It's invitation time
On the simple act of trying, together
TOP NOTES: Hi! Remember how, in the last couple issues, I kept mentioning how in short order the Barnraisers website would look, if not “good,” then at least “less bad.” Well it’s live! And I like it now! That’s in large part to the fact that Barnraisers is no longer solely a one-person shop. I’m deeply lucky to have Carly Ganz managing all-things-operations now— including the website. That’s to say, I have no designs on building a big unwieldy nonprofit or getting Organizer Wealthy, but your contributions to Barnraisers do help us keep this little train running. Thank you.
Also: Lots of Minneapolis election talk in this issue. I know most of you are not MPLS voters (I’m not either) and nobody sits around waiting for The White Pages endorsement, but if you’re wondering, I align with all of the endorsements Ashley Fairbanks shared here. Oh, and speaking of elections, if you happen to live in the Mequon-Thiensville (WI) School District, please recognize that your district’s recall campaign is a test balloon for a bad-faith statewide strategy and I’d appreciate it if you voted against it, thanks!
I have spent the last hour listening to self-described Fairfax County mother Laura Murphy assure me that “as a parent, it’s tough to catch everything.” She is right, by the way. I am literally typing this from a couch with a hot chocolate-inflicted stain on it. I didn’t catch that stain before it happened because I am a parent and, like my new friend Laura says, it’s tough!
Laura’s problem isn’t stained couches (hers look absolutely impeccable!). It’s Toni Morrison’s landmark 1987 novel Beloved. You have likely heard about Laura— she is the viral star of Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia gubernatorial campaign advertisements. If so, you likely also know that she isn’t merely a concerned mom but a well-connected GOP activist, that the child she claims was once scarred by Morrison’s novel is now a 27-year-old Republican lawyer, and that all of this is a bunch of nonsense.
I haven’t been watching and re-watching Laura Murphy simply because she’s disingenuous. As a White parent, I have an interest in how and why politicians pander to me, even when (actually especially when) they’re lying. It’s a decent glimpse into how low societal expectations are for people like me. Laura (and Glenn) want me to know that “parents matter” (Again, I agree! This year, I somehow figured out both of my kids’ Halloween costumes before the last moment, thus sparing them the indignity of going as “an outfit that was clearly intended for a dog but was the only thing Target had left on the racks at 10:00 PM on October 30th!” For this, I matter!). Per Murphy and Youngkin, though, the way my government should respect how much I matter is by sending me a list of every book that my children will ever encounter in their thirteen years of public school attendance. My job, in turn, is to study this list and become deeply offended if I find any books that contain child-destroying trauma-delivery-systems like “curse words” or “accurate narrative retellings of the horrors of slavery.”
I am told that the Youngkin/McAuliffe race is a “bellwether”— a test case for each party’s current best pitch for affluent, disproportionately White, suburban voters in a post-2020 electoral landscape. If Youngkin wins, or comes close, the rest of the country has basically bought itself four more years of hearing exclusively about CRT and mask mandates and other indignities that, according to parenting expert Laura Murphy, will threaten my overall level of fatherly mattering.
I hate all of this, of course. I hate it because it is so old and tired. I hate it because it is Brown vs. Board backlash and Reagan’s Orange County revolution and the West Virginia textbook wars dusted off and dressed up in millennial athleisure. I hate it because it is rooted in the smallest, most condescending vision of what it means to be a parent, and especially a White parent— that we are consigned to solely be scared and myopic and out only-for-our-own. I hate it because they wouldn’t do it if it likely wasn’t going to work.
One of the first things I like to do with participants in my organizing trainings is to hear what they like and dislike about their communities. Now, folks who show up to my course are typically left-leaning White people well versed in the social and racial zeitgeist of the day. As such, while there is such a lovely variety of responses on the “like” side of the coin, their answer to the “dislike” part is generally… other White people in their area. I hear about the performative yard signs in exclusive subdivisions, the rural neighbors who fill local Facebook pages with rants about various conspiratorial boogymen, the gentrifiers raising up everybody else’s rents. There’s plenty of critical self-reflection, don’t get me wrong. But it is notable— I virtually never hear about their White friends, neighbors and colleagues as having the potential to be anything but the sum total of our worst instincts.
I think a lot about those answers. Over the course of the cohorts, I often hear more deeply about what’s behind them. Some of those reasons are understandable but unfortunate (if you spend enough time following anti-racist influencers on social media or reading the more self-help-ish, step-by-step anti-racism books, you internalize very quickly that saying anything other than “white people suck, and cis straight white men specifically suck,” will get you reprimanded by hipper, better-read, more strident voices). Others are understandable and unassailably true (the evidence for us White people being a consistently negative force in society is, of course, quite strong!). Elevating Black and Brown and Indigenous voices becomes, in this context, not merely a helpful corrective but a desperate salve. It’s a kind of magical thinking, that perhaps if we just fill our bookshelves with books by Black authors and pretend the White people aren’t there at all, the problem will go away.
The problem is that we’re left with two predominant approaches towards White people, both of which are intensely patronizing and insulting. On one hand, you have the Left parroting the implicit idea that if Whiteness is a contemporary and historic scourge, that all White people are essentially beyond hope. On the other hand, you have conservatives desperately whispering in White peoples’ ears that it is our lot in life to be scared, petulant babies. If it seems like that’s a recipe for millions upon millions of White people either running around feeling individually shameful and sheepish OR getting radicalized to shore up white supremacy, then that’s a pretty decent description of the state of White America in 2021.
There is another high-profile local election coming up. Residents of Minneapolis have a slate of decisions in front of them— in particular about whether they will continue with their status quo approach to policing or instead imagine a new public safety department, complete with a host of integrated services. I don’t know how that election will turn out; there are deeply entrenched forces working overtime to keep the status quo in that city humming along.
What I do know, though, is that there is a story in the southwest corner of that city that gives me a lot of hope. For those unfamiliar with Minneapolis, the leafy, lake-adjacent neighborhoods in Southwest are traditionally known for their wealth, their Whiteness, and that familiar urban-NIMBY brand of “don’t mess with my property values” conservatism. It is the kind of area that is easy to scoff at— grumpy Whites who, regardless of their party affiliation, want you to get off their yard. Laura Murphy definitely wants the parents of those wards to know that they matter, if you get my drift.
There is something happening in Southwest Minneapolis though. It is small. It is nascent. It is composed of people who are delightfully surprised to have found one another. Slowly but surely, a group of neighbors, most of them White, are coalescing together around a different vision for their neighborhood (full disclosure: some of these lovely neighbors are former Barnraisers trainees). They’re currently running a scrappy but passionate city council campaign against a well-connected and well-financed incumbent who strongly represents their neighborhoods’ “traditional” values. It’s an uphill climb and, while they have much more of a shot than their opponents will have you believe, they might very well lose! I’m enamored with their story regardless of what happens next week because of what this campaign has given them— a vessel from which to keep building.
You see, the very nature of their campaign requires them to simultaneously say two things to their neighbors… first, that they have, in fact, been the problem. As a community, they’ve thrown their weight and money around the city. They’ve disproportionally directed resources to their corner of Minneapolis, at the expense of the common good. They’ve supported a police department that has terrorized communities of color. But then, the equally important counterpoint… that their neighborhood can be so much more than that. They can be less scared, less cloistered, more open to other communities leading the way. They can discover what it means to be safe by taking care of one another, not outsourcing that work solely to state agents with guns. It’s no wonder that the very act of imagining this campaign together has transformed a group of disconnected strangers into a fired-up community that’s ready to keep fighting, regardless of whether they win this particular battle.
In addition to rallying around candidates who share their vision for a more liberatory version of Minneapolis’ future, these neighbor-activists are rallying against a so-called strong mayor amendment, explicitly because it would consolidate and strengthen their wards’ ability to wield disproportionate political power. They are strongly supporting not only the amendment to rethink public safety but also a third initiative to strengthen city government’s ability to pass rent control policies. That’s to say, their appeal to their neighbors’ better angels isn’t ephemeral— it cuts to the core of the exact way that neighborhoods like theirs typically hoard power and privilege. And they’re going door-to-door with a simple request: This is who we’ve been, but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s figure out how to get there together.
I talk to a whole lot of White people who want a better world, at least in theory, but are scared to death of messing up, of doing anything that might not be officially sanctioned by every single anti-racist book on the market. Now, a little dose of humility isn’t a bad thing, what with our collective track record of generalized colonization and all. There’s such a thing as over-correcting, though, of defaulting into self-flagellation and pretzel logic timidity. In the meantime, the Blue Ribbon Commission For Keeping Power Structures Unchanged won’t sit back and wait for the rest of us to feel good enough. They’ll keep on telling White parents that the only way we matter is if we’re scared and hyper-focused on our own kid and nothing but our kid. They’ll keep on telling White neighbors that the only way we can relate to each other is either through Homeowner’s Association market worship or Next Door/Ring Camera vigilantism.
All I’m saying is, we talk a lot about how the tightrope walk of being a decent human being while White is complicated, but in some ways it’s actually pretty simple. What I love about those neighbors in Minneapolis is that what they’re doing doesn’t require a master’s degree in critical theory. They’re saying to one another- “hey, I want to be truly proud that the place I live is bringing out our collective better angels-- who else around me wants to talk about that?” Likewise, what I love about my friends in Integrated Schools is that it’s a bunch of parents saying to each other “the way that privileged parents-- especially White parents-- interact with the school system is usually pretty crappy, what would it look like to be at least a little bit more intentional, to aspire to be a little bit better?”
It’s 2021. The fact that White people have caused and keep causing a heap of problems isn’t news. It is, of course, profoundly unhelpful that there are still powerful groups who recognize that reality and double down on it, telling White people to lean into their worst instincts. But so too is it unhelpful to be the millionth White person merely repeating back what they’ve heard about how bad we all are. We’re onto the fourth racial reckoning of our lifetime, friends. Now it’s invitation time. If you’re stuck in neutral, it’s likely that there are a few dozen folks in your life who feel the same way. If the only gift you have for them is a snide remark about how their yard sign is performative, you’re not doing a lick of good. That yard sign is only performative until it isn’t. Your self-righteousness is toothless until it isn’t. Problems can be pointed out solo, but paths forward are generally discovered together. I’m not interested in how guilty you feel. The question at hand is who do you know, and what will your invitation be?
END NOTES: This week’s song is “Born to Run” by Niiice (it’s a pretty by the book cover, so don’t go in expecting to be surprised, but they’re MPLS kids and now you get to listen to Born to Run again so you’re welcome for that).
“Oh, will you walk with me out on the wire/’Cause baby I’m just a scared and lonely rider.”