Hate and Freedom of Speech
It was one year ago that I received the call that my dad had died as a result of a stroke. I was going to write something about him and the year without him. Instead my mind has been on the Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia and the terrorist attack in that town resulting in the death of one person. I have also been thinking about my dad.
Freedom of Expression?
Whenever I hear about Neo-Nazi or KKK demonstrations or read about people saying hateful things I think about one night in Columbus, Ohio. I was visiting my dad, step-mother and step-brother for the only time during the seven months that they lived there. There was news coverage about plans by the KKK to install a burning cross on the lawn of some civic property – possibly city hall. I don’t remember whether it was the Columbus city hall or some other community in the area. My brother, step-mother and I were discussing the issue and my dad was asleep on the couch – or so I thought.
I don’t remember exactly what I said, although I know it was along the lines that the burning cross should not be allowed. My dad spoke up and said that no, they have a right to demonstrate and express their opinion just as much as we do and we have to defend that right. That was his only contribution to the conversation. I was in my late teens when we had that conversation and what he said has stuck with me for the last 25 years or so.
I struggle with what he said. People absolutely have the right to speak their mind and demonstrate in favour of their position on issues. I will defend the rights of people to say things I disagree with. That ends as soon as those rights infringe on the rights of others. Marching to support white privilege and supremacy is abhorrent and if it ever happens where I live you can bet I am heading down to be part of the counter-demonstration. Hate speech is a tricky line. At what point does it change from crude, obnoxious, disagreeable and mean to threatening, hateful, violent speech that is infringing on the rights of others?
At the demonstration in Charlottesville that line was clearly stepped over, ripped up and set on fire. As soon as you have an armed militia and burning (Tiki) torches as a part of your march it becomes an act of intimidation, threats and inciting fear. The intent is clearly to create fear and intimidate those who oppose you. That is not free speech, that is terrorism.
Who is to blame for racism?
I follow a variety of people on twitter so I get exposure to many viewpoints and voices that are different from my own. I am trying to avoid living in a social media bubble where I am only reading from people with the same opinions as my own. Over the past day many of the American conservatives that I follow have been doing their best to shift the blame for racism and Nazis and the violence in Charlottesville to the left side of the political spectrum. They say that because the Nazis were the National Socialist party in Germany that they are actual extremist left. They are also saying that because the Republican Party under Lincoln is the party that emancipated slaves that Republicans can’t be held responsible for racism. Mostly they are demonstrating their ignorance of history…
Racism is not an issue that belongs to the left or right of the political spectrum. It belongs to us as white people. We invented racism, we profit from racism and we perpetuate racism. It exists throughout the political spectrum. Some like Nazis wear their racism on their sleeves and carry it in their flags and shout it in their chants, others cloak it in concerns about immigration and others hide it in progressive words that ignore the challenges of people of colour.
Living with privilege
As a straight white cis-man I am afforded many privileges denied to pretty well everyone else. My racism is not intentional. I was not raised by my parents to be a racist. I do however carry biases that are deeply embedded that I keep tripping over. For many years I automatically looked for an opportunity to cross the street whenever a young black man was approaching me. I think these years were the same years that I watched a lot of Law and Order. Until recently I didn’t realize that my attempts to be colour-blind in hiring practices and my relationships with people resulted in me ignoring the voices of people of colour. I thought that having friends and colleagues of colour meant that I was being inclusive. What I was really doing was collecting tokens and not listening to the stories those friends and colleagues were telling. I might have been nodding my head and acknowledging how terrible something was, I wasn’t actually hearing them or understanding.
Shut up and listen
Over the past year I have come to recognize how much space I take up and am doing my best to keep my mouth shut more often. We have two ears and one mouth for a reason and I am working on using my ears more and my mouth less.
I benefit from racism in ways that I am only beginning to hear and understand. I believe that freedom of speech is essential to the functioning of a democracy. In the years since my dad said that racists have the right to demonstrate and express their opinion I have come to realize that some people are much less free to express themselves. We saw in Charlottesville that white men are free to dress in fatigues and carry guns in their demonstrations while a similarly outfitted group of black men would have ended up in jail or dead.
Hate and Fear
I have struggled with the notion of a burning cross as freedom of expression and I have tried to see how allowing such a thing is a validation of that right. More than 20 years after my dad told me it needed to be allowed as part of the right to freedom of expression he is still right. The burning cross is a symbol designed to strike fear into the hearts of people of colour and more specifically black people. It is a symbol of an organized campaign of terrorizing black people. We cannot ignore the history of this symbol any more than we can ignore the 20th century history of the swastika. They are designed to scare people.
In spite of the history of these symbols, we cannot censor them. It feels privileged to say that these symbols should be allowed because they are not targeted to make me afraid. However, we can’t eliminate everything that makes someone afraid. There are people who are fearful that their kids might see an image of a condom because it will make them think about sex. Where do we draw the line and say that one symbol is allowed and another is not.
We must stand up to the people who use these symbols to create fear and challenge their assumptions and statements. We must rally beside and around those who are made to feel afraid through these campaigns of hate.
Thanks to my mum who has fought against censorship throughout her career as a librarian for reminding me that banning symbols is censorship just like banning books. I had originally written that my dad was wrong and that the burning cross should not be allowed. I have included the paragraph that originally occupied this space in the comments below. Feel free to argue with me.
White people own racism
To my fellow white people, racism and hate are our problems to fix. It is time to stop blaming one political group or another. Donald Trump did not create racism or white supremacy. It has always been there. He has certainly encouraged and emboldened the more extreme behaviour and that might be a good thing. More public exposure of the white supremacists stimulates discussion and forces the rest of us to take a closer look at our own beliefs. We need to examine our privileges and stop saying “not all white people…” We may not be actively demonstrating and carrying Nazi regalia, but we do all benefit from the system that is designed to make things easier for us. We don’t live in fear of being killed at a regular traffic stop. We don’t have to bolster our kids up after they are subjected to racist taunts and abuse. We don’t get pulled aside at airports for random security screening every time we fly.White people are responsible for racism. We created it. We own it. It is up to us to end it. Click To Tweet
We need to speak up every time one of our friends, acquaintances or colleagues makes a racist joke, talks about Muslims as terrorists, or judges someone else’s intelligence based on the colour of their skin or their accent. It is important to challenge our own beliefs and ask why it is that we stand with the white parents after school. We need to question systems that don’t acknowledge credentials and work experience gained in other countries. Look around at your community and then ask why so many of our elected officials are white. Will you vote for a person of colour to be your representative?
Let’s take ownership of this problem of racism, accept the responsibility that is rightly ours and put an end to it.