I take exception to the idea that the racists in Virginia were an anomaly. They are not unusual examples of ignorance – they are typical. These are our fellow citizens. They listen and watch, waiting for the moment which allows them to vent their anger on others. They often are garbage workers, but they are equally likely to be police, teachers, nurses, lawyers, or writers. People don’t answer the call to racism through logic. Likewise, condemnation of their beliefs often serves to galvanize their legitimacy.
We can look to Virginia and shake our heads, wondering what stupidity brought them to that place. While we are doing that, though, there are people around us secretly wishing they could be there in solidarity, shouting out their agreement. Even if it seems odd to some, there are people who think that being white somehow is a matter of pride, as if skin color is a determinate of anything substantive as a human being.
You don’t want to believe that people you know harbor such hatred in their hearts. They do, though, even as they continue to beguile you into complacency after you see a symptom of their ignorance and raise a red flag. Those who subversively conceal their true feelings of superiority toward minorities, other religions and races surround you, waiting. They’re disgusted that they can’t be true to their anger. The internal monologue in their heads has played so long that they can’t distinguish their prejudice from reality. If they live in a place where there is a cluster of like-minded small-minded people, they learn to push the boundaries of acceptability more often. If you are playing the banjo in a room full of banjos, you don’t look so unusual, but if you are playing the only banjo in a room full of cellos, you are the only person getting attention.
Sometimes racists gather in groups and act out. Mostly, they lash out in a million small ways, often indirectly observed. They gaslight you, innocently insisting, “I’m not a racist.” After repeated protests, they get angrier, turning the accusations against you. What they really want is to say, “So what? I am better than those people.” They know they can’t, though. Many use their intelligence to change the nature of truth, often at risk of your sanity. They have lengthy and complicated arguments they repeat endlessly. The signs are there; they grumble about foreigners, language, or convolute the nature of the Civil War, drop small comments about the real story of the Jews, or simply defend their ignorance as tradition or heritage. They point to Chicago as proof of inferiority or refuse to see the difference between Black Lives Matter and hate groups. They say they don’t have a problem with interracial marriage, but… Many have blacks or minorities in their social and business circles which camouflage them. If you are tuned in, your instincts invariably give you pause with most of them.
I grew up around a lot of racists. The dangerous ones aren’t the ones who distract you by gathering in noisy groups in other states. This isn’t a “there” problem. The dangerous ones are the ones you see at the supermarket, at your kid’s Friday night football game, or posting vaguely disconcerting insinuations on social media. They excuse away their particular racism by implying that everyone is a racist or that their version is indeed rooted in truth. They smile, year after year, falsely believing that much of the world reflects how they think. They know that hissing the “N” word will immediately identify their ignorance, so they artfully step around it, learning the nuances of language and presentation which will continue to allow them to live among us without being outed.
So, as time passes, you drop your guard, never imagining that the racism you’ve incrementally witnessed belies a deep vein of actual hatred in your friend or family member’s heart. Most of the time, you give them the benefit of the doubt simply because they haven’t overtly acted out.
People proudly look in the mirror, admiring the skin color they didn’t choose. They go to religious services their parents chose and tend to live in the same places. Their success or failure in life is based on privilege that’s invisible to them. Most get truly angry even at the mention of the word “privilege.” Many focus on what they feel is being “taken” from them as if their claim to anything is greater than anyone else in this country.
Only racists will read my words and get angry.
Only people who know that my words apply to them will recoil in protest. I’m simply inexpertly pointing out that racists aren’t solely a problem outside of our orbit. It’s possible for someone to trigger your instincts toward identifying them as prejudiced and yet be in complete disagreement with racist attitudes. It’s possible to be a Trump voter and not condone racism or violence. You can have issues with Black Lives Matter and not be a racist, too. Or want immigration control and seek to have English be a required language in public commerce. I’m not saying otherwise, though racists will focus on small perceived discrepancies and exaggerate what I’ve said. It’s what they do, instead of honestly admitting their prejudices.
Racists despise the people among them who recognize the signs of what truly echoes in their minds and hearts.
Those people in Virginia aren’t an isolated example: they are us.
It gives you comfort to believe in the best in people – and it should. But never doubt that for every racist holding a sign and grimacing in anger at a protest, there are several sitting at home, nodding their head in agreement. The ones shouting are doing us a favor by identifying their prejudice. The quiet ones, though, they are an almost insurmountable battle. They are the breeding ground for racism’s ongoing prominence.