Complicity: Battle Flags and Pussy Hats

Photo Credit: Aimee Custis Photography

A year ago today, my son asked me what “fascism” means. He was reading it on placards and banners and signs in downtown DC. We were holding hands, marching with friends at Donald Trump’s inauguration.

I thought the signs were a bit extreme for that moment in time; fascism is good thing to think about deeply but loses momentum turned into catch phrase after a lazy analysis. After all, what we witnessed in 2016 was actually just representative democracy… but we have yet to pick apart those failings.

That day, we didn’t know what lay ahead of us. Some people were still upset about the election. Some people were lamenting the “others” who they blamed for getting us here. But what we all had in common was a cold apprehension that we could feel right down into our bones.

2017 became a year of reckoning. A year of Confederate flags and pussy hats.

And I want to talk to you about both.

I grew up with Confederate flags. Confederate flags were window dressings and truck decals and sometimes bikinis if you could pull it off. In small-town dirt road poor South, Confederate flags said something of working-class pride to me; a snub to the east coast liberal and rich folks who had better shoes, better houses, better education, and better everything as far as I could tell. Confederate flags somehow linked with labor history in my mind, the Battle of Blair Mountain, blood on the coal fields; a flag of people who needed to find pride when they worked grueling hours for shit wages in chicken processing plants while being constantly made fun of on TV.

It’s naive of me to say that the stars and bars were not about race: I just didn’t have to think of it that way. Whiteness was not something that existed as a concept in my world; it wasn’t something we, as white people, had to talk about. My family raised me to reject racist behavior, but not to put myself squarely into the equation in my whiteness. I saw race as only an issue for people of color.

While I never owned the bikini, my true reckoning with the Confederate flag embarrassingly only came in 2017. I had never shuddered in fear when I saw it and never thought of it as something besides a tacky throw on the back of my high school boyfriend’s futon. But when I heard from others — my own friends for God’s sake — how it felt in their worlds, I could no longer abide. For me, with new knowledge, the flag changed in all it represented. I can not make excuses now that I know it’s impact. I have to see the symbol through other’s eyes; that is the basis of empathy and empathy is the foundation of justice.

After the inauguration, my son and I stayed in Washington, DC for the Women’s March. I knew the concerns raised about the march well but went anyway. I wanted to him to see the incredible space held that day by women. He wrote a sign on a piece of cardboard he found and rode on my shoulders: I’m Against Trump Because I’m for My Mom. I felt prideful.

The subway cars and streets of DC were absolutely overflowing with women; the original permitted route was quickly abandoned and marchers flooded out across the mall, through streets, and beyond barricades. It was a sea of pink.

Unlike the day before, we were entirely safe — but we didn’t feel at home. Women were gleeful and celebratory and thanking the police — the day was in stark contrast to what prosecutors now refer to as the “sea of black,” alleged criminals who were running from concussion grenades and coughing under clouds of tear gas only the day before — over 200 of whom were sitting in jail only blocks away learning that they were facing 60 years or more in prison while the sea of pink took over downtown. My friends were in jail.

Wearing a pussy hat, of course, doesn’t make you responsible for the brutality of the police the day before, nor does it make you responsible for the daily assaults on transwomen or the institutional oppression faced by women of color every day. My uncle’s Confederate flag ball cap also doesn’t make him responsible for the police murder of unarmed black men.

But responsibility and complicity are two different things that share the same road.

In 2017, to much rebuke and mockery, Ivanka Trump said she did not know what it meant to be complicit. But it seems to me that that is true for many of us. It’s been a year of trying to name the problem. Part of this year has been about finger pointing, which can, of course, do some good. For oppressed and marginalized people to say “Dar he” takes courage and spunk and breaks silence and can bring justice. Name your assaulter, name your abuser, name the colleague who uttered the slur, name the men who threw the boy in the Tallahatchie. Dar he. But we can not finger point at the expense of or without self-reflection and introspection. This is about us, not the over-there-them. What is your whiteness that you have not had to name?

Pussy hats are Confederate flags. Of course, unlike the Confederate flag they were not designed to be the battle flag of a hateful system and chattel slavery, but like the Confederate flag we have now learned that this symbol causes harm to others. In fact, pussy hats were knit all over the country in a groundswell of women’s solidarity —and while it was mostly white and middle-class women who wore them, they were joined by some women of color, some working-class women, and perhaps even a transwoman or two. I get that. Some of my dearest, most trusted friends wore them — but have since taken them off. It is not that you ever wore one, it is that you continue to wear it after knowing. Like all symbols, pussy hats are, well, symbols — and it is our responsibility to ask and keep asking what it symbolizes. Symbols change, symbols reflect, symbols die. Comparing a battle flag and a pussy hat is by no means a perfect analogy, but they are both lessons that we do not solely control what a symbol means or how it may morph. A hat is not just a hat, even when you want to it be, a flag is not just your personal statement: it’s all of ours — and grappling with this is grappling with the concept of collectivity.

It’s not the symbol that is the end-game, it’s the community.

As I have learned, it’s not enough to not know. If you don’t know how a pussy hat, or a Confederate flag, or statue of Robert E. Lee, or using the qualifier “peaceful” to describe certain protests feels to someone different than you, find someone to ask. 2018 needs to be a year of not just listening to each other, but putting ourselves in spaces where we can hear.

Because fascism will not come from Trump: he is merely an entertainment fascist, a Breitbart performer. I doubt that fascism is something that hits you in the face or dances on TV, but more a subtle creep. It’s more something that we clear space for by asking if the dead black man had a criminal history, by mocking “trailer trash,” by parsing out levels of men’s harassment into obscurity, by getting home from the women’s march and gloating about how well behaved the sea of pink was, damn that sea of black.

Wearing a Confederate flag hat, a pussy hat nor any hat makes you a fascist: that isn’t anywhere near what I am saying. I am saying that our own tendencies towards authoritarianism shadow our collective responsibility towards one another. If fascism is marked by government led by a powerful leader, then authoritarianism is a blind trust towards authority or what we have previously believed. It is ignoring the collective truths around us and abiding by something more prescribed and narrow. Obscure, obfuscating talk of “unity,” “peaceful protesters,” and the like are the “I don’t see color” myopicism of today. Perhaps they are not meant to be, but they are harmful, divisive and erasing. We must be willing to let go of what we have known to make space for what we will know.

It’s not enough to be not racist or not sexist or not transphobic or not xenophobic here. You actually have to be something in Trump’s America.

In Trump’s America, we must be each others keeper and every symbol we wear, every flag we fly, every gesture we make must tell others: I am doing everything I can to make you safe here.

I want to walk someplace beautiful with you. That may not always be “towards the polls” or through the manicured streets and micro-breweries of a revitalized downtown. The walk we take may sometimes be in my neighborhood, where the sidewalks are cracked and the houses are sagging and we haven’t always weeded our lawns. That walk may sometimes be at my son’s school, where the girls are skipping rope at recess with their braids and beads clicking as they jump under the sun. It may sometimes be in the small town church pew, where the old ladies fan themselves and the men talk about their Pappy and recite Matthew 5:10. It may sometimes mean that we will be taking our shoes off at a mosque, or walking by the mezuzah at our neighbor’s door. It may be that sometimes we walk down the dirt road gutted by the 4x4’s, with the remnants of a Confederate flag still tangled in a tree.

We are going to walk through mud, we are going to walk through shame, we are going to walk through parts of town we never knew were there. We might have to leave things that we thought were a part of us behind, but no mind: I want to walk with you.

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Mother. Southerner. Storyteller. Bread and Roses. #race #class #poverty #gender #equity #children #egalitarianorganizing #bottomupstorytelling *views my own*

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Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

Mother. Southerner. Storyteller. Bread and Roses. #race #class #poverty #gender #equity #children #egalitarianorganizing #bottomupstorytelling *views my own*

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