Monday, September 2, 2013

Some thoughts on free speech, bigotry and living in a new place

By and large, I am delighted with our move to Kansas City, Missouri. My beloved is much happier in his job, where he is creative, valued and challenged every day. I have leapt into building my own business as a storyteller, writer and consultant. We have met many wonderful people, we are making friends, we are happy. The Midwest seems to be treating us well.

But there is history that can't be escaped. In the urban Northeast, it's possible, though not easy, if you are white to pretend the U.S. is close to post-racial. What's easier is to be outraged at the things that are happening elsewhere, rant and rave but do nothing. The compromise many of us make (those of us who pay attention to these things) is to try to effect change, but do so from a place of little risk. It's easy to rant and rave, protest and march when the worst you are likely risking is a few days in jail.

Here in the Midwest (and likely all over the country outside of big, integrated urban areas) bigotry is often more visible. When we moved here, a friend told us to avoid a certain part of Missouri because it proudly bears the nickname "Little Dixie." Okay. Little Dixie sounds pretty scary to a mixed race couple, one African American, one Jewish. We would avoid Little Dixie. We would avoid the rural South. We would be smart and be safe and could still be outraged, rant and rave and try to effect change from a place of safety.

This was challenged when a rodeo clown at the Missouri State Fair put on a Obama mask, placed a broom so it appeared to be sticking out of his rear, and taunted a bull while the announcer asked if anyone wanted to see Obama get it. The crowd roared.

We heard about it. And we decided to go to the fair anyway, be visible as a mixed race couple, and try to effect change simply by not being afraid. We weren't the only mixed race or non-white couple there and we weren't the only ones holding hands.

Not too hard, not too scary, not too unsafe. But certainly more out front that we'd had to be in Boston.

I need to digress for a moment. I believe in the First Amendment, that freedom of speech is vital to a functional democracy. And so, when I heard about the rodeo clown, I was disgusted but didn't object to the parody. This is protected speech. Even if I don't like it, it wasn't illegal.

So, when we drove by some people having a picnic, we knew that they had a right to be there. And we had a right to drive away as fast as we dared when we saw the two large Confederate flags, the shorn hair, the black leather vests. We saw symbols in a language we don't want to know but have to recognize. As we drove away we passed a Methodist church, an Assembly of God church and a Baptist church and we both wondered how many of those people attended these churches.

Once we were far enough away, my sweetheart said, "This is what the Freedom Riders saw. They saw evil and it pursued them past the house of God. And even in those houses of God they wouldn't be safe."

We kept driving through the evening light and I know we both were watching for headlights behind us, even though we really had nothing to fear. The people at the picnic hadn't noticed us among the many cars passing them.

I am not trying to compare what we experienced to what the Freedom Riders did. We remained safe. We remained quiet. We came back to our urban home where we can rant and rave, protest and march, safely.

But it's different here. History is much more present, in the air we breath, in the stickers we see on the backs of cars, in the churches we pass where we might not have found sanctuary. I find myself thinking more and more about the past, as I move into this new part of my life. And I am so grateful for those who have gone before.

I am so grateful and, in seeing things like those flags, the picnic, the kids playing under the watchful eye of parents in black leather, I stand up a little more. I don't need to be as brave as the Freedom Riders, but I, too, have First Amendment protection that I can and will exercise. I'm doing so right now. I just need to learn the language of living in a new place.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. Wise words, thoughtfully composed, injustice faced, in the first of 10,000 steps, inspiring me to do the same when it is in my face too. Thanks, Laura. Tony T

  2. Those not so subtle racial aggressors...I know them well. Not as as a African American or even a white individual, but as a Native American. In upstate NY there are very strigent I call them 'rednecks' as I used to know them in the South. Even if I never myself lived on the nearby reservations, I get treated as if I'm one and the same. I remember standing outside my car walking my dog while waiting for a friend in a convenience store not far from the Onondaga Reservation and having people glare at me with hostility. Confused I asked my friend about it and he said it's where we are. Your native, people around here tend to beat the crap out of them for no reason. I've seen it happen in restaurants with my working dog for the deaf, being placed in an empty back room so no one sees me...I wish for you and yours and me, racial prejudice was truly a thing of the past. Stay safe and loved sweet friend. (Hugs)Indigo

  3. Thanks for sharing that. It seems that in our daily lives we tend to forget that bigotry and racism are still alive. Although, I hope that it is on life support waiting for someone to pull the plug.

    Peace to you

  4. Wow, I feel grateful too, even tho your post and the responses make me sad. I was deep in a historical novel all weekend - don't get to read much fiction - so I dive deep on a long car ride and barely come up for air. The Firekeeper, by Robert Moss, a man born in Australia who learned as a young boy to honor his dreams with an aboriginal friend (perhaps a servant), writes of William Johnson who came to the Mohawk River valley in the 1760s seeking wealth but finding brotherhood with the Mohawks and to some extent the other 5 nations of the Confederacy. Billy Johnson, of Irish stock, also made some friends in other tribes. He wasn't a "great guy," a terrible womanizer in fact, but he GOT that these wise, dreaming, thoughtful REAL PEOPLE who knew the woods and river like family, were men and women to be respected. But the book shows the deep racism and ethnic hatreds in "the New World"....Oh hatred (fear) why do we give it you such room in our hearts? Thanks, Laura, and blessings on you both in your new land.


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