Kevin Cody

Popping the bubble in Manhattan Beach

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A group of Manhattan Beach moms hopes to bridge the social divides between local kids because “these are the kids who are going to go out and run Fortune 500 companies…. They’re the ones we want to have a good world perspective.”

American Martyrs sixth-grader Noah Francois, of Redondo Beach, addresses hundreds of people at the June 7 protest for kids in Manhattan Beach, organized by Pop the Bubble. Photo by Casey Yoern

by Rachel Reeves

A cartoon series by Ian Freshman, a locally brewed IPA, and people who have lived here long enough to remember the Beach Cities before soaring property values refer to this particular stretch of Southern California coastline as “The Bubble.” The nickname, uttered with both affection and heavy satire, is a nod to the attitudes and conversations stereotypical of a place where the average income is four times the national average and a home can cost $25 million. 

“It’s not representative of what the rest of the world is like,” said Manhattan Beach mom Lindsey Fox. She and a small group of women are on a mission to pop the bubble. They intend to do this in a maternal kind of way: with great tenderness, as well as the fervency of a mother whose child has been wronged. Their organization, aptly named Pop the Bubble, is committed to bridging social divides, not by being confrontational but by educating young people to see the humanity in those who are different from them, whether in ability, sexuality, culture or color. Resisting racism is its first order of business. 

The title scene to the Youtube videos Lindsey Fox made about her son’s experiences with racism. Photo courtesy of Lindsey Fox

‘No, it’s here’

Fox is white and grew up in Lake Tahoe, which, by her account, is also a bubble. She said she didn’t become aware of how ignorance grows in isolation until she adopted Will, her now eight-year-old son, who is Black. 

Dictionary.com defines a bubble as “an enclosed or isolated sphere of experience or activity in which the like-minded members of a homogenous community support and reinforce their shared opinions.”

If homogeneity is an indicator of a bubble, the Beach Cities qualify. The latest census figures show Manhattan Beach is 80 percent Caucasian; half a percent of the population is Black. White people make up 84 percent of the population of Hermosa Beach, 72 percent in Redondo Beach, and 71 percent in El Segundo. 

As she sheltered from the novel coronavirus, Fox used her film degree from USC to produce two, high-quality videos for Youtube that detail her son’s experiences with racism in Manhattan Beach. The racism ranges from blatant to unintentional.

In the first video, Fox narrates against a backdrop of snapshots: Will laughing at the waterpark, Will hugging his older brother Jackson, Will in a little gray tux, Will dancing in his carseat, Will playing soccer, baseball, and basketball. She recalls the comments people made about her decision to check the “all races” box on the adoption form. One person asked her: “But don’t you want them to be smart?” Another asked why she didn’t just adopt a dog.

When Will was two, his mother explains, kids at her oldest son’s school were caught drawing the N-word and swastika symbols in chalk. When he was three, a family friend made a joke about the white palms of his hands looking odd, like an animal’s paws. When Will was four, Fox overheard him yelling the N-word at a basketball player on TV. Horrified, she asked Will why he was using that word. He replied simply that it was the word for Black people, and somebody had been whispering it in his ear.

Lindsey Fox with son Will. Photo courtesy of Lindsey Fox

On Will’s fifth birthday, the principal at Jackson’s school emailed Fox to report an “incident.” A boy at school had told her oldest son his brother was an “N-word.” The video cuts to a follow-up email from the principal, who said she’d talked to the boy, who didn’t really mean it, and in fact “loves” Will.

Once, Fox narrates, she asked another mother to tell her child to stop touching Will’s hair. “Oh, come on, honey, Will doesn’t like his hair touched,” the mother responded, without taking a moment to understand how it made him feel: singled out, on display.

In the second video, Fox talks to Will as he sits on his bed, holding the family dog. Shyly, he answers her questions. He says kids at school pet his hair and tell him he feels like a sheep. He recalls the time his class did an “immigrant” project, and students were told to research the countries their ancestors had left, in pursuit of better lives. Will’s ancestors were stolen from Nigeria. 

Fox said in an interview she made the videos to show there’s a difference between telling your kids not to see color, and teaching your kids how color can and does define an experience. She said she made the videos to begin popping the bubble.

“A lot of times the attitude is, it’s not here, that’s happening somewhere else,” Fox said. “I really wanted to show people: no, it’s here.”

Long before the videos appeared on the internet, Will’s story had prompted a reckoning in Lisa Bennett, Fox’s next-door neighbor. Bennett felt empathy for people who are different because she has a daughter with mental health needs and a learning disability. She was used to being among diverse populations because she works as a teacher at Lawndale High School. But growing up white in Manhattan Beach, Bennett had never directly encountered racism, and none of her close friends had, either. 

“It’s a humbling moment when you make a deep connection with someone who has lived their life experiencing racism,” she said. “The more you dialogue with that person … the more apparent it becomes how unaware you are and have been. I cannot listen to Lindsey and not feel compassion and hurt, mother to mother, as she talks about her son’s experience. It’s impossible. I had to admit to myself, holy cow, I can’t believe this. I’ve literally ignored the fact or been oblivious to the fact that this is what it is. Manhattan Beach is filled with great people. The South Bay is filled with amazing people. But just because our community is filled with amazing people doesn’t mean we don’t all suffer from implicit bias and haven’t created an uncomfortable setting for people of color.”

Conversations with Fox prompted Bennett to talk to her kids about racism and the disproportionate impact of police brutality on people of color. She showed her seven-year-old son the viral, May 25 video of George Floyd pleading for his life. He cried because he couldn’t understand why a police officer would kill someone who wasn’t a threat.

Will and Andy Fox at an Arsenal soccer match. Photo courtesy of Lindsey Fox

‘Overwhelming support’

Pop the Bubble was conceived shortly after Floyd’s death, which sparked protests and riots across the nation. On June 3, hundreds of people marched in Manhattan Beach, demanding an end to unequal treatment of Black people in America, particularly by officers of the law.

That week, Bennett was talking to two other moms she knew through her kids’ soccer league — Melanie Barrows, who had moved to Manhattan Beach from New York City and writes a blog called “Raising 2 Hapa Girls,” and Melissa Robinson-Chavez, a lawyer whose parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement — about getting young people involved in the movement for change.

On Wednesday, June 3, they advertised a peaceful protest for children through their personal Instagram accounts. On Thursday, they asked students in the Manhattan Beach Unified School District to speak. They notified the Manhattan Beach Police Department, which made preparations for a crowd of perhaps 200. Privately the moms wondered if anyone would come, but agreed that even if it was just their own kids walking down The Strand together, the event would still have value. On Saturday, more than 600 people showed up. 

Sophia Alexander, a seventh-grader at Manhattan Beach Middle School, spoke to the crowd about the time a classmate asked her if her lips were different because she’d been stung by a bee.

“I just went silent,” she said. “What I should’ve said is my lips are part of my Black culture and ethnicity. This is an example of ignorance; she didn’t know. I am here to express my concerns. Why is Black seen as inferior? Is it because of our lips? Our facial features? Our history? What happened to George Floyd wasn’t an accident and it’s something that’s happened before. My question is why?”

Ameena, a youth speaker chosen to address hundreds of people at the Pop the Bubble on Racism event on June 6, talks about her experience with racism in the South Bay. Photo by Casey Yoern

Noah Francois, a sixth grader at American Martyrs, talked about how he likes to surf, play the guitar, and play video games. He said he’s a normal kid, except that he could have been any one of the unarmed preteens killed by police officers because the color of their skin made them targets.

“Some of my closest friends are white and their friendships mean the world to me,” Francois said. “But these friends will never have the same fears I have. They will never hear about how their dad got beat up because of the color of his skin. They will never have the same fear when they get pulled over by a police officer. They will never have the feeling of someone being afraid of them because of race. We don’t want my or any future generation to have those fears anymore.”

After the protest, parents began asking when there would be another one. Two of the speakers were asked to appear on a Nickelodeon program hosted by Alicia Keys.

“After all the overwhelming support — we got so many questions about when’s the next one, what are you doing next, how can we help — it was just sort of incumbent upon us to follow through,” Bennett said. Pop the Bubble was beginning to take shape.

Allison Hales, a half-British, half-Jamaican marketing professional and realtor, had attended the event. She connected with the organisers through Instagram, and offered to handle public relations for their organization. Hales had worked for years in the entertainment industry and with Common, a rapper known for using his platform to advocate for social justice. 

She was living happily in Manhattan Beach but still keenly aware that she was in “the whitest place I’ve ever lived,” a far cry from the multicultural London she grew up in. Pop the Bubble represented an opportunity to talk about racial biases and microaggressions in a town where most people had never been targets of either, during a moment in history that popular scholar Ibram X. Kendi describes as “a revolution against racism.” The time is especially ripe, given the polarizing conversations about reparations for the Bruce family, who had to close a beachfront, Manhattan Beach resort in the twenties because of a racist-motivated exercise of eminent domain.

“There’s no way through this without discomfort,” Hales said. “There just isn’t. You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and being okay with not getting it right. It’s about being honest about what you didn’t know. Even me — I came to this country and I didn’t know, and I’m considered Black. So I get it. I get it if you didn’t know. But now is the time to get to know.” 

Will Fox and best friend Pierce Feilke at the June 6 protest at the Manhattan Beach pier. Photo courtesy of Lindsey Fox

The plan 

Pop the Bubble has a website, Facebook and Instagram accounts, and a plan. Currently it is running a 10-day social media campaign highlighting the humanity of Black people killed by police officers. Like Tamir Rice, who was 12 years old and liked chicken nuggets and playing with airsoft guns. He was shot while his mom ducked into the store to buy ingredients to make lasagna for dinner. 

Throughout September, Pop the Bubble is partnering with Manhattan Beach bookstore Pages to organize a “diverse book drive.” Donations are being sought to buy books that promote conversations about racism. The books are on a list curated by Google and The Conscious Kid, an organization committed to promoting racial equity in education. The organization is discussing with school administrators the possibility of building more diverse reading materials into local curricula.

“Education hasn’t changed since the 1800s,” Fox, a former teacher, said, partly in jest, but mostly out of frustration. She said the organization’s focus on children and schools is key, because as a 10-year-old speaker explained at the June 7 protest: “Racism is a grown-up disease, and we can’t keep using children to spread it.”

“Instead of trying to change the minds of adults, we’re trying to reach the hearts of kids,” Fox said. “In Manhattan Beach, with the opportunities that they’re given, these are the kids who are going to go out and run Fortune 500 companies. They have access to privilege and financial means. They’re the ones who will go to the good schools. They’re the ones we want to have a good world perspective.”

The Pop the Bubble team envisions monthly, cultural festivals in parks around the South Bay. The goal is to present the Black narrative as broader than slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, and to celebrate Black music, culture, food, and nuance, alongside that of other cultures. For now, this plan remains tentative because of the global pandemic’s restrictions on large gatherings. 

At its core, Pop the Bubble is about promoting connection, which is the difference between empathy and sympathy. Researcher and popular speaker Brene Brown uses the following analogy: A person falls into a hole. Sympathy means looking down at the person in the hole and thinking, that’s sad. Empathy is climbing down into the hole and saying, I’m here with you, let’s figure out how we’re going to get out. 

“You have to be willing to talk to the people in the South Bay and once you have that dialogue, you cannot walk around and say there’s no problem in the South Bay,” Bennett said. “There is a problem. And, again, nobody’s intentions are bad. This is a community filled with really amazing people and you saw that with the Clintons. But it’s not until there’s that blatant, disgusting violence that people say wow, that was so bad. If you listened to Ameena at that protest? ‘Go ask the Black girl, she’s the one who always fights.’ ‘How did you get into this school?’ Anyone who has that dialogue with her can’t say it isn’t bad.”

‘Something extraordinary’

The Clintons whom Bennettt referred to are Malissia and Ronald, a Black couple who moved to Manhattan Beach to send their three kids to good schools. In a TED talk she gave in 2017, Malissia, an attorney, described the hardships she grew up with and how she and her husband thought they’d finally made it when they could afford to live in a “picturesque and clean” town with AYSO, Little League, and a lot of smiling faces.

At 2 o’clock one morning in 2015, when she was out of town on business, a flaming tire was thrown at her family’s home. The authorities initially ruled out arson or a hate crime. Ron was called into the police station to take a polygraph.

During her talk, Malissia reflected on her grandparents, who were activists and had bricks thrown into their home and bombs planted beneath their cars. An arsonist razed their Arizona home to the ground. She talked about her brother, who had been full of hope, telling her that her kids had been born into a different world. He was shot and killed by a white cop in 2006. She talked about how the flaming tire gave her “a sense of foreboding and despair that it was never going to be okay, that after 500 years we had not figured out how to get along and we never would.” 

Malissia emailed her book club to inform them her family would be moving away from Manhattan Beach.

“They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” she recalled during her talk. “Well, I’d like to revise that to: except for the fury of a bunch of book club women.”

Soon the Clintons were receiving dozens of emails and text messages from neighbors, and then there were 500, and then there were news trucks outside the Clinton home, and then, within 48 hours, a neighbor had raised more than $35,000 for the family. 

“I thought, what? Eight women did this?” Malissia said. The mayor and police chief vowed to seek justice for the Clintons. A neighbor organized a vigil at the pier, and more than 700 people showed up with candles. 

“It felt almost biblical, like God had dispatched his angels to comfort us,” she said. “People started hugging us and praying for us and crying for us and pleading with us to stay. At that moment, it struck me: God sent these people to restore my faith. They represent the better tomorrow my brother spoke of. Maybe he was right and I was wrong.”

 

Yeah, but

Pop the Bubble’s approach has to be thoughtful, Bennett said, because the work of popping bubbles elicits many difficult responses: anger, defensiveness, guilt, sadness, fear, resentment born of a shattered illusion. While the goal is to reach kids, there are adult reactions to anticipate, also. People don’t generally enjoy admitting they have been wrong or ignorant. The process doesn’t feel good. 

“You have to look at the ugly to make it better and looking at the ugly is really hard,” Bennett said. “It’s taxing on your soul. The motivation is that we don’t want our kids looking at the same thing and going wow, really, you guys didn’t do anything about this?”

Perhaps the most difficult part of calling out racism is meeting with cognitive dissonance. Most of us believe racism and any kind of discrimination are the exclusive purview of those who are cruel, rather than a pervasive system of thinking sustained by ignorance. 

“We think someone can’t be a racist because they’re nice or they’re not a bad person,” Fox said. “We have to call people out and say yeah, but.”

This is the difference, Kendi writes, between being “not a racist” and being an “anti-racist,” or someone who’s willing to look deeper, to understand the nuances of racism and to challenge them. 

Fox said the goal is not to force anyone to change their thinking — “the super-racists will remain super-racists,” she said — but to reach people who are apathetic or indifferent to injustices that may not directly affect them. In a televised interview in 1963, author  James Baldwin discussed the origin and the consequences of this apathy.

“I’m certain, again, you know, that like most white Americans I’ve encountered, I am sure they have nothing against Negroes,” he said. “That’s really not the question. The question really is a kind of apathy and ignorance, which is the price we pay for segregation. That’s what segregation means. You don’t know what is happening on the other side of the wall because you don’t want to know.”

Pop the Bubble is about teaching people what’s on the other side of the wall. 

To learn more, visit PopTheBubble2020.com or Pop the Bubble 2020 on Facebook or Instagram. ER

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