All images by Myesha Evon
For the past twelve years, my family has been spending August in East Hampton. We chose this Eastern Shore paradise because we love spending time with our dear friends Adamo and Angie, as well as their family. Every summer, we rent a house about five minutes by car from their house and have spent hours in their garden breaking bread and appreciating nature’s abundance on the gorgeous Georgica Beach. Over the years Adamo’s mother and father who are Jewish have invited us to lunches and dinners with their friends who are predominantly white and some of the most globally influential people in business and art. It can be very intimidating for me, a black woman from an extremely humble background, but Adamo’s mother has always taken extra care to make sure that my family and I both feel welcomed and appreciated. Outside the confines of this familial space, while my group of family and friends often make up the handful of brown faces in the streets, on the beach, and in restaurants, white Hamptonites have always been friendly and cordial: a friendly hello or good morning while exercising in the neighborhood and cordial conversation in shops and restaurants are all commonplace.
But the atmosphere in East Hampton this August has me reflecting on whether there has been a shift in the level and quality of interaction from whites around town. There is a noticeable tension in the air. Several times when I’ve been out running in the neighborhood and have tried to greet some fellow runners or cyclists, I’ve been met with a reluctant return greeting or none at all. This is a definite difference from previous years when I used to joke with my family about how friendly my neighborhood fitness mates were. It could all be in my head, but it feels as if the level of politeness and pleasantry that I have been accustomed to has been reduced somewhat. It’s like the veil of welcome and inclusion has dissipated in the reflection of the current white supremacist-leaning leader and his power-hungry Republican party which is complicit in his divisive racist brand of governing. I will be the first to admit that my feelings may be an effect of the deliriously destabilizing mood being projected throughout the US and world by Donald Trump’s division driven mission.
I may be spiraling into a state of paranoia triggered by exponential headlines that detail Trump’s absurd attacks on people of color and other marginalized groups. His relentless desire to bar entry to Latin and South American asylum seekers, and the chilling measures his administration has implemented are a degradation of human rights. The trauma inflicted on individuals and families inevitably seeps into the collective psyche of the nation. Citizens with a lucid vision of humanity and equality and through whose blood flows empathy are appalled and dejected by the treatment of their sisters and brothers beyond the border. Trump supporters, on the other hand, are blinded and rotted from the inside out by the historical venom that created America in the first place. What has changed? Nothing. Everything is just becoming more visible in the light.
There have been Trump’s recent attacks on prominent African American leaders like Representative Elijah Cummings at whom he directed the following tweet:
“Cumming District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place.”
This attack came after Cummings, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, sharply reprimanded Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan over the humanitarian crisis unfolding in detention camps set up by the administration. What in the hell? The leader of? Where is the example?
Picking fights with national heroes is a tactic that Trump repeatedly employs. Bullying critics or anyone in a position of power or influence who doesn’t agree with him is a part of his arsenal. To demean Rep. Cummings’ dedication to empowering the Baltimore community for the past 20+ years is an attempt to devalue his commitment to said community. It is a continued method of disseminating the notion that black people who make up roughly 62 percent of Baltimore’s population are inferior.
Trump further aimed his strategy of marginalizing and othering brown people and immigrants at Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, suggesting that they “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came.” (All women, except Omar, a Somali refugee, were born in the United States.) Shortly after his offensive tweet, at a campaign rally in Greenville, N.C., Trump supporters singled out Rep. Omar by chanting “Send her back”. Trump, The President of the United States, paused for 13 seconds and did nothing to discourage this dangerous incitement. Rep. Omar received death threats just this past April after Trump tweeted a video juxtaposing her image with footage of the twin towers falling on 9/11. There is nothing novel about Trump’s wanton behavior towards brown people, politicians have utilized the same or similar tactics since the birth of this nation.
A few days after I arrived in East Hampton, news broke that billionaire real estate developer Stephen Ross would host a fundraiser for Trump at his South Hampton home with a price tag of $100,000 per plate or $250,000 for a one on one conversation with Trump. Clients of Equinox and SoulCycle, two brands owned by Ross’ Related Companies, were angered by the news of the fundraiser and called for boycotts unleashing significant backlash across the internet and social media. Equinox and SoulCycle released statements distancing themselves from Ross’s political affiliation. In response to the backlash, Ross told the Washington Post that he is “an outspoken champion of racial equality, inclusion, diversity, public education, and environmental sustainability, and I have and will continue to support leaders on both sides of the aisle to address these challenges.” Between Ross’ event for 60 guests and another event hosted by real estate developer Joe Farrell for a crowd of 500 on the same day, Trump was able to raise $12 million for his reelection campaign.
Who are these 560 individuals who contributed to this impressive amount of fundraising in one day? Do they in fact summer in the Hamptons? Do I see them or their friends when I am out and about? Are they champions of racial equality, inclusion, and diversity like Ross, but choose to support the reelection of a bigot anyway? Are they so selfish and greedy that they sacrifice the interests of marginalized Americans in the pursuit of business and political gains? It seems so. Are they racists like Trump? Probably.
Then let’s be honest, it’s not all in my head. Racism and its vile symptoms live and fester within us, within our minds, hearts, and DNA. It is what makes senses heighten to the shift that is most likely taking place here in the Hamptons and other majority-white enclaves in America. It’s what leads whites, if you will, to the extremes of political correctness, or to abandon common courtesy when they are encouraged to do far worse by the president of the United States.
With Trump tearing apart the country’s moral decency, they can totally be unapologetic and guilt-free about how and if they consider others. The feelings that may have been once pushed down into a twisted crevice in their gut have refluxed. Or, maybe I’m just imagining drops of a vague bitterness laced in the midst of foggy August days. Maybe they don’t greet each other as their bikes intersect at Apaquogue and West End. But still, maybe it’s like that time they also tried to convince me to believe that we were in a post-racial America.
I was chatting with Angie, who also notices the tension, last night and she offered the perspective that “it feels like everyone is at a loss of what to do.” Engage, not engage, with who, how, when? We can break down Angie’s point of view in many ways. (I know that I shouldn’t do this, but I will assume that most of the people I’ve come across in my informal observation are Republicans.)
- Republicans who vote Trump, are racist and choose not to interact
- Republicans who vote Trump, are passive racists and are embarrassed by their political choice and thus avoid contact
But there is an inherent difference in what Angie is experiencing and what I am experiencing. If fellow whites are avoiding engagement with her it’s because they are unsure of her political affiliation, and thus, they avoid a potential confrontation. Their lack of interaction with me is admittingly more layered because of our racial history. I admit that unfriendly behavior in the Hamptons is a pathetic thing to lament about in the grand scheme of things: hate crimes are on the rise; children are being held inhumanely in detention camps; hard-fought LGBTQIA rights are being reversed, and women’s reproductive rights are being severely restricted in several states.
The Hamptons have been my family’s vacation destination for the past 12 years. We love Angie, Adamo, and the other dear friends we’ve made here. We are unlikely to change resort towns, even though my black girlfriends constantly try to convert me into a Martha’s Vineyard summer resident. Without a radical move by whites to reconcile their white privilege with respect to the inequality experienced by other races, we are generations away from righting the injustices tied to our racial history in the US. Years away from true inclusivity in business, education, and communities. But this Summer 2020 I will say this: I don’t need a friendly hello or a thumbs up while on a jog. Because with or without, I am claiming my space here in East Hampton, NY, United States of America.