Charlottesville Is Not So Very Far From Home

When I was about 8 or 9 years old, we heard that a chapter of the KKK planned to hold a white supremacy rally in my small Midwestern town. Whether this was planned or just rumored I’m not sure, but we took the threat seriously.

My father heard that concerned citizens intended to protest the rally to show their disapproval of white supremacy, to show the KKK that they could not claim our town as the feeding ground for their vile ideas. My father decided to attend this protest.

I was pretty nervous about this. I’d seen that episode of Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman where the KKK comes to town and terrorizes everyone, and I must have had imagery from the 60s Civil Rights Movement in my head as well, because 9-year-old me imagined the rally and protest devolving into a violent altercation with people being beaten, stabbed, and shot. I further believed this when I heard that our across-the-street neighbor, who was black, would not attend the protest because it made him and his family nervous to put themselves in that situation.

The KKK rally never materialized. They may have cancelled their plans, or it may have been a rumor to begin with. The incident ended without fanfare.

But it stuck with me. Snippets of memories from that time come back to me in pieces.

The shock of realizing that the KKK still exists today.

The fact of my father and his fellow citizens planning to resist.

The knowledge that my black neighbors were nervous for their safety in a town where no one even locked their cars and my parents let me play outside at night by myself.

Part of the reason I assumed the KKK rally would get violent was that I didn’t yet understand what protest was for. I thought my father and his friends were gathering because they expected the KKK to do something vicious, something that able-bodied men must be present to stop.

It hadn’t yet occurred to me that someone would show up to a meeting for the sole purpose of publicly voicing disagreement.

 

So Publicly Voice Your Disagreement!

More than 20 years later, a violent white supremacist meeting made national news. White people, looks like another moment is here—a moment when we choose one of two options.

  • Publicly speak up against the rhetoric of white supremacy.
  • Say nothing publicly, or agree with it privately, or agree with it publicly.

All three things in #2 are functionally equivalent. As a white person, if you do not challenge other white people who hold dangerous ideologies, you are unintentionally contributing to the same force that creates the overt, swastika-waving, Hitler-saluting KKK Nazi.

Oh, I’m sorry, I meant the swastika-waving, Hitler-saluting “disaffected young white men asserting themselves.”

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“They’re not Nazis, just a disaffected political group living in a struggling economy after the war who are asserting their right to take over neighboring countries and execute millions of people in concentration camps, but this kind of name calling pushes them closer to building gas chambers.” –Probably said somewhere in Germany circa 1940.

My fellow white citizens, I know you may not want to believe that your silence is the same thing as overt support, but in today’s political climate, we don’t have the luxury of splitting those hairs.

In terms of the results our actions create, you are either helping to dismantle white supremacy or you are feeding the environment that it needs to thrive—an environment where good men do nothing.

Since yesterday, I have seen many white people condemning the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Good! Let’s keep that up! Let’s bump that number up from “many white people” to “every white person who isn’t actively a white supremacist.”

And let’s remember that public conversation about this topic is actually the healthiest thing we can do right now. My old college mantra applies here: “The best place for a bad idea is out in the open.”

We’ve seen that white supremacy and Nazi ideology have taken hold of startlingly high numbers of citizens while operating under the radar. We’ve seen that some of our fellow white people are so angry and desperate that they’re willing to reach for this worldview. That’s been happening in the shadows—time to call it out in the light and examine it.

Can the ideas of white supremacy stand up to reality when examined in the light of day? Can Nazi rhetoric survive when a society analyzes it in the context of history? Can desperate, angry men and women cling to their desperation and anger when their friends and neighbors engage them in dialogue, offer an alternative perspective, and firmly refuse to allow their hatred and violence?

Active, direct conversation is better than continuing to allow this to fester while everyone pretends it’s not happening.

 

Awkward Elephant In The Room

There’s another thing we should examine in the light of day, and that is our own complicity in the subtle bad attitudes that float around society.

Our culture is permeated by many conscious and unconscious attitudes that devalue black individuals, culture, and expression in favor of whiteness. We’ve all been taught that prejudice is bad, so we want to believe that we are not those bad prejudiced people…but we hold harmful attitudes toward black citizens in subtle ways, and we hide those attitudes under sensible-sounding excuses.

“I don’t discriminate against black teens. I would be wary of any teen wearing baggy clothes and listening to rap around town at night.” Oh would you? And what’s so bad about baggy clothes and rap, by the way?

“I’m not racist, but I do think that when black people say law enforcement is too harsh on them, they’re just being overly sensitive.” Really?

“I don’t discriminate against black people, but this venue full of young black men and women makes me nervous/is too rowdy/I think some of them might actually be thuggish.” Hmm.

“Maybe if that [insert name of black teenager] had been more respectful, authority figures wouldn’t have had to be so rough with her.”  Uh….

“All this ‘white privilege’ stuff is just people with too much time on their hands over-analyzing everything. Inherited cultural trends don’t affect how I live or think at all, I’m a totally self-made person.” You just keep telling yourself that.

“For the last time, I’m not racist! I’m just sick of people mooching off of food stamps, and here’s a photo meme of that on Facebook that portrays all welfare queens as black without a single white person in the photo.” Yup, no prejudice here.

“Of course black people are valuable, but why should they ask us to care about police killing them when they have gang culture and high abortion rates?” Excuse me? Sit down.

“I know that many non-white individuals believed that Trump was directly contributing to dangerous rhetoric in our country that made them unsafe, but honestly, my more objective opinion told me that he was a better choice because…” I don’t care how that sentence ends.

And, my personal favorite:

“I will do whatever I can to help stamp out racism, except for believing the stories non-white people tell me about how racism operates, because they are too subjective to give me accurate information.”

And the embarrassing part is that I have been guilty of some of these at different points in my life, and will probably continue to put my foot into my oversized mouth once in a while until the day I die.

How can the widespread existence of these attitudes not aid and abet the agenda of violent white supremacy? It’s our job to reflect on the subtle racist attitudes that get passed around in our circle (and our own brains) because the longer those go unchallenged, the faster violent white supremacy grows.

This WILL Be On The Test

So let’s review:

Publicly decry white supremacy and be ready to engage in real dialogue about why racism and Nazi beliefs are a dangerous dead-end.

Don’t pretend this isn’t happening.

Examine your own internal processing for prejudices you might not even realize you’re holding. Be enough of a grownup to own that and change.

That is all for now.