An Open Letter to the Neighbor Who Filed a Complaint against my Black Lives Matter Sign

Dear Neighbor,

I don’t know who you are, but you surely know me. We’re a pretty conspicuous family: two dads—one white and one Asian—and two young kids—one black and one Latino—who live right up the street from Thoreau Elementary. Maybe you’ve seen me reading on the porch while my kids play soccer in the front yard and maybe I’ve even said good morning to you as you walked by. I can’t be sure though, since I don’t know who you are.

Black Lives MatterTwo weeks ago, we put up a Black Lives Matter sign. Our eight-year-old black daughter was so excited. Our white neighbors across the street put one up too, and I think that meant a lot to our daughter. I know it meant a lot to me. So when we came home last week to find a letter jammed in our doorknob from the town Building Commissioner stating that an anonymous complaint had been submitted through an attorney against the display of our sign, I was disheartened.

After talking with the Building Commissioner and the Town Manager’s office, I understand the ways in which the posting of our sign technically violated zoning bylaws. And as I drive around town now, I can’t help but notice the other signs that are also clearly out of compliance: signs touting an open house at one of the expensive private schools in our town or the latest incentives to go solar. I wonder if those signs are prompting you to call your attorney and file another anonymous complaint.

I wish I could talk to you face-to-face. I wish I could tell you why this sign means so much to my family. I wish I could tell you the ways our children, currently in second and third grade, have been the victims of both implicit and explicit racism in our town. I wish I could tell you the ways that I faced discrimination in my position as a teacher at the high school. I wish I could tell you that although more often than not the people we encounter in this town—the teachers, the town officials, the shopkeepers, the families—go out of their way to show our family we are welcome here, this rarely takes the sting out of the experiences that consistently remind us that we have to work harder than most to achieve a sense of normalcy we thought would be commonplace in the suburbs.

And that’s part of why we put the sign up. Certainly, we wanted to draw attention and show support for the black people being killed in our country at alarming rates, but we also wanted to prove to our children—and by extension our neighbors, including you—that equality is something that matters to us. It’s not enough to just expect equality, and sometimes it’s not even enough just to work for it. We need to demand it.

I wonder if you understand what we mean by equality. We explain it to our kids as everyone getting what they need, not everyone necessarily getting the same thing. Surely you’re aware of the insanely high statistics for black deaths in this country, especially in relation to their white counterparts. Surely you’ve heard about the high profiles cases: Freddie Gray’s fractured spine, Michael Brown’s lifeless body left in the street for four hours, the tragic shooting of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, and so many others.

When you see my son is bouncing a basketball in the driveway, do you see a younger version of these boys and young men? He has a head full of kinky hair and he likes to wear baggy basketball pants and sweatshirts with hoods. In a few years, he’ll look a lot like Trayvon Martin when he walks up the street at dusk to get a bag of Skittles at the 7-11 up the street. When my daughter was running through the sprinkler in her swimsuit this summer, did you see someone that might grow into the 14-year-old black girl that an overzealous police officer threw to the ground before drawing his gun last June in McKinney, Texas? These are the things we think about when we proclaim that black lives matter in the form of our simple lawn sign.

We’re not taking our sign down, although we will certainly make sure we strictly follow the town zoning bylaws from now on. And as a result of your complaint, I suspect you’ll see a few more signs around the neighborhood. I’m assuming you’ll still be able to pick out our house amidst the dozen or so Black Lives Matter slogans out there. We’ll be here if you ever want to talk.