Know Your Place
Aaron and Jada were still asleep one morning when Amy, Asher, and I went down for breakfast at our hotel in Williamsburg. It was early so there was only one other guest in the room at the time, a wiry white guy with his baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. CNN was on, reporting on protests about Confederate monuments. I did not make eye contact with the guy, but I could tell he was looking over at us when he practically spat out, “C’mon, leave those monuments alone!” The way he said it, in an otherwise empty room and staring at the only other people there, it was clear this was not an involuntary blurting out of one’s opinion but rather a not-so coded message to us folks who were clearly from out of town: know your place.
Even as Amy and I enjoyed our family vacation in Williamsburg, we did not forget that we were in part of the country that one might consider “the South.” Which came with it a certain social code where people expected you to “know your place.” Meaning we are no longer free to just be, but rather were expected to respect a certain social structure, one that did not necessarily threaten violence but nor did it automatically confer equality or respect. To be sure, many of the people in this part of the country do not harbor such expectations. But enough do that we, as a racially mixed family, noticed. And, in the case of that one breakfast, we came face to face with it.
It was not long ago that being put in your place meant something far worse: a bombed church, a burning cross, a hangman’s noose. However many actively participated in such vile deeds, many more gave passive assent to them. Those atrocities are largely behind us but not totally. And the sentiments that enabled them to exist, and in some cases cheered them on, are still alive and well. Let us not be afraid to stand up for ourselves and for what we believe to be right. But let us also tread carefully.