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Column: Threats, hate speech undermine our future

For the Valley News
Published: 2/27/2021 10:11:17 PM
Modified: 2/27/2021 10:10:05 PM

I have been disheartened by the hate speech recently directed against Black women members of the Hartford Selectboard. I have two daughters, and I did not raise them to become targets of angry white men.

I am an American. I was born and bred here, and I am more than disturbed that my place here, my daughters’ place here, is being questioned — is being violently rejected — by some who feel their voices are being subsumed because Black women have stepped up to serve this community.

I was born in the late 1940s, an era when children were supposed to be “seen and not heard.” I suspect many children are still subjected to such smothering thoughts. But my family, especially my grandfather, never raised me to be a silent child. My agency as a human being was never a question. My thoughts and ideas, even as a child, were respected.

I attended Catholic school, where I questioned dogma and obedience to rules that obviated my agency as a woman, and my worth as a human being. I was headstrong and decidedly independent, but never disrespectful. I was raised to respect my elders, especially when questioning their authority.

And therein lies my problem with those who express their privilege via threats and intimidation — especially against Black women. There are ways for us to approach this type of egregious behavior, but I cannot say it any better than James Baldwin, who told Margaret Mead in their historic 1970 public conversation that became the book A Rap on Race: “We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.”

A history of brutality and hate

The injustice that has plagued our existence ever since slave patrols roamed to recapture runaways and return them to their masters exists today as some white people cling to age-old fallacies about Black people.

Today, those old fallacies are also held about all the other “others” who are not white, and those ideas continue to tacitly dehumanize anyone who is not white. Please understand: Today’s police forces too often manifest the same mentality that those slave patrols did all those years ago.

As Baldwin told Mead in 1970: “The police in this country make no distinction between a Black Panther or a black lawyer or my brother or me. The cops aren’t going to ask me my name before they pull the trigger. I’m part of this society and I’m in exactly the same situation as anybody else — any other black person — in it. If I don’t know that, then I’m fairly self-deluded. ... What I’m trying to get at is the question of responsibility. I didn’t drop the bomb (that killed four Black schoolgirls in Birmingham). And I never lynched anybody. Yet I am responsible not for what has happened but for what can happen.”

Fifty years later, we see this same unbridled police brutality unleashed against Black Lives Matter protestors and unarmed Black folks.

And exactly how does this relate to white men threatening Black women who have stepped forward and assumed positions of power in Vermont, and across the nation? It is an undeniable expression of a privilege that reaches beyond race and dominates the airspace, especially in very white spaces. It is a fetid, transgressive privilege that spreads beyond the “other” and ensnares those who are supposed to be cared for, loved and protected.

To accept this type of behavior against women of color because “it’s just harmless talk,” or worse, “it’s not directed against me or mine,” is a problem. To accept it is to accept violence — and yes, hate speech and threats are clearly the “stuff” of violence: Violence that is demeaning and soul-searing. Violence that has been practiced since the dawn of mankind and almost always strikes its target. Violence that is always exercised as domination. And the violence of hate speech and threats, unabated, will spread until it becomes physical violence.

I am certain that some feel this type of speech, this blatant, vicious inhumanity, is protected by the First Amendment. It is not. But there is a place that we as a community should pursue. As Mead told Baldwin: “Responsibility. It is saying I am going to make an effort to have things change.”

Those who have decided to step up and run for office, get elected and devote their valued time to work for their community are making exactly that effort.

A future together, or alone?

We have lost the ability to talk to one another. Oh, we are all very good at hurling insults, but what has that ever solved? And to resolve issues in our community, we need to talk to one another, to listen to one another. Talking and listening are the two most critical actions we can take as community members. Taking the time to quiet our inner voices, to care enough to listen, to hear, is our primary responsibility.

It is imperative.

Those men who feel so powerful threatening women — and probably not just women of color — are they so woefully unaware of the contributions to our collective good that have been made by these women, and by all of those who preceded them?

The world has changed so very much since I was a child. I was 7 in 1955 when Emmett Till was tortured and murdered and photographs of his mutilated face appeared in national magazines and newspapers. That image still haunts me today. I still wonder how it was possible that men — grown men — were able to bring themselves to wrest an innocent 14-year-old child from the safety of a relative’s home and kill him in such a horrible, obscene way?

This is 2021. You might not like it, but we must cling to one another to chart a path forward for each of us to live vibrant, fulfilling and meaningful lives. We did not arrive at this place and time based solely on the dreams of white men, nor those of white women. We are where we are today because of the contributions of men and women, and even children, of different colors, from many different places and cultures, including the Indigenous people who predated everyone else here.

So, please, stop with the intimidation, the vitriol and the hatred. Threatening Black women and their children is not noble, nor is it manly. This type of bullying behavior is beneath any grown man. Time spent spewing hate would be better spent building bridges and finding and strengthening commonalities, rather than practicing those age-old, well-worn tools of discord and division.

As human beings, we have the choice to live our lives with grace, purpose, compassion and dignity. Or not. There are many among us who will join hands and walk proudly together to ensure better lives for all. We must work to raise each other up, to bind our futures, leaving no one behind.

And if we decide to leave folks behind because of the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual identity, their religious choice, if we choose to leave some by the wayside just, well, just because, then we will each be left by the wayside, struggling alone.

As James Baldwin said: “If we don’t manage the present, there will be no future.”

Allene Swienckowski, of Quechee, is chair of the Hartford Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion.

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