A couple of weeks ago, I took my kids to play and swim at our apartment pool. As we got closer, something fairly … uh … conspicuous caught my eye: a giant swastika tattoo on the chest of a man in the pool.
I grew up in and spent a lot of my life in mostly rural, “salt of the earth” places, so I’ve become pretty accustomed to how casual white people can be with their racism. But still … seeing it literally carved into a person’s chest is jarring, especially when you have a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old with you. My son noticed as well and asked what it was. I gave a typical parent non-answer, unsure where to start with explaining Nazis to a kid.
A panicked fight-or-flight instinct kicked in. On the one hand, I was by myself with my two small children, children I am very protective of, whose youthful innocence and the infatuation they have with the world around them is a constant source of joy for me. So obviously, we’d just go find something else fun to do.
But I also had this angry urge to shame this person. I don’t know exactly how I would’ve gone about that, but I also feel strongly that too many otherwise decent people are simply silent when it comes to hate – whether out of fear, over-politeness, apathy, or some combination. He deserved to be embarrassed. Innocence is worthy of protecting, but I also don’t want my kids to be sheltered, and I don’t want them to be intimidated or daunted by having to speak hard truths or stand up for things they believe in.
In the end, we just left. Me getting beat up by a Nazi while my kids were in my care wouldn’t have exactly been an exemplary parenting decision.
But tonight, in the face of the awful white terrorism and violence occurring in Virginia, I’ve thought about that moment a lot. I did the wrong thing by ignoring that guy.
* * *
I have two younger brothers who are biracial. Their dad was an important part of my life and father figure for me growing up. Living in Lapeer, Michigan, our family stood out – let’s just say that when I was in fourth grade and my black stepdad took me to play basketball at school playgrounds, it was noticed. I was too young to understand the complexities of racism at that age, but I … uh … noticed us being noticed, I guess you could say.
Steve did too, I’m sure. But no one would ever know it. He was always the friendliest, most outgoing parent in those situations – shaking hands, smiling, making eye contact, saying hello to people, inviting others to come and play with us (interestingly, other kids always wanted to … it was their dads who were resistant). I’m sure people were rude or cold to him, knowing the place we lived. I distinctly remember people crossing the street when we were walking on a sidewalk, then crossing back once they’d passed us on one or two occasions. His positivity and kindness in those public situations never wavered – he made any stranger he ran into feel like a buddy. As a kid, I didn’t notice. As an adult, I think about it constantly – what it would be like to have to be “on” like that all the time, just to do basic things like go to a park and play basketball, or take a walk. As someone who can trend toward painfully introverted in social situations, the thought of having to be that friendly and outgoing to strangers – just to disarm them or keep them from judging you – all the time is anxiety-inducing.
My brothers went to Lapeer Schools and, often, were the only black faces in their classes. They had to assimilate, they had to deal with being treated differently, they had to deal with the idiotic thing that white people do when they act like they can ask racist or offensive questions about black people to their “black friend.” My brother Adrian came home from elementary school one day with a confederate flag sticker – the symbol of treasonous traitors and losers – proudly on his shirt. Adrian was happy that someone had paid attention to him and given him a gift. He thought he’d made a friend, a “friend” who was no doubt laughing behind his back. I was in high school at the time, and I just remember my mom, sister and I sitting around thinking, “how the hell do you explain the shitty thing that just happened to a second grader, and tell him he can’t wear that sticker that he’s excited about?” There are probably countless other experiences that they can share that range from simple ignorance to maliciously racist interactions with people when they were just trying to go to school like everyone else.
And, as most black people in this country experience at some point in their lives, my brothers were harassed by the police. Dangerously harassed once, in fact. They were about 13 and 12 (or in that range) and playing with toy airsoft guns in my parents’ yard. One of the dogs got out of the house and ran across the street into a field (my family has a long history of having the worst dogs on the planet, but that’s a story for another day). They crossed the street to get him.
By the time they’d got him corralled and back home, multiple local police cars had sped into the driveway and road in front of the house. Someone had called the cops and reported “two black men with guns.” They were children. My brothers, children, were forced to lay face down in the ditch, were handcuffed, had grown officers put their knees in their backs. They were not resisting or doing anything wrong. They were terrified. Thankfully – as if “not being killed” is any reason to be thankful – that’s as far as it went. A state police officer showed up, noticed from far away that the two guns laying on the ground were toys, pointed it out to the yokels who’d cuffed these children, and they were let go with a stern warning to be more careful when playing in their own yard.
I tried to file complaints and get information, FOIA’d the police report just to try and make the officers involved feel ashamed and ultimately, nothing happened. No one really forgot, necessarily, but time has a way of pushing things to the back of your mind.
And then, several years later, Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer in Cleveland. A 12-year-old child who was killed for playing with a toy gun. He was roughly the same age my brothers were that day.
* * *
My brothers are smart, talented, funny, grown men (who have EXACTLY the same ripped, muscular physique that I do, it’s weird how genetics work). My kids adore their uncles – they can climb on them, wrestle with them, get thrown around by them and they light up any time we get to visit them. I’m not sure Adrian and Anthony look forward to getting immediately pummeled by two babies (babies who are unafraid to go directly for punches to the groin), but they’re good sports about it.
I love seeing my kids with them, I love that my kids just automatically connect with them and solely see them as nothing but their fun uncles.
But it also makes me think about my own privilege, about things I’ve never had to worry about, about inherent obstacles that Adrian and Anthony have just had to deal with and figure out ways to maneuver around that I never will have to worry about.
It actually isn’t hard to get white people to discuss race. We do it all the time – cable news and the internet are filled with white people (to be more descriptive, mostly white men) who do nothing but tell people of color, women, and the LGBTQIA+ community how to feel about their experiences, what is “real” racism and what isn’t, why they themselves couldn’t possibly be a racist. White men talk too much. (Yes, I get the irony that I, a white man, am writing a wordy blog post about white men talking too much, but if it helps get other white men to shut the fuck up, then it has at least provided a service).
Understanding your own privilege is a starting point. I grew up poor – a long portion of my life was spent in a trailer park with three siblings being raised by a single mother. I had to work nearly full-time in high school (thankfully, my boss ignored the legal limits on hours teenagers could work) to save enough money to have a car, to pay for college. I worked all the way through college just to be able to stay enrolled. I’m still paying student loans off. I’ve rarely taken vacations. My life isn’t luxurious by any stretch.
And I’ve benefited from being born into privilege. As a poor white child, I still lived in a community with well-funded and well-run schools, so I received a good, free, public education. I grew up with people around me who told me that I could, in fact, go to college even though my family couldn’t afford it. I grew up in neighborhoods that were safe, where crime and drugs weren’t major day-to-day presences. I did not grow up fearing the police. As an adult, people listen to me and give me more automatic credibility simply because of what I was born as.
My life hasn’t always been easy, but it has certainly had privileges built in that have removed barriers that minorities, that women, that LGBTQIA+ people face on a daily basis. I could choose to never think about those things – and A LOT of white men do make that choice every day. But just being mindful isn’t enough, that’s what the ugliness in Charlotesville illustrates.
It’s easy to see a guy with a Nazi tattoo and be horrified. But what is more horrifying to me is this picture. Those are just everyday, mayonnaise, white bread joes. They could be your cubicle mate, they could be your neighbor, they could be members of your church. They have the same views – and the same level of comfort espousing them – as the guy who felt the need to carve a symbol of evil into his chest.
Hate isn’t an ideology. Hate isn’t the norm. People aren’t born into this world full of hatred. And even in the face of awful, soul-killing days like today, there is always, always more love in the world than hate.
But don’t be silent. Silence is complicity, and complicity is what normalizes and emboldens people like this.