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On the Banality of Everyday Anti-Blackness

By Matthew Somoroff | @matty_som | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Monday, June 29, 2020.

At about 9 a.m. on Friday, June 19, my doorbell rang unexpectedly. I looked through the living-room windows and saw a white woman I didn’t recognize. She’d come to let me know that the “Black Lives Matter” sign (main image) that sits at the edge of my front lawn, next to the street, had been spray-painted. Black matte paint now covered the word Black, and the sign read “Lives Matter.”

I live in a quiet, suburban neighborhood at the southwestern edge of Durham County in North Carolina. Technically, my house lies just outside city limits, but for all intents and purposes, my family and I live in the city of Durham. My older kid attends the local public elementary school—did attend the school before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The school is considered one of the best in the Durham Public School system. The student body and the staff are wonderfully diverse. The front hallway of the school displays a poster, updated each year, listing the many countries represented by the student population. 

Let me put things more crassly: my neighborhood is by all appearances a “good” neighborhood. Within the space of fifteen minutes, two separate strangers—again, white women—stopped to notify me about the defacement of my sign. Three people within fifteen minutes, and all were visibly shaken by the vandalism. Each offered to buy my family a new sign. There is every reason to believe that more allies would have come by to alert us had the defaced sign stayed on our lawn. Evidence suggests that, while our neighborhood is predominantly white, it’s populated mostly by the good white people. Perhaps that’s why each of the white women with whom I spoke was rattled by the vulgarity and aggression of the defacement: they are invested in being part of an unofficial coalition of “good white people,” not just in the neighborhood but the city as a whole. 

The pride with which I describe the local elementary school should be a clue that I, too, am among those “good white people” invested in the coalition. Many residents of Durham value the culture of inclusion and tolerance that appears to dominate in the city. And many recognize that, as an incisive essay from Cynthia Greenlee recently published in The Nation explains, the city has by no means resolved the problems of white supremacy. But to overeducated and more affluent residents who locate themselves left-of-center in the political continuum, Durham usually feels like it’s better than a lot of places. 

As the morning wore on, my wife and I texted and talked about the act of vandalism with family and friends. The separate but parallel conversations yielded some insights about the covert spray-painter. This was a person who meant business, probably planning the act in advance: my street has no sidewalks, which all but rules out the possibility of a “casual” pedestrian who acted on a perverse whim. It’s reasonable to assume that the culprit had to decide in advance to bring a can of spray paint out for a night of fun. We still don’t know if or how many other signs in the neighborhood were similarly defaced. 

I’m choosing to believe that the culprit had been stewing about the spray-paint project for a while. I envision the culprit as a man, because historically the enforcement of white supremacy through physical aggression has been the job of white men. The job of white women who buy into the implicit social contract of white supremacy is typically to call for help, to alert their men about opportunities for enforcement. So I choose to imagine this guy stewing and planning his move—because I want to imagine him distracted, preoccupied, having his shit ever so slightly fucked up by seeing my family’s sign. The thought of his preoccupation creates a satisfying balance in my mind. The distraction he caused my wife and me, as well as the three neighbors who decided to say something, was preceded by his own distraction. This daydream is, admittedly, cold comfort. 

Toni Morrison famously said, in a talk she gave at Portland State during the 1970s, “The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” I would not presume, as a white man, to say that the defacement of a lawn sign comes anywhere close to forcing me to explain my reason for being. But it does pose questions. If the spray-painter gave the matter enough thought to plot a late-night romp of aggravated disillusionment, has he been running recon on my house and spotted my black spouse and our non-white kids? Perhaps he was newly acquainted with Juneteenth because of the hullabaloo around the president’s rally in Tulsa. If so, did he purposely schedule the act to occur on that day of commemoration? Are we—my family and I, and other witnesses to the defacement—to see the stain of paint as the tip of an iceberg of aggression? 

In the coming days, my wife and I will undoubtedly mull over these and other questions. But the sign’s defacement proves its necessity. As long as some people resent or feel threatened by the assertion that black people’s lives have value, we must continue to repeat the assertion.  We’ll be reaching out to neighbors to see if our sign’s defacement was part of a larger action. We’ll stay alert. We won’t be calling the police. And our sign will be back up on our lawn as soon as possible.


image (c) Matthew Somoroff.

Matthew Somoroff is an independent editor who occasionally writes. He lives in Durham, NC, with his wife and two children. He earned a PhD in Musicology from Duke University. Follow him on Twitter @matty_som for sporadic commentary on music, politics, the craft of writing, and the predicament of the human species.

On the Banality of Everyday Anti-Blackness

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