A Small White Button —by Jinny Batterson
A year or so ago, someone at an anti-racism workshop gave me a small white button: BLACK LIVES MATTER, it said in black typeface on a white background, with a small circle of red edging around the whole button. Maybe an inch across, it’s not an “in your face” kind of button, although the lettering is not what you’d typically wear to a Rotary meeting. For much of the time since the workshop, the button has sat on my bedside table. When I look at it morning or evening, it reminds me of commitments I’ve made to work harder to reduce my own and American society’s racist tendencies. Most of the time the button just sits there while I go about my business elsewhere.
As a white person in Trump-era America, I can too easily let myself be cowed by mentally replaying images of gatherings like the angry mob of white supremacists that invaded Charlottesville during the summer of 2017. I can be timid, hesitant, even cowardly. “Will I put myself in jeopardy by publicly wearing a button for a cause many may misunderstand or disagree with?”
What is the Black Lives Matter movement, anyway? Some black friends plus a bit of remedial internet sleuthing reconfirmed that the Black Lives Matter movement was started by three black women in 2013 after the shooter who killed unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin was acquitted of all charges. Trayvon Martin’s death was just one in a long series of deaths and injuries of unarmed blacks at the hands of police or armed civilians. It followed, too, a longstanding pattern of racially or gender motivated shootings, profiling, discrimination, arrests, and jail terms for those perceived as “other.” Someone needed to protest, to promote a more just approach. The women went on social media, where much BLM activism is still promoted. It’s also where much disinformation about the group gets spread. Not all black activists agree with some of BLM’s tactics; many of all races do not understand its inclusive emphasis.
About the time of the Trayvon Martin shooting, a white librarian friend in rural South Carolina told me she’d learned to avoid any hint of condescension or derision with white colleagues and acquaintances in her economically challenged part of the Low Country. “Of course it doesn’t help to call someone a cracker or a redneck,” she chided. “If someone talked to you that way, wouldn’t it just make your neck go redder?” Her remarks echo when I try to remind myself of the humanity of the angry white men who converged on Charlottesville. Some of the men may have resented the continuing winnowing out of traditional middle class jobs due to outsourcing and automation. Some may have been facing financial challenges. Many may have been taught a distorted version of maleness. Trying to identify with what motivated them, I realize that when I feel insecure, I can be tempted to blame “others.” Skin color remains one of the most visible ways to “other” someone.
Lately I’ve started wearing my small white button occasionally, rather than leaving it in solitary confinement at home. Over time, I’m adjusting when and where I put it on—showing it off to my progressive friends is not especially useful, I’ve concluded. At the other extreme, pushing it into the notice of hard-core BLM opponents is unlikely to change any minds or hearts.
Mostly I put it on while running the everyday errands that are part of a retiree’s life this holiday season—banking, eating out, shopping, buying stamps, sending packages. Black lives DO matter. That they matter does not make my life matter any less. Once in a while, a black postal worker, a fast food restaurant worker, a lunch companion or a store clerk will smile after noticing my button. It affirms their dignity at the same time it reminds both of us of our common humanity.
Wisely wearing my small white button is a very small risk. Experiencing the smiles it sometimes calls forth is a reward for which I’m thankful.