I work in a public school that is 98% white.  The students of color in that school are met daily with racial slurs.  “We don’t have any problems with diversity,” I was told by a superior in the school last year, “we just don’t have very much of it.”  “Obama should be impeached, and you know what, I know he’s a Muslim too,” I heard another superior say during lunch in a cafeteria full of students.  Students of color are told to grow a thick skin in response to the racism they face in the halls, and to prepare for the racism that is to come as they grow older in these mountains.  I haven’t heard a single mention of Trayvon Martin, or Mike Brown, or Eric Garner, or Tamir Rice in those hallways or classrooms.  And so of course, I haven’t heard mention of the Black women and Black trans and gender non-conforming folks who have been murdered either.  I haven’t heard a single voice saying we need to talk to white students about racism, rather than place responsibility on the backs of students of color to learn how to “let it roll off your back.”  There may be conversations happening behind closed classroom doors, but if so, there aren’t enough of them, and they aren’t loud enough.

I grew up in a County named Pocahontas. Went to a High School where the mascot is a “Warrior.”  There is a statue of an American Indian in a loincloth with a feather headdress outside the school.  Never once growing up did I hear any criticism of this, any conversation about how our white ancestors forcibly removed all of the American Indians who called these mountains homes, those that they did not murder.  For those of you who grew up learning about American Indian history in the way that I did here, do you remember how we were made to believe that they were violent and dangerous, the implication being that it was therefore justified to wipe them out?  Doesn’t that sound a lot like what we’re being told about Black communities now on the evening news?

I grew up in a county that is home to a white supremacist Neo-Nazi organization called The National Alliance.  I remember hearing people call the group “harmless,” saying they know better than to try anything around here.  I remember seeing the leader at the local town’s Heritage Festival, walking out of the church dinner.  He noticed me and my buzzed head and looked interested.  Then he noticed that I was queer rather than a skin head, and he glared at me in a way that I can still feel the burn from.  But let this too be a teaching moment about white privilege, because even being queer as can be, all I got was a glare.  Today I read on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map page that “The National Alliance (NA) was for decades the most dangerous and best organized neo-Nazi formation in America.” (http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/hate-map).  I also read that the same leader who glared at me in my home town in 2005 was arrested on federal civil rights charges in 2006 for allegedly leading a series of organized attacks on Mexicans and American Indians in Salt Lake City bars in 2002 and 2003.  As a queer person, who has often invited my friends to visit from out of state, some of whom are people of color, some of whom are Jewish, some of whom are gender non-conforming, some of whom are queer: I wish someone had talked with me more honestly about that group years ago.

The National Alliance has greatly diminished in size and power in the past five years, but there are many more groups of this kind in West Virginia (and all over the U.S.).  And even if it’s true that they’d never organize locally, is that all we care about?  Knowing that they won’t organize publicly in our communities?  Knowing that if they cause any trouble it will be elsewhere, far from home?  What about their infiltration into the minds and beliefs of the youth in the area when they mix together at the bar?  What about the white power magazines that made their way into the hands of a young man I rode the bus with in High School, and then were passed around to every single pair of hands on that bus.  Some eyes met them with horror, and others with delight.  All eyes noticed that almost every book, CD or article of clothing could be ordered from our very own zip code.  What about the white parents in the county who still won’t let their kids go over to their friends’ house because their father is Black?  What about the fact that William Pierce, who ran that place for years, wrote The Turner Diaries which inspired the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing?

I didn’t hear white people having conversations about racism or white privilege until I left the state of West Virginia.  I didn’t hear critiques of white appropriation of religious and spiritual practices of communities of color until I left the state of West Virginia.  Now that I’m home, over twelve years after first leaving, I still hear almost total silence around race, racism, white supremacy, and violence.

None of this means that police murders of Black people in places far from home are “not my issue.”  None of this means that the Black Lives Matter movement “isn’t relevant” to the place I call home.  It means that it is crucial that white people here talk about racism, because white supremacy is being bred in these mountains that we love.  It is crucial that we as white people educate ourselves about white privilege, institutionalized racism, and state sponsored violence towards communities of color, because it is our responsibility to educate ourselves about this, it is not the responsibility of people of color to educate us.  It is crucial that we talk to young people in our communities about racism, even if that means we are talking to a group of young white people who rarely meet or interact with people of color, especially if that’s who we are talking to.  It is crucial that we teach young mountain people that the systems of oppression that justify white police officers getting off scot-free after killing unarmed Black people in our country, that justify disproportionate incarceration of Black men and women in the U.S., are the same systems that keep our youth living in poverty, drinking toxic water polluted by coal and gas companies, and feeling trapped inside the circles of addiction that have rippled through our mountains.  We need our youth to understand this NOT because we want young white people to think they “get it” in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement.  No white person in this country can “get” what it means to live in a society where you are at danger for being shot dead by the police simply because you exist.  We need our youth to understand this so they can see that the struggles facing our communities are caused by the same sources of power that keep communities of color struggling.

This is not a time to take up space as white people within the Black Lives Matter movement.  (there is actually never a time for that).  I do think, that within predominantly white rural communities this is a time for white anti-racist folks to commit to making our voices louder than the voices of white supremacist hate groups and individuals.  This is a time for us to commit to being dedicated and diligent in educating ourselves about racism and our own communities’ perpetuation of racial violence and oppression, not just while the Black Lives Matter protests and actions are in the news, but always.  This is a great time for white folks in rural communities to take responsibility for educating a new generation of young white people about white privilege, about racism and racist violence within our mountains and beyond, and about how the historic exploitation of our own communities and mountains benefits the same people who perpetuate state sponsored violence towards people of color in this country.  I know many people have been speaking up about racism here for a long time.  I know many people are already doing this.  But we need more people in the mountains (and in rural predominantly white communities everywhere) doing this work.

I don’t write this because I have it all figured out or because I think that I have been doing a good job, but instead because I have been a part of this silence too, and I refuse to participate in it anymore.  We don’t have to be experts.  We don’t have to have all the answers.  We all know that change happens differently in the mountains than it does in cities.  We know that so much of it happens through conversations with the people we know personally.  So let’s start there.  What we all have the power and the ability to do is to talk to our families and friends, and to the young people in our lives – in our homes and our churches, in our kitchens and our barns.  We have a responsibility to do our best to engage rural youth in open, honest, and critical conversations about our communities’ roles in perpetuating violence and racism in the United States.

2 replies »

  1. Excellant observations. Not much has changed since I grew up there. Thank you for writing this. Education is the best way to try to fight racism and especially internalized racism. It’s poison. And I really appreciated the way you tied that to industrial pollution of the environment. Thanks.

  2. Thank you, Rachel for this beautifully crafted, heartfelt piece of writing. As a resident of small town Maine and the mother of 4 who are Jewish, two of color, Asian born and mothered by two Moms we deal with being “other” and we talk about the ways the work will continue long after we’re gone. We’re in this together. Ellen, mother of Seth and his sibs.

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