white supremacist next door…1-19-21

My children, constant source of inspiration and wonder to me.  I feel them so deeply, mid-life stream, transforming through adulthood’s unrelenting lessons. Juggling more than we prepared them for, showing a maturity of utter grace, ever-thoughtful skill and consideration.  This pandemic year has crystallized a slow change in our relationship.  The children they were always palpable beneath these astounding adults.  The parents we were a fading memory overlaid by the elders we have become.  Who worries more about whom is now a toss up.

My daughter’s work world has given her a much needed voice in this rapidly changing globe. And she is my guest author today, writing about a neighbor our family endured for twenty years.  Last week an avalanche of text messaging between the four of us unearthed all these buried stories…and then some.  I could have written my own version The White Supremacist Next Door, but why?  Sonya Dreizler tells this timely story so well:

“I grew up next door to a violent white supremacist, who regularly threatened my family. When I was a kid, he was just the scary, mean neighbor. And, as often happens with childhood experiences, they seem normal without the context of more years of life experiences.

I also didn’t have the language to call him a white supremacist, or even know what that was. We didn’t talk much about race in my house. We had friends of other races and ethnicities but – as was pretty common in the eighties and nineties- our house took a “colorblind” approach to (not) talking about race. And we definitely didn’t talk about whiteness, white supremacy, or broader issues of racial justice- though my parents are fluent in all of that now.

That is all to say I did not have the context to know then that the sum of his actions and talk would clearly point to him being a white supremacist. I don’t want to name him here so let’s just call him Mr. Davis for the purposes of this article.

*Mr. Davis used a CB radio, and his communications would sometimes  interrupt my boombox radio. His call name on that CB radio was a racist and offensive white supremacist slur, that I do not want to name in this article.
*He made sure we knew (or at least believed) that he kept guns by the front door.
*When my brother and I played in our front yard, Mr. Davis would spray us with a hose if we neared the invisible property line where our lawn met his.
*He’d hose our cats too. Our older, wiser cat knew this and stayed away.
*But when our kitten went missing, while my brother and I made “missing” posters, my dad braved knocking on Mr. Davis’s door and when he did, he found the neighbor had kidnapped our kitten, for “trespassing on his property.” He had her caged in a small hamster cage.
*Mr. Davis would flip us the bird every single time he drove by, which was a lot, since we lived next door.
*If my brother and I were playing with a ball in our back yard, and it went over the fence, we knew we’d never get to play with that ball again. Mr. Davis would slice the ball down the middle before throwing it back over. Sometimes, when he was being extra menacing, he would draw a bleeding cat’s face on the ball, then slice it, then throw it back to our yard. I still remember the drawings vividly, despite the 20+ years since I’ve seen one.
*He would video tape my brother and dad playing catch in the street.
*He called the police to report my brother skateboarding on our block.
*When we got a cordless phone he would eavesdrop on our conversations, and sometimes chime in with crude remarks. He stopped when my dad said he would report him to the FCC.

Why did he threaten our family? I think it was because he disagreed with my parents’ vocal anti-war views. But maybe being a Jewish family was also a contributing factor. I am left to wonder- if he could be that horrible to our family, his white next-door neighbors, how terrible were his interactions with people of color? I’ll never know the answer.

Because I was a kid without context, he was just the scary neighbor. I knew he found ways to make us scared, including inside of our own home. What I now know, and didn’t realize until just last week, was that he fit into a larger group of people that insisted on their supposed racial superiority, and that menacing behavior often comes with that territory.

Mr. Davis died 20+ years ago. I hadn’t given him much thought in recent years. But last week, in the aftermath of the mob storming the capitol, something I read jogged my brain and I could almost feel the memories and stories tumble out, ready for inspection under the context I now have. For the last 9 years I’ve been actively engaged in unlearning what I thought I knew about race in America, and relearning more accurate narratives, as well as learning to speak out on the topic of racial injustice. Now I have the context and the language to call my neighbor what he was- a violent, threatening, white supremacist.

With that context, now I’m left to wonder- how did that experience impact me, my childhood, my adulthood, and the work I do now?

*Despite the decades that have passed, I still won’t go near his lawn when I visit my parents’ house.
I don’t let my kids walk on other people’s lawns, anywhere.
*In my current home, even though we are friendly with the neighbors whose back yards connect to ours, I still get nervous when my own kids’ toys go over the fence.

Racism and sexism are about power and control. When I write and speak on those topics, I often draw on my own experiences with white men exerting their power. I never considered the awful interactions with Mr. Davis to be among those experiences, but now that I think about it, I imagine those formative years must have had a tremendous impact, one I can’t quite articulate yet.

I’m searching for the lesson here, but I haven’t found it yet. Usually writing is a clarifying exercise for me. When these memories came back to me, I felt so compelled to *write this down* so I could make sense of it. But I’m afraid there’s no sense to be had, no finding reason from the actions of someone so cruel.

Perhaps there are lessons for finance from the national political upheaval. Lessons about naming and examining whiteness and power issues. Lessons about whether we can “move on” from harassment, assault or discrimination in the workplace without the healing that comes with attempts at justice. In my own experiences, and collecting stories for Do Better, I saw a pattern that in instances of conflict in the finance workplace, there is a rush to smooth things over by silencing the victim (including with NDAs and arbitration agreements) and pacifying the aggressor. While moving on from the event may give the temporary appearance that things are back to normal, what it actually does is enable the aggressor to continue abusing other people, at the long term detriment to your workforce and business reputation.

In respect to what is happening nationally, with white supremacy invading our capitol- I hope our country can focus on justice and accountability for those people that stormed the capitol, and those who enabled and encouraged them to do so. Without accountability, the rest of us- the ones not committing violent seditious acts- live in fear of a fresh wave of violence.

May we seek safety, and justice in all of our systems – including our workplaces – and continue to listen to the voices of those people our systems have historically excluded. Not just “for the next generation.” Let’s do it now.”

Thank you, Sonya.
Grateful, humble mama