Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash

When my mom, aunt, and I walked into Dirt Cheap and went our separate ways, off to find deals, goodies and things we didn’t need but wanted, it was just like any other Saturday. I was happy; bargains thrill me. The store wasn’t too crowded, but it was abuzz with shoppers, like us, debating on whether the 40 percent off tag for their items was enough of a discount to justify the purchase.

I stood in the electronics department looking for an adapter for my phone when a little white boy who’d been skulking around the kiosk walked up to me with a toy gun in his grip. He was a cute little boy, maybe 4 years old, with big brown eyes, dirty blonde hair cut in a shaggy bowl. The shorts and T-shirts he wore, I can’t remember exactly, but it was pretty obvious whoever took care of him was worn out that day and wasn’t about to fight with him about the difference between play clothes and outside-the-house ones. One of his big eyes was closed—he’d learned this from a movie, I assume—as he pointed the gun at me.

“Hey,” I said with a little more cheer than I’d usually use to speak to a stranger, even a child. “I know you’re just playing, but it makes me uncomfortable when you point that gun at me. Would you not do that please?”

He looked confused and dropped the gun to his side.

“Thank you,” I said, as I noticed a short white woman with a curve in her back, deep wrinkles, and loosely curled grey and blonde hair. I’m not sure if she was there before, but she was noticeably interested in the innocuous exchange the boy and I were having. In the few seconds between my noticing her noticing us, her eyes probably darted back and forth between us a dozen times.

He raised the gun again at me, testing my fortitude, as children are wont to do.

“Don’t do that,” I sang, shaking my head no.

He looked at her, so I did too. She hissed at me silently with her eyes. Ah well.

*****

People often say children aren’t born knowing how to hate; adults teach them. There’s even a Nelson Mandela quote from his book, “Long Walk to Freedom,” where he drones on—no disparage intended—about no one being born hating another person. “People,” he writes, “must learn to hate. And if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Here’s the thing, though: Science doesn’t quite bear that out.

Kang Lee, a University of Toronto human development researcher, told The National Post, “Because most of us are born into monoracial environments, we start to show preferences for own-race individuals, and then we start to show biases.”

Yikes. This suggests the likelihood of racism dying out with an arbitrary generation is slim, at best. At worst, it means guys like Kyle Rittenhouse, Dylann Roof, and others of their ilk, like the Proud Boys, were not simply nurtured, but also natured.

Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old, shot three protestors with an AR-15-style rifle August 15, 2020, in Kenosha, Wis., a city near Chicago. Protests had broken out in the city after Kenosha police shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times in the back in front of his children (Blake miraculously survived, though paralyzed from the waist down). The city of nearly 100,000 erupted in protests and Rittenhouse claimed he’d been hired by cops to protect a local business from rioters. This was about three months after George Floyd had been murdered in Minneapolis by Derek Chauvin (who was recently convicted and sentenced), and outcry was raging.

Reporters Teo Armus, Mark Bermaan and Griff Witte write the following in the Washington Post about Rittenhouse and the militia man:

“It is not clear precisely what fed Rittenhouse’s attraction to the police, which also appears to have extended to the military.

He had attempted to join the Marine Corps in January but was disqualified from serving after discussing his options with recruiters, said service spokeswoman Yvonne Carlock. She declined to specify why he was disqualified, citing the service’s privacy guidelines.

Rittenhouse lived across the state border in the Illinois village of Antioch. Accounts from neighbors and local institutions paint the picture of a high school dropout who viewed law enforcement officers as his personal heroes.

So much so that, when the unrest broke out in Kenosha, he crossed state lines to offer his presence as an armed supplement to overwhelmed local police departments. Speaking to reporters who recorded his statements, he suggested their duties were his, too.”

Rittenhouse, unlike many of his comrades-in-hate, didn’t murder three Black men, though. What he did, in some of those circles, is more prized because the betrayal is deeper: He murdered white people who dared protest against white dominance.

This can be seen in the ways he was rallied around, even more so than Roof. With Rittenhouse’s charges of first-degree intentional homicide, first-degree reckless homicide, attempted first-degree homicide, and two counts of first-degree recklessly endangering safety (all with a deadly weapon), he was thanked by cops for his helpfulness. He was (presumably) given bottles of water as expressions of gratitude and was never once, that we know of, chastised by his heroes in blue for violating the city’s curfew, like many Black protesters were.

His mother, Wendy Rittenhouse, in response to all this, intimated protestors were primarily responsible for her son’s tribulations. In one of her only interviews, she told the Chicago Tribune, “It’s a tragedy what happened to Mr. Blake. It is. But my son and everybody else should not have been in Kenosha.” She goes on to say, “The police should have been involved with these people that lost their businesses. They should have stepped up. I’m not mad at the police. I’m not. They have a hard enough job as it is.”

If we’re predisposed to those who look like us, as researcher Lee suggests (nature) and the people nurturing us reinforce those initially innocuous prejudices (nurture), those prejudices quickly become who we are. In this context, they’re exercises in “How to Raise a Racist.” Elizabeth Gillespie McRae affirms this in her book “Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy.”

She writes, “Being a good white mother or a good white woman mean[s] teaching and enforcing racial distance in their homes and in the larger public sphere.”

When a mother slips, the State will remind her. A superior example of this is Fred Jones’ July 12, 1961 letter to Merle Nelson. Fred Jones, then the superintendent of Mississippi State Penitentiary, was writing about Merle Nelson’s daughter, Jane Trumpauer (Mulholland). “What I cannot understand is why as a mother you permitted a minor white girl to gang up with a bunch of negro bucks and white hoodlums to ramble over this country with the express purpose of violating the laws of certain states and attempting to incite acts of violence,” he wrote. “If you are concerned enough, you could post bond for your daughter and have her released.”

Mulholland was in Parchman because of her work In the Civil Rights Movement. She was a Freedom Rider and participated In over 30 sit-Ins. Currently, she is celebrated as an icon. But that’s now. Back then? Back then, Mulholland’s actions confused and enraged her fellow whites, creating irreparable tension between herself and her parents and Inspiring violence from white people. In one particular incident, the root of that rage was revealed.

“… [W]e were joined by Joan Trumpauer. Now there were three of us and we were integrated. The crowd began to chant, “Communists, Communists, Communists.” Some old man in the crowd ordered the students to take us off the stools.

“Which one should I get first?” a big husky boy said.

“That white nigger,” the old man said.

The boy lifted Joan from the counter by her waist and carried her out of the store.”

from “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” Anne Moody

Communist. White nigger. Add race traitor to the mix, and you have a trifecta of language used to decry the ultimate betrayal to white supremacist Ideology. To be rebuked in this way is, again, a failing on the part of the white female figure responsible for one’s rearing. Mulholland’s mother was likely mortified at her daughter’s behavior, seeing it as a personal failing that her white daughter would challenge her white supremacist upbringing and organize for Black people’s civil rights. In a 2009 interview with the Associated Press, Mulholland said “my family, to the extent that I ever heard anything, really were upset with me and close to disowned me because I had just gone against everything they had grown up believing and feeling. And I was a traitor.”

The concept of race traitor is mostly archaic. I looked for a couple days, but the term has all but disappeared. Now mostly the only place you can find anything about being a race traitor is about Black folks–Uncle Toms, Clarence Thomases, Carltons, acting white, being a token. Still, the concept is upheld and enforced by whiteness everywhere you look.

No one wants to be a traitor. And white dominance demands the unwavering loyalty of white femininity as much as it does the pervasive violence of white masculinity.

That’s exactly what I butted up against.

*****

Time passed, I’m not sure how much. I stood at a clothing rack, moving hangers with clothes on them from right to left along the rail. I felt something I tried to ignore; eyes were boring into me. The little boy from the electronics department was to my right six feet or so away. This was 2019, pre-COVID-19. This was no acknowledgment of social distance protocol. Nope. It wasn’t that at all. He stood, feet shoulder width apart, body square, holding that same gun pointed directly at me. Uncertainty or a giddiness emanated from his confident stance. Sometimes discerning between the two can be difficult. I looked at him, “I thought I asked you not to do that?”

Click. He pulled the fake trigger.

“And you need to stop talking to him,” a large-bodied white woman with brunette hair in a messy, half-up, half-down ‘do said aggressively. I assumed it was his mother. Flanking her was another white woman—her sister? girlfriend?— with grandma from electronics and a teenage-looking boy. Those were the eyes boring into me. They bore deeper.

“Remember when I told you that made me uncomfortable?” I asked, really pleaded … to a child.

“It’s a goddamn toy! Get over yourself!” Messy Hair said.

“I don’t want to have to take that from you,” I said. He stood, not flinching. The uncertainty in his knees a few seconds ago transmuted to resolve. His stance never changed. My boldness, at this point, was fake. My muscles tensed, voice measured, heart beating in my throat. Maybe that was my ears.

“I bet you won’t, bitch. Touch him and see what happens,” Mother Messy Hair threatened. Those surrounding her, her white gang, dared me with their eyes.

In the near distance between the boy to my right and the gang directly in front of me, a thin 60-something Black man wearing a baseball cap, an oversized, tattered T-shirt stuffed into pleated khakis held to his waist by a belt, stood there watching. Perhaps stunned himself (or entertained), he undoubtedly was not looking, postured to come to my defense.

“I’m not talking to you. I’m speaking to him.”

What is wrong with you?! STOP TALKING. … Remain calm. … No, stand up for yourself. … You can’t fight. … Are you breathing? You should breathe. Hello, lungs? I need you.

Thoughts sprinted through my mind, while invisible spikes nailed my feet to the floor. She got louder, cursed more, flung threats at me; their eyes, now more squinted, bore even deeper and snarls crept upward from their mouths to their nostrils.

Feigning assuredness takes so much energy, like the kind I have to muster when I lie like I’m not depressed and I’m actually drowning.

Click. He pulled the trigger again.

*****

There’s a difference between safety and danger. The latter is pretty clear: A creepy man, wielding a large knife, dressed in all black jumps out of a white van without windows and is running toward you: what do you do? Safety, though, can be a bit more passive and suggests the absence of danger, even danger one can’t see. Safety reminds me of the prayers of my grandmother from my youth, to protect us from dangers seen and unseen. It’s that unseen part where true welfare and virtuosity lie. And I’ve come to believe more wholeheartedly that safety is virtually unattainable for Black girls and women.

I believe this so deeply, in fact, this year we tweaked the mission statement of The Lighthouse | Black Girl Projects. Where we used to say we create safe spaces, we now, more realistically and aspirationally set out to create spaces of solidarity and safety. We recognize though there is little material safety, there can be security in the gathering together. Sometimes.

Congregants sat in Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the evening of June 17, 2015, in one of their sacred spaces. They’d gathered for Bible study. And they, like ideal people of faith, like Black people are wont to do, welcomed and embraced Roof, the stranger. In exchange for their warmth, the nation learned, they received bullets. Rounds of them. We know Roof was finally arrested and, two years later, sentenced to death after being found guilty of the 33 counts with which he was charged. We also know that before being taken into custody, he was treated to Burger King. A treat for a hungry murderer or respecting the rights of a person in custody—who’s to say?

It pales in comparison to what happened at Emmanuel AME, of course, but Dirt Cheap used to be one of my spaces. It was a space of refuge and calm in the ritualistic ways I approached my trips there, accompanied or alone. I’ve long since known racists wouldn’t just die out. The rhythm of white patriarchal dominance is too steady, too predictable, despite the irony of that statement. This was still different. It confronted and cursed at me; it encouraged a young boy to make me uncomfortable, taught him how to do it; then it challenged me to do anything about it. A threat to my safety was clothed in an ill-fitting bra, ratty T-shirt, khaki cargo shorts and skin burned by the sun. That, too, was disconcerting, but none of that mattered at that moment. A little boy was shooting me multiple times with invisible bullets that exploded from a toy gun in Dirt Cheap. It may never matter.

*****

“Come on. Let’s go,” Messy Hair barked at the gunman. The family walked away, toward the ready-to-assemble furniture, looking over their shoulders.

The little boy giggled. “I did good, didn’t I?” Sister-girlfriend rubbed the top of his head, untidying his hair, showing a congratulations to him from the collective. The Black man—our audience—met eyes with me, his blank, and walked off in the other direction toward the shelves of bargain shoes and perhaps Burger King afterwards. Who’s to say?

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