Where was your mother, when?

pb and eleanorI scrolled through my facebook home feed this past weekend. I love the graduations, vacations, babies, heartwarming or thought provoking videos. There is this feeling of connectedness to people I know deeply or casually, see all the time or hardly ever, have a direct relationship with or one through others. I curate carefully and mostly accept friends I know will share a steady stream of like-mindedness. This is my time to relax in a universe of my own making – virtual, superficial and affirming.

Then I saw a jarring photo and caption posted by an extended family member. A young black man had knocked down celebratory crosses and flags in a veteran’s cemetery. It was an awful thing to do. But the response around the article was far more horrifying to me than an act of vandalism. Violent, hateful, racist comments, calling to kick him out of the country, to lock him up, punctuated with inflammatory hashtags. One of which started my heart beating so fast I felt lightheaded. It was a hashtag supporting the confederate flag. A reference that only makes sense in the context of the perpetrator. This posted by a faithful Mormon, a suburban mom who also shares brownie recipes and pictures of puppies.

I felt the way I used to feel when I knew I was supposed to bear my testimony; that rush of adrenaline that says you you must stand up, you must speak up. Surely she didn’t mean this, she must have accidentally shared, right? If she understood how shameful, how hurtful this is, she would take it down and never post such an ugly thing again. I had to write an opposing reply. I began searching for quotes that might articulate my conviction. I started researching the number of soldiers who died in the Civil War, then Maya Angelou on forgiveness, then Jesus on everything, then every humanist writer I could think of, then I took a breath and stopped.

I was born with a desire to fight for what seems undeniably right. My heroines were Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart – women who led armies, saved people, did not take “no” for an answer. I played my parent’s protest music and sang along loud and strong, hoping they could hear my child’s voice beyond the confines of age and distance, in solidarity with the movements I knew were happening. I always wanted to be on the vanguard of big change, waving a flag on the front lines, but my reality has settled for demonstrating these values in daily behavior. Believing and trying to live as Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.”

What would I solve by responding to this post? Would I change anyone’s mind? This is just facebook, not a true dialogue. My husband reminds me that people with these opinions probably feel the same indignation when I post proud mama pictures of myself at the anti-DOMA rally, or add a rainbow filter on my profile picture, or publish an essay that is not “faith promoting.” No matter who initiates the offense, I could argue righteous wrath to wrath. I could wield rationality and irrationality with a dose of Sicilian passion and yell anyone’s hair back. Which would belie the exact values that I work to advocate. How can I believe in kindness and not show it, fight for freedom and get mad when someone uses it in a way I find repugnant? The battlefield for justice has become confusing and I worry at my own hubris. 

Yet, there is a particular Pete Seeger song, called My Name is Lisa Kalvelage, that haunts me. The protagonist of the song reflects on her childhood and youth in Germany during the time of Hitler. When she is asked how she and her family could stand by and allow the atrocities to happen, she had no answer. In the current day, she is at a peace demonstration, speaking out against nuclear weapons, proclaiming “That at least in the future (her children) need not be silent when they are asked, “Where was your mother, when?” This refrain echoes in the song over and over, “where was your mother, when?” and I think what will my children say?

I remember of the second half of Eleanor’s quote: “… they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

My life is not on facebook. I need to find ways to combat the fear, warmongering, and hate-filled messages that permeate our national conversation face to face, my face to the face of another person who does not agree with me. My liberal education has taught me that many things are relative and there should be diverse points of view. But my belief system tells me that some rights are non-negotiable and human history proves story after story that some paths will only lead to evil. I am generally a hopeful person, but this single post has rocked my optimism. I can pretend that this type of ideology lives away, in the backwoods of somewhere far from me and my family. But this is my family. These are my neighbors. And unfriending this woman will not change her potential influence on others and ultimately our very real world.

I wonder if small acts are enough. Where am I? And when?


  1. Choosing my battles is always a little tricky. I have a lot of fight in me, but still, I have limits. I can’t fight all the time, nor do I want to. I ask myself, will this help in the big picture? Is this where my unique combination of talents and passions and experiences make the biggest difference?

  2. I responded to a really inappropriate Tea Party testimony by bearing my testimony of the nature of patriotism, major reference to Rosa Parks as my idea of patriotic. I actually got a lot of support from people who also thought the other person was out of line.

  3. You can call me a bitch (it certainly wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been called that!) but I probably would’ve PM’d her to tell her it was completely unacceptable and that I was unfriending her over it, because I didn’t want to knowingly associate with racists. Would it do any good in the long run? No, probably not. Although – There is a chance (slight, I know – so slight your odds are probably better at winning Powerball, when you haven’t actually bought a ticket) that she doesn’t understand the history behind the flag. That she doesn’t understand the hurt it causes. I’ve ran into plenty of Australians for instance who really, truly do think it just stands for state’s rights and freedom from oppressive government, who don’t understand the burden of the history of slavery. So, perhaps, speaking out could make her more careful in the future.

    • Also – I do think speaking out can make a difference. Think of all the people who have changed their mind on gay marriage because they have a gay friend, neighbour, or family member who wants to get married. Sometimes, just being that person who takes a stance and says, “This is important to me,” is worth it. But you do have to be willing to lose the friendship to do it – because that happens a lot too.

  4. My first impulse is always to go off half-cocked and maybe, sometimes, that accomplishes some good. But when I can control myself, I’ve found that a calm comment, taking the high road, and not necessarily addressing the offense directly does more good and gets more support from people who can’t find the words or don’t have the confidence to speak up, but who want to let my words speak for them.

    For instance, whenever an act of animal cruelty is announced on some of my FB pages, I can count on an immediate chorus of the cruel and truly dreadful things readers want to do or to have done to the perpetrator. I despise that kind of porn, where people actual revel in imagining how cruel they want to be — I fear that one of these days, some of them will act it out after having savored it so often. But rather than confronting that viciousness directly, if I write a calm comment that compliments some agency on their work to mend broken bodies and prevent future abuse, I become a rallying point for other people to write positive things.

    I can’t always control my fingers enough to do that, but when I do, it works, regardless of the particular issue.

  5. I try to put the onus back on me with something like “I am so confused by the responses here, I am sure that the hatred and bigotry that I am feeling from the comments is not intended, but given those feelings I need to step away at this time.”

    I have diffused many difficult situations with “I’m confused” … mostly because it is nonconfrontational yet those I am speaking with are well aware that I am no dummy.

    Bless your efforts.

  6. I don’t have answers here, but I’ve felt the same feelings and asked myself the same questions. You’ve put them into words so well.

  7. Amen to Emily U. Thanks for expressing this dilemma so perfectly, Pandora. I’m never sure what to say and when to say it, or whether to say anything at all.

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