What Whiteness Does, And Doesn’t Do, Or, Some Things I Learned During The North Smithfield, RI Proposed Nike Ban Resolution

23 Oct

North Smithfield RI Nike Ban

Beauregard’s Nike Ban Resolution

I wish I was an “in the moment” blogger. The kind that writes about a newsworthy event right after it happens and posts it within the same twenty-four hours. But I’m not. I seem to take my time these days, thinking that perhaps letting the dust settle, helps me process, and consider the story worth telling.

On September 17, 2018, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed in order to distract myself from writing, my eyes fixed on a post from a friend telling of a Town Council meeting taking place that evening in Smithfield, Rhode Island.  The Town Council president called the meeting to put forth a resolution “suggesting” the town schools and businesses not purchase Nike products.  In my immediate WTF reaction, I typed in my Facebook status that I would be going to that meeting wearing full Nike gear. I asked if anyone cared to join me. Never mind that I don’t own any Nike. I am not sporty. I also decided years ago to stop buying their goods when I heard of their labor practices employing children, and paying horrible wages. But I knew I needed to show up. I could not let this meeting in the state I now live in go by without being there to protest it.

Smithfield, Rhode Island is a suburban town of about 12,000 residents, and is situated about twenty minutes north of where I live in the diverse city of Providence. Smithfield’s demographics: 96% white residents. John Beauregard, the Town Council president who called for the resolution, is a former State Trooper. He claims working as such gives him a perspective different from the average citizen. Beauregard stated in a news article about the meeting, that he feels Colin Kaepernick has a high disregard toward police officers, and that Nike’s ad featuring Colin’s image, with the tag line: Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything, is insulting to police officers. In his words, Kaepernick has sacrificed nothing, nothing like the sacrifices that police officers make every day, hoping that they’ll make it home safe to their families. Mr. Beauregard, apparently also part of the gaslighting committee in town, is yet another human being who has done the mental gymnastics necessary to turn Colin’s taking a knee in protest of police brutality and racial inequality, into a threat–in this case–to the very fine town of Smithfield. He sees as the natural solution to the worrisome Kaepernick: have the town not buy Nike products endorsed by Colin Kaepernick. But we know better what his resolution implies, right?

I thought I’d be going to the meeting alone that night without any friends saying they’d join me, but shortly before I was about to go, Julia, a newer friend, and a professor of Black Studies at a local college, reached out to say she was considering going, and I asked her if she wanted to drive together. We both confessed to not having much, or any Nike attire. I told her I would wear my Black Lives Matter t-shirt instead.When we met up to drive to the meeting that evening, Julia, who is black, and of Barbadian descent, was also wearing a BLM t-shirt. Mine was white with the BLM logo printed large and bold in black ink. Her shirt was black with small white lettering.

Thinking about the need to externally make a statement with my t-shirt, I recalled how I first met Julia at a social justice book club several years ago. We had stayed in touch intermittently, and two summers ago, we both showed up at a New Orleans style Second Line procession in Providence in honor of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the two men who died a day apart, July 5th and July 6th, 2016. Both were killed by police officers, without a shred of just cause. When I am moved emotionally, whether by sadness over a tragedy like the Alton and Philando killings, or joyousness on happier occasions, I get a vision, and I don’t know, but perhaps I’m a bit extra because I’m an artist, but I become compelled to express my feelings visually, often times, in the way I dress, or accessorize. For the Smithfield Town Council meeting, my t-shirt expressed my sentiment for the evening’s agenda.

For the Philando and Alton Procession, I remember I had looked up images of parasols carried during Second Lines in New Orleans. I showed up at the procession with an umbrella I fashioned with white lace, white fabric floral pieces, and ruffled trim. Large printed images of Philando and Alton circled the panels of the parasol. When I got to the procession, I think I was the only one with an umbrella. I began to doubt myself. Was this too much? As a white person, was it not my place to make such a memorial tribute to these two black men? I remember Julia seemed to be touched by the fact that I made the umbrella, and when I sheepishly asked her if she wished to carry it, she kindly responded, “You created it. I think you should carry it.”

Still needing to fight for what’s right, with our message emblazoned t-shirts, Julia and I entered the North Smithfield middle school cafeteria for the Town Council Nike resolution meeting, and took a seat on a bench by the door. I thought we’d see people with big signs protesting Beauregard’s proposal. And that everyone would be wearing obvious Nike gear. And Kaepernick t-shirts. I was wrong. It felt more like we were walking into any ordinary school PTO meeting. And reflecting the town’s demographics, eyes seemed to land immediately on Julia and myself, standing out for Julia being one of the few black people in the room, and oh yes, for our t-shirts. And that is when whiteness stepped into the meeting to remind us in all kind of ways how it behaves.

I mean, I’m white, too, so of course, everything I see is through my white woman lens. And, yes, we are all layered human beings, and so there are other parts of me, too, that are my lens, like being Jewish (which didn’t used to be considered white), being middle-aged, being middle class, being a mother, etc., but through this journey of examining my perspective on race, cross-racial connections, inclusion, exclusion, racism, and whiteness, I can’t help but pick apart every human encounter pretty much every moment of every day. That evening in North Smithfield was no different.

As soon as Julia and I had settled into our seats on the bench, a woman, who we later learned was a former town councilperson, approached us, telling us she hoped we would get up and speak during the Open Forum section of the meeting. Julia quietly said to me…”I’ll see..I don’t know if I feel like being pimped..” I nodded. We hadn’t even known there would be an opportunity to speak. I teasingly call myself “the shy activist,” as I am not the chant and response kind of gal. I also had never spoken in public before at anything like this. But, I felt I had to rise to the occasion, so I signed up for a slot to speak, without putting down my address, since I didn’t know if not being from Smithfield would prohibit them from letting me speak. I jotted down something on a back of an envelope I found in my purse in hopes that I could convey what this proposed resolution meant to me, the town, the state, the country.

Twenty people got up to speak. All were strongly opposed to the resolution, noting reasons such as, an allowance for freedom of speech, with most adding that this was a personal issue of Beauregard’s that they and the town wanted no part of. Some directly called the resolution a racist act. All of the Smithfield resident speakers were white, except for a young football player, and president of the Democrat Club at local college, Bryant University. Wise, confident, and informed beyond his years, or at least far more than I was at that age, especially when it came to politics and activism, he gave a moving statement on why the resolution was wrong for Smithfield. The only person who spoke in favor of the resolution was a local conservative radio talk show host, who vehemently expressed Kaepernick was no role model. He went off any many disjointed tangents, including calling Black Lives Matter “a terrorist organization.” He received many boos. Barring the exasperated sighs of the residents, the tone of the audience was pretty quiet throughout, as was the table of Town Council members.

Julia decided toward the end of the Open Forum to get up and speak. She began by talking about how as someone who studies political science, that words and rhetoric are something she pays attention to, and that with the proposed resolution, “there is power in the words we use, and so we have to be careful about the messages our words imply, and pay attention to who is included in those messages, and who is not.” No sooner did Julia mention words referencing inclusion, when an older white woman sitting on the Town Council, Claire O’Hara, got up, and yelled out that she “in all her years as a resident of North Smithfield, a teacher, and a town council member, has never not welcomed anyone.”

Julia stayed calm despite being the only person interrupted during the Open Forum. She asked the woman if she could continue, as did members from the audience. Julia continued and completed what she had to say, came back to sit down, and the Town Council had their chance to speak. Beauregard read the resolution he must have carefully crafted to show the utter disdain he holds for Colin Kaepernick. The same woman who interrupted Julia, Claire O’Hara, spoke again about why she was for the passing of the resolution. Shortly into her speech, she actually said, “and to the girl with the shirt that says Black Lives Matter…well, I say, “All Lives Matter.” The audience groaned. They groaned more when she said what almost sounded like a threat–something about if people didn’t like the way things were in North Smithfield, then maybe they shouldn’t live there. The other three members of the council elected not to make a statement. I will not give any more time to Mr. Beauregard, or give any more details of the rest of the meeting because if you want a truly comprehensive capture of the evening, you should visit www.upriseri.com. Steve Ahlquist, the local journalist for social justice, as I call him, has a blog post, complete with video of all of the speakers, and the resolution vote. I am grateful for the work Steve does, and for his generosity in allowing me to share his work here.

I will tell you though, that the resolution passed that night, 3 – 2. I will tell you that the townspeople in attendance stormed out in disgust, some muttering that they couldn’t believe this was happening. I will also tell you what happened after Julia and I stepped outside the school.

Whiteness is what happened. People apologized to Julia as they walked to their cars. They said they were embarrassed that they live in the town where this is happening. All of a sudden we had half a dozen people standing in a circle with us. Apologizing to Julia for the resolution. Bad mouthing Beauregard. Telling Julia they were so sorry for the behavior of Claire O’Hara who interrupted her. Saying that she was a school teacher, well-liked by many in the community for many years, but that she was getting a little “out there” in her older years. I watched Julia, and wondered what all of this attention must feel like for her. I remembered how a friend of mine, who is white, and has a bi-racial teenage daughter, reminds me at times how it is a different matter for her daughter to show up at a protest, than for her daughter’s white friends. There is more of an element of danger for her daughter because she has brown skin. I casually said earlier in the day that I’d wear my Black Lives Matter t-shirt. I’m white. I didn’t worry about danger.

And then town councilwoman, Claire O’Hara, a short woman with a thick, wiry grey bob, most likely in her late 60’s or early 70’s,  walked over to our circle.

“I want to apologize to you for interrupting you,” she said, grabbing, then letting go of Julia’s upper arm, as she stood face to face with her.  Then looking around, and at me, said, “she said everything so eloquently, didn’t she…?” I am certain I smirked.

She mentioned something about her Black Lives Matter statement, and I said pointing to the front of my t-shirt, “but I’m wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, and you didn’t say anything to me..”

“I didn’t notice your shirt.”

Of course you didn’t, I thought. Again she tried to find the words to compliment Julia on what she said, and again looked to me to help her. “She said everything so, so….what is the word..?”

“I don’t know what word it is you want to use,” I said. She went there though, and again used the word eloquent and I’m pretty sure, articulate, to describe Julia’s statement.

Julia, still maintaining a sense of calm, offered words for consideration, instead of making any accusations. “All I am suggesting is we have to be careful about the words we use and who we are leaving out with those words, and who are we including in those words..”

On the car ride home, an agreed sense of, this is no surprise, but it’s still dark and disappointing, gave way to levity when we laughed at how scared the 96.6% of white residents must have to be of the 3.4% people of color and the harm they could do to them and their town, to make a resolution like that. Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from screaming. Or crying.

Two days after the resolution passed, the newspaper reported that Beauregard would be recalling it at a town council meeting the following Monday. He made sure to say in a statement even more racist than the initial proposal, that he hadn’t changed his mind, but that he “didn’t want to drag the town’s people, schools and businesses, into a fight that was a personal issue of his.” I had told Julia I wanted to write about the resolution meeting. She talked about needing time to process her thoughts and feelings but suggested we get together soon to talk more about the evening’s events. When we learned of the rescinding of the ban, we agreed to take things full circle and meet for coffee right before going together to the resolution recall meeting.

Not sporting any Nike gear this time, Julia showed me she was still representing with a grey hoodie with a map of Africa on its front. Secretly, thinking myself some kind of quick-change, super-shy activist, I had on my BLM tee under my sweater–just in case.

“I was having some thoughts about how the whole night went last week, and was wondering if I could ask you what you thought,” I asked Julia.

“Sure, go ahead,” she said.

“Well…I couldn’t help but notice, when we got outside after the meeting and all those white people made a circle around you, that well, I mean, I think they were concerned and felt bad about what that town council lady did to you, but I also think all those apologies and things people said about themselves being against the resolution were to prove to you, and to themselves, that they were “good white people.”

“Yes, you have it. It’s the latter,” Julia nodded with emphasis, like there was no doubt in her mind that that was what it was.

We talked a little more about whiteness, and white fragility, and white people’s deep worry of being thought of as racist–hence apologies like the ones given to Julia, or at times, silence, instead of confronting racism and systems of structural racism. And as we continued our talk I have to say I’d be lying if before I checked myself on my very own whiteness showing, that I didn’t think for a moment that I was one of the even better white people, for being able to spot how whiteness behaves.

As Julia and I sat in the same area in the school cafeteria as the previous meeting a week before, the recalling of the resolution felt almost anti-climatic to me, as it went by so quickly. Though there were definitely more heated moments like when Beauregard threw out an attendee who spoke out during the meeting. Close by, a man, sporting  veteran’s baseball cap, yelled out, “is that how fascism works?” and Beauregard shouted back sarcastically, “yes, that’s how it works!” The man and his friend, also a veteran, stood up after the resolution was recalled and said, “you don’t represent us!”

After the recall meeting, I tried to turn off my own inner-analysis stream of thoughts around racism, and noticing how whiteness operates, to look around and listen to the statements friends of mine who are black were making on social media about the Nike ban and recall. Things like calling the outrage in Smithfield reactionary, not progressive. That again the only recent waking up of us white people to racial inequities, and injustices, especially only once it impacts us directly, is too little, too late. That we must not let things stay status quo for black and brown people once these overt issues are dealt with. That we must fight for the overall abolition of the pillars of white supremacy that touch every facet of our lives, and which we claim we are so woke about, and which we claim we care so deeply about.

This is what whiteness does, doesn’t do, and hasn’t done.

Sometimes you have to believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.






photo credit: deskgram










3 Responses to “What Whiteness Does, And Doesn’t Do, Or, Some Things I Learned During The North Smithfield, RI Proposed Nike Ban Resolution”