Some of our readers might know that I occasionally work with communities facing hate protest, mostly but not exclusively in response to anti-gay groups. This emerged out of my research on hate protest and counterprotest. I’ve been fortunate to get to work with people who really care about meeting hate head-on in their communities, and I’ve learned from that work.
Right now, though, I want to answer a specific question I get asked frequently: If we ignored this, would it go away? If we signaled through our actions that the behavior of Republican white supremacist rioters was silly, foolish, and unimportant, would we make it so?
No, I don’t think so. Here’s why: The audiences being targeted–nonwhites that protesters aim to terrify, whites they hope to recruit–ARE paying attention. The first set of people would be foolish not to; their survival depends upon paying attention to haters. For the second set, our messages need to overwhelm the messages of hate–both by showing that those who choose hate will face severe social penalties and by showing where the “off ramps” from hate are.
For haters, these are the goals: to intimidate, recruit, and solidify the group. Upsetting the rest of us is a bonus, one that absolutely feeds into the sense of persecution and provides a decent thrill.
More importantly, though, I think this is the wrong question.
When I work with groups planning counterprotests, many of them quickly move to questions like “How do we defeat the haters?”
But, it’s like what your therapist tells you: You can’t change other people. (You can make more noise than them, stand between them and their targets, drive them off, and make life unpleasant for them, as some lovely contemporary Nazi hunters are doing. But you can’t change their hearts and minds.)
Above, counterprotesters participate in an Angel Action event to stand between anti-gay protesters and those they target.
I work to reorient people asking that. Instead of asking how you can make the haters feel defeated, ask What does my response need to say about me? What does it need to say to the people I am responsible for?
You are not responsible for these hateful people. (Unless you are, I mean–but those aren’t usually the folks asking this question.) You ARE responsible for the people they are attacking, narrowly (the actual people of color actually living in Charlottesville, Virginia, right now) and broadly (nonwhites everywhere). The more privilege you have to exercise, the more responsible you are for exercising it.
Your response is the only thing you can control. Rather than thinking about what you want to say to haters, who are very unlikely to be convinced by your counterprotest, you must keep your focus on what you want your legacy to be here. Then you need to make it happen.
Will you be a person who intercedes with your body to protect those under physical attack?
Will you give your money to support justice?
Will you work behind the scenes, all the time, not just when hate groups show up, to root out hatred, violence, and aggression toward others?
Will you make the powerful listen to the voices of the powerless?
Will you amplify the words of the vulnerable?
Will you make the space for them to lead? Will you follow?
If you have been doing this right all along, then what you say now will align with what you have already done to keep others safe and free. If you haven’t been fighting hate, perhaps because you’ve been denying it, this is a good time to take stock (though not to express surprise. That’s just insulting to those who have been telling you about the racism, nativism, misogyny, homophobia, and ableism they’ve been facing.) and see how your silence has allowed this hate to take hold.
Though you will read much commentary arguing that, right now, white people coming to consciousness about white supremacy shouldn’t make it about them, I’m saying make this about you. Not in the sense that your feelings are the feelings that matter now or that you should ask people of color to clue you in. Instead, make this about what kind of person you are. Are you a person who finds racism to be good, acceptable, or tolerable, or is hatred antithetical to your values in such a way as that you will actively oppose it?
White people, this is about us–our response to a hatred we have let grow.