The Messy Story Behind the Black Lives Matter Sign in my White Family's Window
By Shannon Cofrin Gaggero
A few weeks ago, I placed a yellow, intersectional Black Lives Matter sign created by Matice M. Moore, a Black artist and activist located in Arizona, in a front window of our house in Atlanta, Georgia. I wish I could say the decision between me and my husband to take this action was an easy one.
In my ideal world, our discussion might have sounded like:
Me: “Should we get a Black Lives Matter sign for our house?”
Husband: “Absolutely! Black Lives Matter!”
We high-five and make the purchase. But it didn’t go down like that. Not even close. This is a hard story to tell, but I’m sharing it because I want to be honest about the messy, uncomfortable and painful moments that sometimes happen alongside taking anti-racist actions in my white family.
I’m a white, cisgender, heterosexual woman with class privilege. My husband is also white, cisgender and heterosexual and our children are white.
After the Charleston massacre, I was propelled into action and for the past two years I’ve been laser focused on how I can show up as a parent and a person for racial and social justice. I read and educate myself about race, power and privilege. I write about my attempts to raise socially conscious children and to practice anti-racist parenting. I take courses on race conscious parenting and courses that help me confront my own internal biases. I attend trainings and conferences about racial justice. I donate to organizations supporting Black liberation work.
While I’m certainly trying more than ever before, I do not pretend to be a perfect anti-racist white person by any stretch of the imagination. I reach a growing edge, mess up, and have to learn to do better and push forward. But our life now versus two years ago is unrecognizable.
Despite all of the anti-racist strides made in my life and my family, however, I hesitated when it came to physically displaying my support for Black Lives Matter. This is hard to admit. Prior to the 2016 election, I did not own a Black Lives Matter shirt or pin and we did not display a sign at our house.
After the deaths of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling in July 2016, I suggested to my husband we put up a Black Lives Matter sign in our yard. He responded that he didn’t feel comfortable and I let it drop. Even though I felt we should put up a sign, if I’m honest with myself, I was uncomfortable too.
We live on a high-traffic street in Atlanta, Georgia, in a predominately white, affluent community. Despite Atlanta’s reputation as the liberal oasis of the South, we witness racism often, primarily via our neighborhood listserves. Black men, in particular, but also black women and children are racially profiled, “see something, say something” is pushed as a way of life, and gentrification is celebrated. Our neighborhood is obsessed with crime; many of my neighbors believe we are under attack and unsafe. The data does not support this mindset.
During the election, Hillary Clinton yard signs were defaced with swastikas by a white, male neighbor who was detained, interviewed and ultimately not charged by police because he was deemed unwell. Brown and black residents and guests to our neighborhood do not receive the same sort of compassion.
The conservatism of Atlanta was a shock to me and my husband when we relocated here from San Francisco. While I’m from Atlanta originally, I’d gotten used to living among people who for the most part shared my core beliefs. I did not remember what it was like to live in a red state where political conservatives were the deciders. It’s discouraging and stressful even though, admittedly, as well-to-do white folks we’re largely unaffected by a lot of the policy decisions made.
I knew my husband’s hesitation to display the Black Lives Matter sign was the same as my own: we were scared. We were scared of a negative reaction from neighbors or random people walking by. We didn’t want to risk physical harm to ourselves, our children, or our home. Even though we supported Black Lives Matter in many ways in our lives, our whiteness afforded us the option to keep that support hidden and stay protected when we wanted to be. It was a privilege we weren’t quick to give up.
When Donald Trump was elected president, however, everything changed. As I read the demographic data around who voted for Trump, and especially the breakdown of how white women voted, I was so mad at myself for not being braver, for censoring myself, for letting my fear of other white people stop me from expressing my support for Black liberation.
I’m ashamed to admit that I needed a Trump presidency to push me beyond this fear and to be fully out about where I stand. The week following the election, I grabbed a Black Lives Matter pin at a local SURJ meeting and have worn it every day since on my jacket.
The first few days I wore the pin I felt immense anxiety. I found myself side-eyeing just about every white person I encountered, expecting a disparaging comment, mentally preparing for how I’d respond. But with each passing day my confidence grew and my anxiety lessened. Now I find that wearing a Black Lives Matter pin allows me to engage with friends and strangers more authentically, because I’m no longer hiding where I stand.
I decided to again bring up the Black Lives Matter yard sign with my husband after wearing the pin for a couple of weeks. At first, my husband doubled down and stated he still felt uncomfortable displaying a sign. He restated his worry for our kids and our house and questioned why we’d be willing to take any risk of harm to our family, even if it was small.
Since our original conversation about the sign, a post I had written had gone pseudo-viral and I received a lot of online harassment and threats of violence. Since our original conversation, a friend and neighbor had 7 Black Lives Matter signs stolen or vandalized from her yard. My husband remained scared we’d become a target, especially following the election of Donald Trump.
We. Got. Into. It. Not in an angry way. But it was a passionate and painful debate. I primarily felt sad because our argument was a clear example of how whiteness works. Being white affords us very real, physical and emotional protections in the communities we spend time in.
We were mitigating our risk at outwardly stating Black Lives Matter. We were admitting we expected backlash from our white neighbors. We were debating remaining hidden as people who strongly believe Black Lives Matter because we were scared. We were not used to taking risks as individuals or as a family. We were not used to being on the receiving end of negative, hateful interactions. This was whiteness.
I am fearful every time I take a new anti-racist action. But I remained resolute that despite the risk, which we both admitted was very, very small, it was beyond time to draw a clear line in the sand. It was time to unapologetically reveal ourselves and if it made a neighbor uncomfortable, so be it. If we remained silent, we had to consider ourselves active participants to injustice. Putting up a sign was a small action, to be sure, but it mattered.
Over the next couple of days, my husband and I had many conversations about the sign and dug into our fears. Might the online threats I received be acted on? Would we receive hate mail or have our home vandalized? Would folks passing by say they liked the sign? Or would nothing happen at all and life continue as it always had?
It was important for us to fully hear each other and validate each other’s concerns about putting up the sign or not putting up the sign. The holidays hit and we dropped the subject for a couple of weeks. We needed a breather. We had the privilege of a breather.
After the New Year, my husband came around and supported putting up the sign, but asked we display it in our front window due to the fact we live on a busy street and to avoid the sign vandalization our friend had experienced. It was a compromise and that’s where the sign currently lives.
I recognize while this is technically a happy ending to the story it is certainly no triumph. “White couple works through their internalized fears created by whiteness to display a Black Lives Matter sign in their window.”
For better or for worse, this is our truth. As a white couple with many societal privileges, we have to continuously challenge ourselves to take risks, to be uncomfortable, to interrupt our lives, because whiteness makes staying silent a possibility. And we’ve come to fully understand that silence is ultimately as harmful as violence.
The sign displayed in our front window
Displaying a Black Lives Matter sign in our window does not warrant cookies from anyone. That’s not why I’m sharing our story. Anti-racism will always be a process for our family, and some actions will come easier than others. Putting up a sign was a step forward for us and one that took a lot of communication. I don’t expect our family to be perfect or to be immune to the desire to stay complacent. But I do expect our family to keep striving to do better, to honestly reflect and evaluate how we currently show up and to push ourselves to act in ways we haven’t before.
The first few weeks of 45’s presidency have done nothing but solidify the reality that we all need to dig deep and take new, bold and continuous actions, big and small, in order to protect the most vulnerable in our communities.
In the past 27 days, I’ve done a whole host of things I’ve never done before and I’ve continued forward with the work I started prior to the election. I’ve attended protests, lobbied my local house representatives, made phone calls to my federal and state representatives as well as local city council members, helped organize families around raising race conscious children. And we put up the Black Lives Matter sign.
I’m trying to be the bravest version of myself in this moment. There will be growing pains and side effects that are messy inside and outside my family, as exemplified above. Perfection is not possible. Progress will not always come easy. I will make mistakes. I will do better. But I will not run from the challenge.
What about you? Are you up for the challenge? What actions will you take?