I am, I suppose, part of the “cognoscenti” in the area of social identity, social bias, and social justice. I’m a tenure-track assistant professor of social work, I’m a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant, and I recently wrote a book on how to understand and overcome challenges associated with race.
In addition to my professional credentials, I navigate this world as an adversely racialized nominally black male, I’ve traversed and straddled extremely diverse racial, ethnic, religious, class, and cultural domains, and I crossed “the color line” and raised two children who represent defiance of the pernicious false binary of race.
But despite all of my knowledge and know-how, I find myself not quite sure what to do with a social justice challenge that currently confronts me.
Here’s the situation. Just down the street from where I live, in a wonderfully diverse and tolerant community, there is a house that I drive by on a regular basis from which hangs two flags, one being the flag of the United States of America, and the other being the flag of the Confederacy.
When I became aware of the Confederate flag flying just a stone’s throw from my house, I felt as anyone would who finds him or herself suddenly in the presence of a potential predator. Am I safe? Is my family safe?
After consulting with my family brain trust (composed of my wife and two grown kids) about what might be the best and safest way to approach this challenge (call the local media, knock on the door, draft a letter?), I determined that a letter would be the best way to go. Doing nothing was not an option.
So on 8 June 2016, I sent the note below to my Stars and Bars-flying neighbor. Who knows, I thought fantastically, maybe my words will be transformative, and the flag will disappear.
I had written in my note:
I’m reaching out to you in hope that you might be willing to talk with me about the Confederate flag that’s hanging from your home. It’s possible it’s been there a while, but I noticed it within the past week or so.
I try very hard not to jump to conclusions about why people feel as they feel, think as they think, and do as they do. I cannot know what the flag means to you or why you choose to fly it, but even in absence of this knowledge I feel obligated to express my distress and concern over this very charged symbol.
I am very aware of the origin and history and many perspectives that are associated with the flag. I know very well that many people see it as a symbol of heritage, pride, independence, and other positive things—and I don’t pretend to have the right or the power to change anyone’s mind about such things.
It is also the case, however, sadly but undeniably, that the flag represents a threat to many. No matter what it means to you (and I do hope we get to discuss that), it scares others and makes them feel less safe at home, less comfortable, less secure in their neighborhood.
When someone flies a flag of, say, another country (Canada, for example), we cannot know with certainty what the flag means to that person, but we can feel confident that the Canadian flag is not meant as a threat by the person flying it or felt to be a threat by anyone who sees it.
The Confederate flag is unavoidably burdened with causing dread and anxiety for many, many people, no matter what the intention is of the person flying it. That being the case, wouldn’t it be better to avoid the possibility of making folks feel bad, sad, or unsafe? Wouldn’t it be better to take it down?
Doing so would have nothing to do with your right to fly it. Instead it would be about your right to choose to do everything you can to help your neighbors feel a sense of belonging and safety in their home (dads and moms and sisters and brothers and kids who go to the schools that maybe your kids or grandkids go to, folks who repeatedly pass you aisle after aisle in the supermarket, and folks who maybe several times a day drive past your house).
I’m not into making people feel bad. I’m not into proving I’m absolutely right and others are absolutely wrong. I believe in and try my best to practice empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and humility. I think the hope of the world lives in the small chances we get to try to hear one another and make our little piece of the world as good and as safe a place as it can be.
Ten days later, the flag is still up, and I’ve received no contact from the flag flyer. Now what?
I am plagued by wondering what someone who was aware could have done to intervene when a flag was raised in the form of something said or done by the individuals who would someday fly into a murderous rage and slay twenty children and six adults in Newtown, nine parishioners in Charleston, and forty-nine young adults in Orlando. To be clear, I can’t know what’s in the heart, mind, and motives of my neighbor, but I see the flag, and it raises deep concerns. And I’m not sure what to do next.
There is a very real way in which the effects of seeing this flag on a regular basis are intimately personal—like a toxin released into the air that causes my eyes to burn and makes it hard for me to breath fully and freely. But I share this air with everyone in my community. And I wonder how this baleful banner is affecting my neighbors.
So I’m asking you: Are you aware? How are your eyes? How is your breathing? Did I approach this wrong? Would you have approached it differently? What would you do now? What should I do What should we do?
Featured image credit: Deep south by Richard Elzey. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.