An Open Letter to ‘Karen’ and her Supporters

While I did have quite the thrilling evening in the care and custody of Wilmington’s finest this week—almost as thrilling as this opportunity to share it with the internet—I’m seriously NOT thrilled to still be having the same damn “yeah, that’s f-cking racist” conversation.

I really felt like “all lives matter” and its similarly dismissive, reductive, and appropriative derivative, “blue lives matter,” had been sufficiently condemned and categorized under the umbrella of “yeah, that’s racist.” I’m not sure I’m wrong, but I am certain that “this family supports police and first responders” is a thinly veiled attempt to circumvent the known polarity of “blue lives matter.”

Far smarter people than I have written volumes on this:

Four authoritative links to such material appear at the bottom of this post as APPENDIX 1.

This approach is not dissimilar to dog-whistle politics:

Ø  Someone posts a sign (amid a backdrop of national unrest over the murders of black men and women at the hands of police) that they support the police;

Ø  Many people, particularly those impacted by police over-reach, brutality, or profiling, recognize that sign in this climate, as antithetical to “I care to listen to new and different ideas on how to prevent more and more black men and women being shot by the police”;

Ø  The choice of language allows the idea to propagate, whilst allowing readers to overlook seemingly less uncomfortable overtones, and also making it seemingly easier to attribute any objections to the content as hyper-sensitivity.

I picked up the yearbook, and I was incensed not only by the sign but also the school’s role in requiring everyone to walk past it—and in doing so, forcing those who were sent to this address to have to weigh, “This is highly objectionable: should I point this out, or should I overlook it? Am I okay with saying nothing—with using my silence to give tacit approval?”


Exploiting a role in a school organization to impose your racist signage on people isn’t okay. Why would you expect me to stay silent? Why did you think that that was a reasonable expectation?

Perhaps because there was no school for the rest of the summer, and no physical infrastructure to seek recourse? Perhaps because the very nature of your sign was designed to instill fear of dissent?

[I can predict several “placating” objections that folks will raise…. You know those objections? You agree on principle, but you don’t like the discord it creates among your peer group, so you toss in some relatively specious objection so that you can reach a middle ground with the people you care about….? Incidentally, these would be the same arguments that one would employ to express personal alignment with the signage, whilst, in the name of tact and diplomacy, never having to own authentic ideological alignment:

For example: “I agree racism is bad, but…  ‘I don’t like the time of day she chose’ or ‘She should have taken it up with the school’ or ‘People are entitled to their beliefs’ or ‘Her approach was too confrontational’…”

As you prepare those respective objections, please note the timeline: I retrieved the yearbook. I was outraged. I paused before emailing the school. I emailed the school. I waited for a reply. One never came. I voiced my objection on the day that the school sent students to that address—at a time that gave the school as much time as possible to respond before I would run into ‘quiet hours’: I felt that the following day, the individual returned to being a private citizen, entitled to her own signage; but on that day specifically, that household elected to serve as an extension of—or substitute for—the public school.]

Below are portions of the email that I sent to the school after retrieving the yearbook:

Dear Mr. Shaw:

I don’t know how to fit ‘outraged,’ ‘appalled,’ disgusted,’ and ‘furious’ into one word, but if I could it would sound like a scream and a 4-letter word mixed together. …..

Dogwhistle signage is offensive enough when you simply drive by it, but forcing students and families to walk past it to redeem their yearbooks is beyond deplorable.

“This family supports police and first responders” is about as subtle as “all lives matter”–and EVERYONE impacted by the police treatment of minority populations recognizes the abject racism that that sign connotes.

I understand that a school system cannot and would not tell a parent or community member which signs they can post…… but if that system cannot be sure that it isn’t sending impressionable children–including black and brown children and families–to the doors of a woman whose racism no longer even passes as willful ignorance, then that school system CANNOT in ANY conscience allow her to distribute yearbooks or ANYTHING else associated with our schools. ….

The teachers have been wonderful in and out of quarantine, and I attribute everything wonderful in that school to your involvement and influence. I don’t want to sound angry with the school like it was your/their “fault” for a student’s parents’ signage, but the way this materialized is horrifying to me. … I do truly hope someone addresses the implications that this had for students and families who were forced to walk past it.

(My language sounds extreme, I’ve been told…. But how would you respond if you had to engage with a sign on MY lawn that said, for example, “I support the maintenance of an institution that kills individuals with [insert a characteristic applicable to your own child] at a drastically higher rate, and with impunity?” Does it still sound as extreme in that context?)

My assumption was that someone who would force their social and political views on students and families in an arena where they were required to go for a school item might be amenable to hearing opposing arguments to the signage she had posted, but I was wrong.

I didn’t find that out, though, when I played music (which included old classics like “Changes” by 2Pac and new favorites like “No justice No peace protest chant remix”) from the street, and someone politely (or even rudely) came out and asked me to turn it down. Or when someone yelled from the steps or a window. That’s because no one did any of those things: they simply called the police.

Forty minutes, maybe, after the police arrived (the volume having been attenuated immediately upon their request), one officer started making threats of arrest because I was asking too many questions related to the offense for which I’d even be arrested. I asked which law or ordinance I was violating—as to not violate such parameters in the future; one officer said “the ordinance is really vague,” and the other said “you’re under arrest.”

More than forty minutes after all disruptions had ceased, I was arrested for asking what the law was.

That is EXACTLY what that sign was meant to convey: “I can force my opinions on you, I have no obligation to listen to yours, and the police will see to it.” And that is exactly what happened.

The problem with saying “this family supports police…” is that the current incarnation of policing in our country kills (and disproportionately imprisons) too many black people.

In our suburban, predominantly white community, it might seem easy to slip into some dangerously racist thinking—even when it is truly motivated by the love you have for a person of color in your life:

Does any of this thinking resonate…?

I favor law and order, who doesn’t? I follow the laws, and it’s reasonable to expect that everyone else do the same. I have black friends in town, and they don’t get profiled (yes, they do, by the way: it is possible that some individuals may not be psyched up to try to convince you that a thing you don’t believe exists is happening in front of your eyes). Besides, if they were profiled, they’re such upstanding members of my community that they’d never be caught doing anything actually wrong. And if they were found to have been doing anything wrong, they should be arrested like anyone else.

Does that sound dissimilar from what you believe… or maybe what you hear from relatives at Thanksgiving (but don’t feel like it’s worth contesting at that point)?

When trying to compartmentalize the brutal statistics of police violence against black people, do you ever tell yourself that it’s not the worst injustice that, if someone who is pulled over or stopped or frisked, had done something inappropriate, anyway—either before or after garnering the attention of police—that that stop was okay? Have you heard it suggested that even somewhat aggressive policing wouldn’t impact your friends of color if they were just abiding by the law?

Our country is obviously full of statistics—but our community is also full of experiences—that are telling us that police are accosting (and following and arresting) black people with drastically disproportionate frequency. The consequence of this constant cycle is the eventual understanding that blackness comes with a presumption of guilt, and cop-ness comes with the understanding of untouchability.

Those dynamics save or end lives, and there is too much undeniable history to patch anything up with an “all lives matter” mentality.

I do understand that causing discomfort for talking about race probably makes people more tense and probably less receptive to new ideas. So in the interest of comfort and contentment and progress, let’s ignore race for a minute:

Instead, we can talk in terms of familiar traits: Do things like these apply to your children: Red-haired? Brown-haired? Curly-haired? Green-eyed? Freckle-faced? A little skinny? A little chubby?

And (we’re also going to talk about you: what were your dumbest adolescent indiscretions? What cannot you not believe, to this day, that you or your friends got away with? Do you remember any of the supremely ridiculous schemes that even teenage-you ultimately chose to abandon?

Now recall that physical characteristic relevant to your own child. And imagine that he or she or they are of that independence-seeking age and engaging with the same ideas and ill-advised activities that you did: 

Ø  What if blue-eyed teenagers were more likely to have an encounter with police?

…from which arrests of blue-eyed teenagers became 6x more likely?

Ø  What if your freckle-faced kids, as they come of age to drive a car, became more likely to be stopped by police?

….and 2.5x more likely to be murdered by police?

Ø  Would you be taking additional precautions for a curly-haired son, if you knew that curly hair meant that a leading cause of death for him between the ages of 20-35 would be death by police?

If a thought exercise like that seems ridiculous to you, congratulations on being born with a shade of skin that the police do not treat as suspicious by nature.

And if that felt like some barely conceivable, dystopian reality (who would ever target a precious freckle-faced or blue-eyed or curly-haired angel like your baby?!?!), perhaps you’d see the exasperation, disbelief, and horror inflicted upon parents whose children are black.

I don’t know how many black lives are integral to your own—or how that direct connectivity influences how you value or perceive those lives. But I couldn’t close this piece without telling you how absolutely essential the friends in my life are to me:

All of my friends are African, most first-generation in the US. In any given week that we’d play, I’m with guys from Rwanda, Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, Morocco, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe. Our primary connection is playing soccer together, and, indeed, some of my mates are professional players and influential coaches. Many of the guys I play with are current students, though—in engineering, marketing, health sciences, and criminal justice. If you happened upon one of our pickup games, you’d meet businessmen, health workers, marketers, a real estate developer, and a bunch of guys with boring office jobs that everyone reading this has the experience to relate to  😉

Between coaching programs and my weekly pickup games, I’m among men with degrees and qualifications like PhD in education, MBA, Masters in International Relations, Masters in Exercise Science, and Nurse Practitioner of Psychiatry, and an array of bachelor degrees—All African, all black.

When I need to find a job or to fill one; when I need advice or quiet company; when I need to get out of the house or when I’m too depressed to leave it… all of the people whom I turn to are black.

I’d love to convey every unique insight and moral value that my friends have instilled, but it would be reductive to even try. There is no way that I could ever capture the beauty and depth that my friends of international backgrounds have brought to my life—and even if I could, you would never be able to believe me without meeting them and knowing them.

But the most fundamental commonality among them is that none of my mates are posing any threat to the police or their community—but every interaction with law enforcement treats them as if they do.

So when I say “black lives matter,” I’m saying “brilliant, powerful, compassionate, people—who are targets of police violence at an appalling rate—matter to me.”

And when in response, you say “blue lives matter”—or this year’s not-that-subtle facsimile, “this family supports police…”—you are affirming support for an institution that systematically kills people who look like my friends 250% more often than it kills people who look like you. And beyond that, you are affirming support for an institution that is tasked with protecting and serving, but still kills too many people, black and white, armed and unarmed.

My friends’ lives depend on people not being racist—and on people calling out racism in environments where they may not have the standing to do so themselves.

So when I encounter a “we support the police” sign—when the police are not under attack, but men of color are being shot in the street by men carrying a badge—the price of my inaction could be entirely too high.

Your actions came off as equally necessary to you, though, too. How else could you more proudly assert that the police whom you support exist to perform your personal essential services than by summoning 2 cars of armed officers to ask a woman on your street to turn her speaker down because that driveway of yours was WAY too long to walk down and ask yourself, and my towering 125-pound frame has long been hailed as a real paragon of intimidation.

Nonetheless, I believe that the same questions remain:

  • Would you be as supportive of a police department who just as readily arrested your daughter or son at a caller’s behest?
  • Would you be as capricious with your “emergency” lifelines if you thought that I could apply them as liberally to your child as you did to me?
  • Would you be proud of the service rendered by and for your community if your daughter or son were arrested 40 minutes after accommodating the police requests simply for asking about the statute that they were being threatened with?

On some level, I wanted to feel sufficient contrition to supply an authentic apology.

But then again, I’ll sleep much better knowing that I couldn’t summon genuine emotion to empathize with racist beliefs and abuse of authority.

I am sorry FOR you, though: I’m sorry that you’ll miss out on the zillion remarkable things that my kids offer to our community because you objected to their mom’s audacity to stand up for lives that matter. That definitely sucks. For you.


Kendal Vaughan,

Disturber of Peace